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Korean Picture Books Today

Closing the 2023 Korea Picture Book Award




In November 2023, the winners of the first Korea Picture Book Award, organized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea (KPIPA), were announced. Eight titles and publishers were honored in the grand prize, special prize, and rookie prize categories for fiction and nonfiction. Considering the size of the prize and the diverse range of winning titles, it was a good start for a new award system. The “picture book” genre is not yet fully established in the Korean publishing industry. For example, in large bookstores, “picture books” are placed in a subcategory of the pre-school category. However, the fact that we were able to clearly recognize “picture books” as a single artistic genre and reach a consensus in the screening process to organize an “award for picture books” is thanks to the strong growth of the picture book culture in Korea.
I would like to see this in two ways: first, the contemporary picture book culture has matured and there is a wide range of readers who enjoy both the pictures and the text, and second, and more importantly, the range of picture book writers and producers (publishers) who produce works of high artistic achievement is wide. This “maturation” of the picture book culture started to become visible around the 1990s. This is when small bookstores, creators, researchers, and civil organizations began to categorize picture books as a separate part of children’s literature and culture, or even as a larger category, a distinct art field. The background and history of the growth and maturation of the picture book culture in Korea can be found in an article by Kim Ji-Eun and Shin Soo-Jin published in Changbi Kids Vol. 83 (Winter 2023). The outcome - the 2023 Korea Picture Book Award - is a small knot in that context.


The poster of the 2023 Korea Picture Book Award

The poster of the 2023 Korea Picture Book Award



In this article, I would like to share some of the picture books I came across during the judging process for the 2023 Korea Picture Book Award. More than 600 picture books released in 2022 and the first half of 2023 were submitted for the award, which began in the summer. While this is not a large number, looking into these 600 titles was meaningful because it allowed me to plot the spectrum and coordinates of contemporary picture books. First of all, many of the books were being created within the conventional boundaries of children’s books in terms of subject matter, narrative development, and visual presentation. For example, in terms of subject matter, there were many classical subjects. Particularly among the “adventures and growth of children,” there were many works that looked at inner growth or psychological deficiencies. However, among them, there were works that delicately recognized the connection between the children’s situation and the social environment. There were also a few books by individuals who recycled existing conventions. It’s a distorted phenomenon where the slogan “anyone can make a picture book” is understood as a book culture that produces works without much thought. These bipolar attempts describe the “picture book scene” in contemporary Korea. Therefore, the field of “criticism” and the award system are becoming more important.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, books that explore new social relationships, cultural phenomena, and the changing nature of children have been in the spotlight. Kwon Jung-Min’s The Disappeared Dinner (Changbi Publishers), the uncontested grand prize winner in the fiction category, explores the severed relationships and crisis of community created by a “contactless” society formed during the pandemic. The front cover illustrates a spilled bowl that seems to have been pulled off the tablecloth, and the back cover shows a pool of water, utensils, and ingredients lying on the floor. As you flip through the pages, wondering what is missing, you will realize that humans are not the only community in crisis. This is a book that questions the foundation of inequality: our food culture that exploits animals. In form, it describes a kind of “commotion” that revolves around the dining table and makes an aesthetic experiment that differs from the conventional grammar of picture books. “The disappeared dinner” carries a double meaning: the disappearance of “things to have for dinner” and the disappearance of “dinner time,” which, in turn, is a realm of reproduction. Reproduction and care are the domains of women, the material conditions that make the daytime hours of production possible, but also thoroughly unappreciated. It’s a remarkable example of how a picture book can address many different themes and conditions and yet remain so tightly knit that it doesn’t neglect any of them. It could be described as black humor, but with witty expressions that children can understand.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 66 – Go to the interview with writer Kwon Jung-Min


Rookie Award winner Jo Shin-Ae’s Gorong Gorong House (Sakyejul Publishing) presents a compact illustration of various situations that occur in the space called home. It depicts household labor and child care in a very specific way, and you will be surprised to see so many different things happening on a single piece of paper at the same time. The main character’s time in the picture book is physically long, but very short and hectic psychologically. Still, the book is full of tiny details that indicate it was drawn based on careful observations and records. Moreover, none of the details are trivialized - the quality remains high. The virtue of this picture book is that it does not portray all household “labors” only as difficulties, but also as strength and feelings that create a positive future.
The expression depicting the time of children, an important audience for modern picture books, has also been deepened and beautified. For example, the book Did You Say I Am Pretty? (Springsunshine Publishing) written by Hwang In-Chan and illustrated by Lee Myeon-Ae, which won a special prize, captures a child’s unique time of growth in the school setting. It portrays how a child who has a “word” in mind and keeps thinking about it, rethinks and realizes everyday life, nature, and friendships. What makes this child’s time so beautiful is the lingering impression of poet Hwang In-Chan’s “words” and the illustrator’s pictures that visually depict the curious facial expressions of the child. Even the back and the shoulders of the little troubled child come alive. It can be said that this book is the best collaboration of text and illustration.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 64 – Go to the interview of writer Hwang In-Chan


* K-Book Trends Vol. 38 – Go to the interview of author-illustrator Lee Myoung Ae


The Disappeared Dinner

Gorong Gorong House

Did You Say I Am Pretty?

