Children’s Lit in Translation from Korea

In the children’s market, very little is translated into English from languages beyond western Europe, and until very recently Korean children’s books, for all their vibrancy and stunning artwork, were no exception. And so the sudden appearance of five originally Korean-language picture books in English translation in 2021 was something of an event.

The interest in the Korean children’s market may have been spurred by innovative illustrator, animator, and artist Baek Heena being named the 2020 laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, a major international award honoring the body of work of children’s book creators. Whatever the reason for the long-awaited increase in investment in translating Korean picture books, it is a treasure trove of artistry and fresh perspectives that English readers inherit with these authors and illustrators from South Korea.

Kim Hyo-eun

I Am the Subway

Trans. Deborah Smith

Scribe

“The unique lives of strangers you might never meet again – ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum – are all around you, every time you take the train.” 

Carrying an average of 7.2 million people per day on the city lines alone, the Seoul subway network is one of the longest in the world and reaches far beyond the city limits. In this lyrical exploration of place and population, the voice of the subway train mingles with the thoughts of its passengers, revealing the varied lives of commuters, grandparents, dreamy workers, and weary children. Each character is introduced with a tantalizing peek through the parting subway doors, before we turn to a double-page spread offering a glimpse of their life, the highs and lows, the humdrum and the hectic. At Guui station, Mr. Jae-sung the cobbler strides on, reminding us to glance at the passengers’ feet and infer what we can of their character from their choice of footwear. At City Hall station, on steps Granny with a pungent package, filling the carriage with the strong, salty smell of the sea. Turning the page, we learn of her lifelong love of diving, catching octopus and abalone for her daughter and grandchildren. With stunning watercolor illustrations that capture the spirit and detail of urban life, this book weaves through life’s generations as it winds its way along the subway track. Winner of the Professional Children’s Publishing category of the World Illustration Awards 2021, this best-selling Korean picture book is destined to garner a global audience in Deborah Smith’s delightful translation.

 

Lee Juck

One Day

Illus. Kim Seung-youn

Trans. Asuka Minamoto, Lee Juck & Dianne Chung

Enchanted Lion Books

Grandpa is a tailor, a craftsman, a member of the community, and his presence is everywhere, until suddenly, one day, Grandpa is gone. His shoes sit in the closet, waiting to be worn. At the water fountain, where locals queue up to fill their bottles and canisters, everybody asks about Grandpa. Why did he leave so suddenly without telling his friends? In a tender exploration of the shock of grief and the impossibility of fathoming the enormity of a loved one’s absence, this gentle picture book explores the comfort to be found in the objects left behind, the smell of his jacket, as well as in the thought of Grandpa assuming his rightful place among the stars. Kim Seung-youn’s illustrations offer a simple yet stylishly drawn aesthetic that imbues everything with the warmth of Grandpa’s felts and fabrics. From quiet rooms bereft of Grandpa’s presence, we’re transported on floating balls of yarn into a reassuring, imaginative space filled with the buttons, needles, and threads of his craft, increasingly vibrant with Grandpa’s passion, his energy and creativity, as he lives on amidst the pin-cushion planets and shoe-shaped shooting stars of the cosmos.

 

Baek Heena

Magic Candies

Trans. Sophie Bowman

Amazon Crossing

Tong Tong plays on his own or with his dog, Marbles. How do you ever know what the other kids are thinking, and how do you start a conversation when you’re painfully shy? All that changes one day when Tong Tong comes home from the store with a bag of special candies. Varied in their patterns, colors, and flavors, each candy opens his ears to the inner voice of someone, or something, he didn’t expect to hear from! “Over here, over here,” he hears the sofa call, begging him to fish the remote control out of an uncomfortable spot and to please ask his dad to give the farting a rest. Tong Tong’s facial expression is priceless, as is the heart-warming moment when he is privy to Dad’s inner thoughts. Out loud, all he hears from Dad is endless nagging, but when Tong Tong has a sneaky candy under the covers in bed, he is surprised by the repeated refrain of “I love you” coming from Dad silently washing the dishes in the kitchen. This journey of realizing how much he is appreciated lifts him in confidence, until the very last candy in the bag. It remains quiet no matter how much he sucks it. Maybe it’s Tong Tong’s turn to speak up and utter his inner thoughts: “Do you want to play with me?” Like stills from an animation, Baek’s illustrations are photographs of her intricate miniature models, all crafted with astonishing detail and character. Baek has published thirteen picture books, all with unusual approaches to illustration, but this is only the second to appear in English. May it be the start of many.
 

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a literary translator—working from Arabic, Russian, and German into English—whose work has been shortlisted for the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize, and the GLLI Translated YA Book Prize. She is co-editor of World Kid Lit blog, and she champions world literature for young people in schools and online, especially during #WorldKidLitMonth.

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