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[Herald Interview] Andersen award-winning Lee Suzy chronicles her picture book journey in debut essay

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : April 15, 2024 - 20:10

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Lee Suzy speaks during a press conference in Seoul in March. (Yonhap) Lee Suzy speaks during a press conference in Seoul in March. (Yonhap)

For quite some time, celebrated picture book artist Lee Suzy has been writing on her blog as if it were a personal diary. However, when the blog platform shut down last year, all of her writing was at risk of disappearing into thin air.

"We often believe records in the digital realm will be there forever, but that was not the case. I realized then that what I've been doing with my books was gathering those fleeting thoughts and words into tangible forms," said Lee.

Her latest book, “Touchable Thoughts,” (direct translation) hit the shelves on March 15.

“So I wanted to capture all the thoughts, sketches, experiences, emotions and conversations that I had during my career and tie them up in a book.”

Lee became the first Korean to clinch the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2022 in its illustrator category. The award is often referred to as the "Nobel Prize" of children's literature. One of her early and seminal works, “Wave,” (2008) has been translated into 14 languages, including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and English.

Illustrations by Lee Suzy (Lee Suzy's Instagram account) Illustrations by Lee Suzy (Lee Suzy's Instagram account)

The latest essay narrates the artist's journey from her study of art books abroad to her infatuation with picture books. It delves into her early work notes, behind the scenes, publishing anecdotes related to her debut work, "Alice in Wonderland," (2002) and juggling a career and motherhood with two children.

"There's a saying that artists should only tell stories through their work, but I tend to voice and express my thoughts," she said.

"Because no matter how much I speak out, there's always something left behind. I believe the more stories an artist tells, the richer the tapestry of storytelling becomes. I do not think of it as explanations. Rather, it's more like just asking readers casual questions like, ‘What are your thoughts on this?'”

Lee shared the changes after the Andersen Award.

"Following the accolade, the influx of requests is both a joy and a challenge. Apart from that, little (of my personal life) has changed," she said.

But she can now call herself a “picture book author” with pride, she said. Before, when Lee searched her name, she was listed as a "cartoonist" on one of Korea's major search engines.

“Although I requested to be listed as a 'picture book author,' they replied that it couldn't be done because (the platform) did not label it as a profession,” Lee said.

“I was quite shocked. But about two weeks after receiving the award, I received an email saying that I had become a 'picture book author' (on their platform)."

Illustrations from “Wave” (BIR Publishing) Illustrations from “Wave” (BIR Publishing)

Lee said how society views children and (children’s literature) mirrors the depth of its culture.

“Children's books serve as both the initial literary encounter for young readers and a distinct form of art. I hope they transcend age categorization, and readers recognize them as more than just an educational tool for toddlers.”

To meet a broader audience, Lee is busy preparing her upcoming exhibition and next book.

Lee’s solo exhibition will be held at the Suncheon Picture Book Library in South Jeolla Province, from April 23 to Sept. 22.

She added that her next project is an attempt to integrate music and picture books using digital technology.