The Disappeared Dinner, Gorong Gorong House, and Did You Say I Am Pretty?



Another great entry is Kim Hyo-Eun’s How We Eat a Cake (Munhakdongne), which is about the daily life and bonds of a family with many siblings. Growing up together is a practice of sharing. Acknowledging each other’s differences, but coming up with magical solutions when faced with a divisive dilemma - this democratic relationship is what picture books teach us. On the other hand, there’s also a book on a little heavier topic for children growing up. The book Mephisto (BIR Publishing), a special prize winner that captures the stormy times of growth and the dark side of society, demonstrates exceptional creativity in story and format. Children’s lives are made more difficult when society creates dramatic fringes. Therefore, it is necessary to highlight writers’ attention and efforts to see these shadows, recreate them in their works, and create meaning in their lives through their protagonists. Among the entries, works such as Jeon Mi-Hwa’s In the Next Month (Sakyejul Publishing) and Bonsoir Lune’s Eyes, Water (Changbi) are important in this regard. The book In the Next Month features a poor child who is forced to live in a truck instead of a house by an adult who is in debt, and Eyes, Water is a metaphorical story, but it also deals with poverty.
Picture books are also an important artistic topic in the world, as they make visual representations of the physical properties of books, such as format, paper, and binding. The number of artists attempting to do such experiments has also increased noticeably. For example, Minha’s A Round of Tightrope Walking (Gloyeon), awarded the grand prize for non-fiction, presents a minimalist design of a traditional act of tightrope walking, utilizing the materiality of a book. It is a picture book that uses board books and threads to stimulate the senses of vision, hearing, and texture. It can be said that it expands the realm of knowledge and information in the “non-fiction” genre to the sensory realm. The rise of picture books in the non-fiction category is truly exciting. Among the entries, Zhuchka, Kudryavka, Laika: A Dog Without A Name (Kepler 29) - an independent publication by Jung Hye-Kyung - is a well-made pop-up book. Not only is the quality of the pop-up book excellent, but the story of Laika, the first dog to go into space, is framed through the lens of the emerging “animal rights” movement. Also, Let’s Shout Out “Dignity” (Sakyejul Publishing) features a witty, human rights-sensitive graphic interpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with excellent design and illustrations. Another book, An Artist’s House - Park No-Soo Museum: The Red-brick House and the Secret Garden that Teaches Oriental Painting (Yeonrip Seoga), is an art historian’s account of modern art history and artists. The artistic knowledge is presented in a composition that actually feels like walking through an architecturally significant museum building. It was an attempt to transform space into “papers,” a new direction in book editing.


How We Eat a Cake


In the Next Month

Eyes, Water

How We Eat a Cake, Mephisto, In the Next Month, and Eyes, Water


A Round of Tightrope Walking

Zhuchka, Kudryavka, Laika

Let’s Shout Out “Dignity”

An Artist’s House - Park No-Soo Museum

A Round of Tightrope Walking, Zhuchka, Kudryavka, Laika, Let’s Shout Out “Dignity”, and An Artist’s House - Park No-Soo Museum



“Old tales” and classical subjects that constitute an important part of Korean picture books are now undergoing various innovations. This is an important feature of contemporary Korean picture books. For example, Tiger’s Party (Woorischool), which won the special prize, presents an interesting twist on the story of a tiger that has appeared in many traditional tales. In Korean folk tales, and amulets, tigers appear as fearsome creatures, but also as spiritual beings that have been loved by the people. The nine tigers in the book are the protagonists of different stories, but they can be connected to each other because we feel similar emotions toward them. Recognizing this, the writer advocates for the tigers who seem to suffer unnecessarily and writes with the kind heart and humor of a child who feels sorry for them.
In addition, the modernized visual presentation of the folk tale elements makes it a captivating read. Among the entries, So Yoon-Kyoung’s Galactic Hell (Gloyeon) satirizes modern society through the form and theme of disharmony. Also, Seo Hyun’s Rice Cake House of a Tiger (Sakyejul Publishing) maximizes the heart-pounding narrative development, and Noh In-Kyung’s The King Has Donkey Ears (Munhakdongne) captures the allegorical style with graphic design. As such, the category of art and literary references is wide-ranging. Old tales could be reborn with universal themes and modern aesthetics, all thanks to the experimental “vacation projects” of the aforementioned authors. The efforts of these authors, who are actively contributing to the expansion of picture book culture, are thrilling picture book readers. For example, Kim Su-Young’s The Story of a Rabbit (Somebooks), a folding picture book, is an impressive graphic reinterpretation of the classic novel The Story of an Underwater Palace using metaphorical images of corrupt authority and the narrative of a rabbit who sees through it.


