Windows on Korea: Nature, City, Myth

In recent years, classmates, family friends, and now an international student living with our family have put Korea increasingly on our radar. Friends have introduced us to K-pop rock, K-pop opera, and serialized TV K-dramas. The books below offer another window on recent history and contemporary life in Korea. 

When Spring Comes to the DMZ 
Written and illustrated by: Uk-Bae Lee
Translated from Korean by: Chungyon Won and Aileen Won
Published by: Plough Publishing House, 2019
Target Age: 5–8 years

Lee has crafted a bittersweet meditation on the wildlife that flourishes in the no-man’s land between North and South Korea. A classically trained artist, he employs gentle hues and nuanced shading to depict the endangered plants and animals that thrive in the absence of human habitation. Reminders of the military origins of this refuge nevertheless infiltrate every scene. Razor wire frames a blossoming oasis, lines of soldiers march beneath stormy skies, floodlights beam down on a snow-blanketed valley, and dandelions poke through rusted helmets. 

As the year cycles through the seasons, “Grandfather” repeatedly climbs the steps of an observatory to gaze across the DMZ at the sky over his homeland. The book concludes with a fold-out panorama of an imagined spring in which Grandfather and his grandchildren roam the forbidden territory. Back matter offers a brief history of the demilitarized zone and a description of the author’s advocacy for peace and justice.

The mother of our Korean student is a biologist. Upon reading When Spring Comes, she told us she once applied to visit the DMZ with her students over spring break. Passes are limited, and their application was denied. Instead they visited a nearby island to observe bird life over the DMZ from a distance. 

I Am the Subway
Written and illustrated by: Kim Hyo-Eun
Translated from Korean by: Deborah Smith
Published by: Scribble U.S., 2021 
Target age: 3–8 years

Where Lee’s work draws attention to a designated hinterland, Hyo-Eun’s title highlights the dense mega-city of Seoul. The personified subway narrates its route, describing passengers as they board. A few first-person lines from each illuminate their past or present pursuits. The businessman dashing for the train relates his racing victories as a child and the daughter he now hurries home to after work. The weary schoolgirl in Gangnam enumerates the hours she studies and the rankings she receives in school. 

Carefully conceived illustrations incorporate details of the city as well as passengers’ personal lives. The book opens with black-and-white depictions of faceless pedestrians. The gradual introduction of color directs readers’ attention to select individuals. By the conclusion, all the passengers appear with individualized expressions and postures, hinting at “the unique lives of strangers.” In the author’s note, Hyo-Eun describes how, in childhood, her father taught her to be a close observer of the commonplace. As this title ably illustrates, each of Seoul’s nearly ten million residents has a story.

Moon Pops 
Written and illustrated by: Heena Baek
Translated by: Jieun Kiaer
Published by: Owlkids, 2021
Target age: 3–7 years

The two previous titles are firmly grounded in the factual; this revels in the fanciful. Baek’s whimsical tale takes inspiration from a Korean folk tradition about a rabbit in the moon. On a witheringly hot summer night, the power goes out in an apartment building. When the moon begins to melt, a resourceful granny catches the melting moon drops and forms them into popsicles. Neighbors follow the moonlight to her apartment, and Granny happily shares her creations. But soon two rabbits show up and report that their home has melted. Undaunted, Granny finds a way to restore that, too. 

Multimedia photo illustrations bear witness to Baek’s background in animation. Granny lives in a three-dimensional building displaying windows into twelve different apartments. Each is equipped with wallpaper, curtains, lighting, and furniture in distinctive styles—retro, mid-century, minimalist, spartan, punk rock. 3D balconies and exterior air conditioner units complete the effect. The occupants are paper cutouts of anthropomorphic animals, portrayed in positions and poses that vary throughout the book. Baek’s innovation, effort, and attention to detail are all equally impressive. The combination of traditional motifs and contemporary visuals contribute to the arresting nature of this work. 

Note: This post originally appeared on the World Kid Lit blog on November 27, 2023: World Kid Lit “Windows on Korea”

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