Our protagonist Tong Tong spends most of his time playing by himself. As the book opens, he buys some new marbles at the corner store. The unusual bag of marbles—of different sizes, colors, and even shapes—are actually hard candies, according to the shopkeeper. Taking the candies home, Tong Tong tries one with a minty flavor so strong that he “can feel cold air coming out of [his] ears!” But then he hears it: a voice calling his name from the living room. Who is it? Why does it keep calling his name? The voice is coming from the sofa in the living room.
Wait, it’s the sofa itself! The sofa is talking! Tong Tong cannot believe it. The sofa is asking him to remove the remote control stuck in its side, the same remote control the family has been looking for since the previous Sunday. The sofa has one more request for Tong: to please tell his father “to give the farting a rest” (HA!) while sitting there. The sofa can’t take much more of the stink, it says.
Once Tong Tong finishes the candy, the voice coming from the sofa disappears. He decides to try another candy, just to see if he can hear another voice. This time, it’s his dog talking to him! He is very old, he says, and would prefer to spend his days lying down instead of accompanying Tong Tong everywhere. Having come to a new understanding, the two friends play together (quietly and gently, I imagine) all afternoon.
The candies continue to reveal new voices to Tong Tong. “I love you I love you I love you” repeats his father’s internal monologue, hidden under a litany of commands and instructions. A pink bubble gum candy reveals the voice of his deceased grandmother—she has been reunited with all her friends, she says, and is having great fun running and playing. Finally, there is only one of the magic hard candies left. What will Tong Tong hear?
Baek’s use of handmade miniature figurines for her characters lends them a textural feel; look at the wiry whiskers on the dog’s muzzle, the five o’clock shadow on dad’s face, and Tong Tong’s surprised eyes and mouth as he discovers the candies’ secret! There are so many details and textures to pore over. The use of various forms of typefaces (and the use of both monologues and dialogues) really makes this an exciting book to read. What Baek does in Magic Candies is akin to the worldbuilding more commonly associated with epic fantasy novels. As I said, it’s an unforgettable picture book.
Baek published her first picture book in 2004, and is one of Korea’s most recognized picture book creators. In other words, she has been at this for a while and knows what she is doing. In 2020, she received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for her marvelous, otherworldly picture books. My hope is that more of Heena Baek’s books are translated and made available to readers around the world.
*This review was adapted from a blog post originally published at the Global Literatures in Libraries Initiative blog.