When Spring Comes to the DMZ ~ By Uk-Bae Lee
(Plough Publishing, Walden (NY), 2019, ISBN #978-0874869729)
Review by Joan Thompson (Winter 2020 issue)
Uk-Bae Lee’s picture book, When Spring Comes to the DMZ explores the seasonal beauty of a no-man’s land while highlighting the family losses of a country separated. Originally published in Korean in 2010, the book highlights the freedom of wildlife in the DMZ while underlining the cost of never-ending war.
Lee both wrote and illustrated the book. The text follows a young boy who goes to the DMZ each season with his grandfather. The grandfather looks north each time while the young boy observes his grandfather’s longing and the shifting seasons. Both wildlife and military action mark each season. In the second spring, Lee reveals the grandfather’s wish to walk into the DMZ to reunite with long-lost relatives. The image of the gate he wishes to open is a two-page spread that opens into an imagined spring where this wish comes true.
The paintings beautifully illustrate the paradox of the DMZ. Because the DMZ is forbidden land, nature has flourished free of human intervention. Lee paints seals, salmon, cranes, water deer, mountain goats and other animals alongside razor wire, patrolling soldiers and rusting military gear. The images show the beauty of mountains and trees throughout their seasons, while also highlighting the ongoing tensions at the border.
The book’s design also speaks to a wish for reunification and peace. The endpapers in the front of the book depict a world map with the Koreas divided by razor wire. The endpapers at the book’s back show the same map with the razor wire gone. An illustration on the page following the story’s end shows where the various animals live along the razor wire with blue dots on a Korean Peninsula map. Text aimed at the adult reading the book to a child is on the opposing page. It describes the division of the Koreas, defines the DMZ and calls for the razor wire to be removed, a wildlife refuge to be preserved and opportunities for separated families to reunite.
Lee’s biography at the book’s end highlights his long-time work for social justice from teaching factory workers painting at no cost to his involvement with the Peace Picture Book Project. This group includes illustrators not only from Korea but also from Japan and China, and Lee created When Spring Comes to the DMZ as part of this project.
Overall, When Spring Comes to the DMZ is a beautiful call for peace. It provides a way to gently introduce young children to the history behind the DMZ and the pain separated family members experience, all while celebrating the beauty of nature.
Joan Thompson is a recently retired English professor who focused her career on advocating for diverse literary voices in college curriculum. She is also the mother of two adult Korean American adoptees and a Minnesota Master Naturalist who loves traveling, cooking, and birding.