Tiger’s Party

Galactic Hell

Rice Cake House of a Tiger

Tiger’s Party, Galactic Hell, and Rice Cake House of a Tiger


The King Has Donkey Ears

The Story of a Rabbit

The King Has Donkey Ears and The Story of a Rabbit



There were also quite a few picture books that tackled topics of modern history as important picture book themes. For example, Wind Blowing On Mudeungeewat (Iyagikot Publishing), which won the special prize, delicately documents how a community recovers from the traumatic events of the Jeju 4.3 Incident (the armed clashes that occurred on Jeju Island and the deaths of its residents in the process of suppressing them), as well as the region’s language and culture.
The special value of this kind of locally based work, or “recordability,” is something to look forward to as a creative direction for picture books. The book Okchun-Dang (Gilbut Children Publishing) by Go Jung-Soon touched the heart by bringing a fact-based personal narrative into a contemporary context, while expanding the writer’s unique theme of never losing faith in and affection for humanity. An okchundang is a traditional Korean candy with colorful colors. They were used to decorate the table during big feasts and rituals. It is also a special food in childhood memories. This is because, after the rituals, these candies were usually given to children. While this was a way for grandmothers to make sure children weren’t left out of adult events, it’s not a popular sweet in modern times. Here, okchundang functions as an object that draws on a complex set of shared feelings about disappearing things. While stories that highlight old age are increasingly a feature of contemporary picture books, Okchun-Dang’s honest and emotional narrative of life stories creates a distinctive aesthetic.
Another entry, Who Are You? by Noh Hye-Jin and Noh Hye-Young (BIR Publishing), is a picture book about life based on the oral accounts of their grandmothers. The book is also impressive for its use of “memory objects,” such as a soban (a small table) and the seemingly overlapping narratives of the two grandmothers. There are also works about the “now” of the elderly. Among the entries, Yoon Yeo-Jun’s Is It Warm There (Jujube Books) is a book about the simple daily life of a grandfather who lost his wife, and Ha Su-Jeong’s Doing Just Fine (Woongjin ThinkBig) features a cheerful grandmother living alone who names objects in her home. Old age is a time when loss becomes an everyday experience, but it is also a time of vibrant life where people often discover new pleasures in everyday life. That’s why it’s welcome to see picture books that reimagine old age from a new perspective and with new expressions.


Wind Blowing On Mudeungeewat


Wind Blowing On Mudeungeewat and Okchun-Dang


Who Are You?

Is It Warm There

Doing Just Fine

Who Are You?, Is It Warm There, and Doing Just Fine



Finally, I would like to point out that contemporary Korean picture books are not dependent on literature, but rather exhibit a remarkable expressive capacity as visual narratives. Among the entries, Noh Seok-Mi’s Good Morning, Sun (Changbi), Cho Won-Hee’s A Muscle Man and a Fat Lady - Lake (Sakyejul Publishing), Kim Sun-Jin’s The Mushroom Girl (Sewmew), Moon Ji-Na’s Summer Light (Sakyejul Publishing), and Whelee’s The Forgotten Courage (Changbi) are definitely noteworthy in that regard. I also would like to applaud high-quality “graphic novels.” Lee Su-Yeon’s Two Friends On My Shoulders (Sixth Summer) depicts the violence and scars of a challenging world, but it is also about growing up through the ability to interpret those scars. Today’s Korean picture books share the pain and joy of growing up, while empowering readers to interpret the world.


Good Morning, Sun

A Muscle Man and a Fat Lady – Lake

The Mushroom Girl

Good Morning, Sun, A Muscle Man and a Fat Lady – Lake, The Mushroom Girl


Summer Light

The Forgotten Courage

Two Friends On My Shoulders

Summer Light, The Forgotten Courage, and Two Friends On My Shoulders



Written by Han Yoonah (Visual art critic and CEO of art publisher Tigress On Paper)



Han Yoonah (Visual art critic and CEO of art publisher Tigress On Paper)

#Picture Book#2023 Korea Picture Book Award#The Disappeared Dinner#A Round of Tightrope Walking
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