In the summer of 2016, Hong Kong illustrator Joanne Liu was in New York City with a friend. Together they visited some New York museums but Liu felt a bit intimidated by the experience: “We just thought there were a lot of things we didn’t understand. We didn’t know what was going on.”
But rather than let that deter her, Liu was inspired to create Max, a little boy who sees that art is not just what hangs from the walls. “Art,” as it says on the back of My Museum, “is all around us, you just have to discover it.”
My Museum opens with Max holding his admission ticket as he queues to enter the museum. He then finds himself in a grand entrance strolling past the guards, gold columns and a rack of maps. He stops in front of a painting by Jackson Pollock, the only child in a line of adults admiring the work. Max looks up, but on the next page the “reader” (Liu’s book contains no words) sees that Max isn’t looking at the Pollock, but at the expressions on the faces of the adults who are looking at the Pollock. “It’s about noticing the different things around you and from a different angle,” Liu said.
The remainder of the book continues along the same path—Max looks at the intricate tattoos on a man’s arm, rather than the details of a vase; he peers under a bench and his world is turned upside down. When Max meets his mother at the museum’s exit, his eyes are still attuned to the world around him. Liu’s illustrations are bright, bold and whimsical. Her use of color is striking, while her drawings are playful and joyous; Max’s spirit comes through clearly, as does his perspective.
The process of creating My Museum was quick. Liu’s friend had a friend who worked at a publishing company and after she finished sketching an editor took a look and decided to publish it. The whole process took about two months, before the book was published in 2017. Last year, Liu received a special mention at the 2018 Bologna Ragazzi Book Awards, an honor that Liu said came as a total surprise.
Following the publication of My Museum, Liu initially struggled to find a story for her second book. “My editor suggested doing something like My Garden or about a specific city but I didn’t have any ideas for a garden theme and so I found myself thinking about Hong Kong and everything I see. But My City is a very general city—it could be anywhere.”
Liu said she wanted to stay clear of specifics because she felt that a more general city offered readers a better chance of relating to Max and his observations. While My Museum is wordless, My City features a single sentence sets Max off on his adventure. Max’s mother hands him a letter: “Max can bring a letter to the mailbox all by himself today.”
Max wanders as he sets about his journey to the mailbox, passing a grocery store and laundromat and weaving through traffic. He stops at a bus stop and again, he’s the sole child amongst a line of adults all looking down. But when Max looks down he sees not his mobile phone, but a puddle that reflects the city skyline and an airplane flying above. He passes by a garbage truck, gets caught up in leaves that swirl in the wind and a group of keen joggers. But while the joggers run by, he and an old man with a cane see a puddle and splash about. Night has fallen by the time Max returns. “This is the mailbox!” the final page reads.
Both My Museum and My City are about perspective and about seeing the beauty—the art—in the quotidian. The striking visuals lend themselves to conversation: “What do you see?” I asked my two-year-old recently. On the opening page of My City, it was the cat who appears at the side of the step as Max’s mother hands Max a letter; on another page, it was the guitar with the broken strings sat curbside ready for the garbage truck to arrive. In My Museum, it was a baby who Max makes faces at through a sculpture and, on another page, a sign warning of a slippery floor. And each time we continued to read the books, we would point to something different—an arch, a scribble, a man’s backpack.
There is much to be discovered in Liu’s books and Max’s perspective is perhaps one that we don’t see as often as we should. Be it a trip to the museum or one to the mailbox, there’s plenty to see and do when out and about.