SUMO by Thien Pham

Cover art from SUMOI’ve been talking and thinking about starting to write a blog based on my dissertation work for a while. Thanks to the inspiration of lots of colleagues, including Kristin Mcilhagga at Children’s Literature Crossroads, Sterg Botzakis at Graphic Novel Resources and the Nerdy Book Club, I am ready to start.

When trying to decide on a book to start with I took the advice of very smart people and chose a book that I love. A book that I admire. And a book that I, as a reader, have returned to over and over.

Simply put, I love  Thien Pham’s SUMO (First Second
December 2012).

The book tells the story of Scott, a college football player with no prospects of going pro, who has been recruited to train as a Sumo wrestler in Japan. He meets a Asami (the coaches daughter), cooks some soup, wrestles, and worries about his future.

Pham uses short, asynchronous chapters that provide an intimate and unsettling sense of Scott at a crossroads between choices he made in the past and decisions he faces now.


At first the disjointed sequence that Phan employs to tell Scott’s story confused me until I realized this approach illustrates the complex connections across time. The colors  saturate the slick, slightly pigmented pages and drew me into the slow pace of story. Throughout the book the notion of simplicity is reinforced with both the text and the images.

Pham uses three colors; dark orange for his time in the dojo, periwinkle for the past in America, and green for his time outside the dojo in Japan. These vignettes, although not sequential, provided an intimate look at Scott moving through his life, from the end of his college football career to the beginning of his Sumo training, and into the unknown.

sumo_blue_1Pham’s line drawings are expressive and detailed enough to give emotional depth to characters, even when the dialogue does not. Pham uses Scott’s physical presence beautifully in this book. While Scott’s huge physique, including his square head, is the norm in the training dojo, it is clearly out of place in the bar with his friends. But, when he is relaxed and walking with Asami he is somehow less imposing.

The written text, especially the dialogue while his is in Japan, is sparse. Again, the use of few words can be mistaken for telling a simple story but when the written text is integrated with images a depth of story becomes apparent.sumogreen_1

The words and pictures in Pham’s book provide scintillating  pieces of a story when considered separately, but when integrated, the book as a whole leaves me thinking, worrying, and somehow, hopeful.

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