The Korea Herald


'A privilege beyond measure' author Lee Geum-yi's love for young readers endures for 40 years

[Herald Interview] Lee became first Korean to be shortlisted for Andersen prize in writing award

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : April 4, 2024 - 16:52

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Lee Geum-yi poses for a photo in an interview with The Korea Herald in 2023. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald) Lee Geum-yi poses for a photo in an interview with The Korea Herald in 2023. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Every grown-up has been through childhood and adolescence on their journey to adulthood.

And the emotions experienced during these formative years are fundamentally universal, with only slight variations depending on where and when, believes writer Lee Geum-yi.

As a towering figure in the country’s children’s literature scene, Lee’s narratives prove to extend far beyond times and places.

In January, Lee made the shortlist in the writing category for the 2024 Hans Christian Andersen Award, a prestigious accolade often referred to as the "Nobel Prize" of children's literature, becoming the first Korean writer to achieve such recognition. This year’s winner will be announced on Monday during the Bologna International Children's Book Fair in Italy.

The biennial literature award recognizes one living author and one living illustrator who has made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. Illustrator Suzy Lee won the illustration award in 2022.

"Receiving the heartfelt support from my fellow writers and the entire children's literature community (in Korea) made me realize that this accomplishment holds a deeper significance beyond personal achievement," said Lee in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

“I hope it becomes an opportunity for Korean children's literature to break through geographical barriers and resonate with a global audience. I am truly grateful for those who stood by me throughout this journey.”

(From left) Korean/English editions of (From left) Korean/English editions of "Can't I Go Instead," "The Picture Bride" and Korean/Taiwanese edition of "Yujin and Yujin" (Courtesy of the publishers)

Celebrating 40th anniversary

Lee, 62, debuted in 1984 with the short story, “With Younggu and Heukgu.” She has been an indispensable presence in Korea’s children's and young adult literature over the past four decades.

Lee has penned more than 50 books, spanning a diverse array of topics and genres. Among her notable works are children's books such as "You Too Are a Twilight Lily" and "So-hee’s Room," the coming-of-age novel "Yujin and Yujin," and historical novels like "The Picture Bride" and "Can’t I Go Instead."

Lee shared encounters with readers who grew up reading her books as children.

“Nowadays, when I go to book talks or signing events, I meet readers who tell me that they grew up reading my books, sometimes even coming with their own children.”

"Hearing this, my heart swells with emotion,” she said. “It's such a profound honor to witness the impact of my writing on their personal growth. To accompany a reader’s journey through literature is a privilege beyond measure -- one unique to children’s book writers.”

Of particular acclaim are Lee's narratives that explore young female characters. “Yujin and Yujin” follows two teenage girls, both victims of sexual abuse as children, as they work through their trauma. The book has been published in Japan, Vietnam and Taiwan, and adapted into a musical.

Lee's works also weave in Korea's historical context. In "The Picture Bride," three young brides make a life-changing journey to Hawaii where they will marry, having seen only photographs of their intended husbands. “Can’t I Go Instead” follows the lives of two young women -- the daughter of a Korean noble and her servant -- through World War II and the Korean War. Both books are available in English, translated by An Seon-jae. "The Picture Bride" has also been adapted into a musical by Seoul Metropolitan Musical Theater.

"When I first wrote these stories, I never imagined they would be translated into foreign languages and receive such universal responses,” said Lee. “I am amazed at how readers worldwide can connect with narratives that are sometimes uniquely Korean.”

Unwavering dedication to young readers

Lee emphasized that her literary endeavors have consistently targeted children and young readers, regardless how some of her books are marketed.

"I've never written books for adults. Even with works like ‘The Picture Bride’ and ‘Can’t I Go Instead,’ which some consider as historical novels (for adults), my intention has always been to reach young readers," she explained, adding "‘(For 'The Picture Bride’) There were mixed reviews from readers about the ending. But that was intentional on my part. If I had written it for adults, I think I would have written it differently. My primary audience has always been young readers.”

Lee asked in return. “Why do people think children’s books and young adult novels are exclusively for children and teens? Of course, adults can enjoy them as well!”

For Lee, the path to children's literature was predestined.

“I've always wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Whenever I write stories, I notice that my protagonists are always children or teens. I eventually realized that my passion lies in writing children’s stories and that I wanted them to read my stories.”

Her affection for books traces back to her youth.

"Like many authors, I had a profound love for literature. I think what shaped me were the children's books I devoured in my youth.”

“While reading those stories, I would immerse myself in them. And I had a child in my heart like an avatar, who would go on adventures. It was the most fun game to me.”

Lee credited her grandmother for her creative inspiration. She instilled in Lee a love for storytelling, showing her granddaughter a world of imagination by weaving traditional tales into imaginative new narratives.

"My grandmother, despite her regrets about being illiterate, was a captivating storyteller," Lee recalled.

"Thanks to her, I never had that prejudice that writing was something only accomplished by great people. I grew up inventing stories as a play, and when I was able to read books, I always dreamed of becoming a storyteller myself."

The author said her next story will be about Korean immigrants in Sakhalin, Russia.

“There are still so many stories ripening within me, eagerly waiting to go out into the world. I want to bring everything out so I won’t have regrets.”