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The Creative World of Baek Heena

The Nobel Prize of Children’s Literature, 2020 Laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award




Picture book author Baek Heena


Picture book author Baek Heena (49) has been named the 2020 laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA), the world’s most renowned prize for children’s literature. In doing so, she is the first Korean writer to win the award. The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award was founded by the Swedish government to honor the late Astrid Anna Emilia Lindgren (1907–2002), the author of the best-selling Pippi Longstocking series which has been translated into over 100 languages and beloved by readers of all ages. Past laureates of the award include Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), Christine Nöstlinger (The Cucumber King), and Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass). Baek is the second Asian author to win this prestigious honor after the Japanese illustrator Ryoji Arai.


Announcement of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2020


The following are excerpts from the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Jury Committee’s presentation of Baek Heena’s works.


2020 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Ceremony

2020 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Ceremony (Source: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award images)


Since her debut, Baek has continued to evolve a singular and highly original picture book world. Within that world, she constructs stories very much like theater pieces, building environments like stage sets and using lighting to great effect. Her techniques connect to a long tradition of toy books for children, a genre to which she has brought development and renewal within her highly original technical and artistic solutions.



Moon Sherbet




Baek’s early picture books show a fascination with dollhouse-like environments, populated with dolls or flat figures cut from paper. Baek allows her creativity free rein, taking dollhouse play to new heights and giving readers a peep into all the residents’ apartments, each one individually decorated and arranged.

We can nearly see the heat of the night in the contrasts between oppressive dark and flickering lights, nearly hear it in the drip-drip of the melting moon, the drone of air conditioning and the hum of refrigerators. Baek’s picture book world is astonishing not only in its wealth of visual detail, but also in its ability to enfold the reader in an experience for all the senses.

Baek Heena often draws attention to the book as a spatial and material form. Her technique recalls the peep-box or the diorama. Baek herself has mentioned Hitchcock’s Rear Window as an inspiration for Cloud Bread and the concept reappear in her treatment of the apartment buildings in Moon Sherbet (Bearbooks Inc.).


Moon Sherbet



Last Night


Last Night 1


Last Night (Bearbooks Inc.), similar set in an apartment building, takes the form of a fold-out book, reinforcing the linkages between the apartments and lives that appear in the story. Each panel takes the reader into a new home, and shows a snapshot of everyday routines, problems, and relationships of the people who live there. As the book shows, all of them, despite individual differences, belong together and have more in common than they might imagine.


Last Night 2


In later books such as Bath Fairy, Magic Candies, and I Am a Dog, Baek’s characters become even more expressive. They have firm bodies sculpted from clay accentuating their anatomy, body language, and facial features. The settings too, evolved toward a more animated and cinematic style, using varied lighting, visual depth and spatiality in a highly innovative way for the picture book as a medium. The process of creating each book is long and laborious. To achieve a range of gestures and physical appearances, the artist crafts multiple small clay figures in different poses, and then paints and dresses each of them.




Baek has said that she finds inspiration in the craft process itself, and a creative challenge in the picture book format and the constraints of two-dimensional image-making. Her dedication to the manual process, the sculpting, and the lighting, and her attention to the tiniest detail are not only impressive but also crucial to the finished result.




For all the care that she lavishes on her characters, Baek devotes equal attention to the environments they inhabit. She opens and extends space in a way reminiscent of animated film. At the same time she uses lighting to define spaces and create an atmosphere that is distinctive, inviting, and intimate. Alternating rhythmically between close-ups and long shots, her visuals are typically designed around the experiences of the child character.



The Bath Fairy


The Bath Fairy 1


The Bath Fairy (Bearbooks Inc.) does full justice both to Baek’s sense of slapstick and to and the capacity of children for wholehearted experience. The sheer physical pressure of sliding into cool water or lounging in a hot bath is captured to perfection. Naked bodies young and old are pictured matter-of-factly with nuance. The joyful scene when old woman and little girl dive under the water together is one of the highlights of the book.


The Bath Fairy 2


Although the majority of her books focus on children and convey the child perspective, she also portrays adults and the elderly with refinement and humor. Bath Fairy is one example. There is in other words a strong connection between the generations in her books as well as a living interest in exploring and incorporating the ingredients of literary tradition.



Little Chick Pee-yaki’s Mum


Little Chick Pee-yaki’s Mum


Baek’s picture book worlds open the door to magic and wonder. Nowhere is this more true than in Little Chick Pee-yaki’s Mum (Bearbooks Inc.), one of just a few books in her oeuvre that is drawn in charcoal and ink. This quirky tale portrays a picture of parenthood that is both candid and comedic.



Magic Candies


An elevated, enchanted every day is often a core element in Baek’s stories. In combination with a tight focus on the individual perspective, she crafts stories that draw readers into the emotional lives of her characters. This is particularly the case in Magic Candies (Bearbooks Inc.), about a young boy named DongDong.


Magic Candies 1


The story takes the form of an interior monologue by the boy, underlining the connections between the magical events of the story and his emotional processes. In a subtle and open-ended manner, Baek shows how DongDong gradually achieves a better understanding of himself and others. This entails coming closer to his father and finding a pathway out of his solitary existence.


Magic Candies 2


Another distinctive feature of Magic Candies is the way Baek integrates the book’s text with its Korean characters into the visual images and indeed, the plot. This technique also appears in her earlier books but it truly comes into its own here, especially when conveying DongDong’s complicated relationship to his father, a man worn down by the everyday grind. The father’s endless harping fills a page with a suffocating block of text, while his unspoken affection for his son appears in light, twining words that float through the air.


Magic Candies 3


On a later page, Baek gives a similar voice to the falling autumn leaves. Lightly, floatingly, they bid a final farewell: goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. There is a poetic grandeur to this technique, with its suggestion that the world is a place both alive and ensouled.


Magic Candies 4



I Am a Dog


I Am a Dog 1


The use of interior monologue to zoom in on an individual perspective is also a feature of Baek Heena’s most recent book, I Am a Dog (Bearbooks Inc.), which forms a prequel to Magic Candies and is narrated by DongDong’s dog.


I Am a Dog 2


It is a sensitive and finely-tuned portrayal of a dog and his human family where readers learn about how the dog sees the world, how he misses his mother, his friendship with the boy in the family, and his insight that his job is to take care of his human family. The emotional register is broad, the approach appealing and with the ring of truth. The story shows a respect for the needs and feelings of animals, as expressed in the unusually nuanced depiction of the dog, who goes through a variety of facial expressions, meaningful looks and body postures, and the acknowledgement of his capacity for longing, sorrow, and joy.



With exquisite feeling for materials, looks and gestures,
Baek Heena’s filmic picture books stage stories about solitude and solidarity.
In her evocative miniature worlds, cloud bread and sorbet moons, animals, bath fairies and people converge.
Her work is a doorway to the marvellous: sensuous, dizzying and sharp.
- Boel Westin, Chair of the Jury, Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award -



Baek Heena


Baek Heena is an artist who is renewing the picture book medium through the bold and uncompromising development of new techniques and artistic solutions that inject elements from handcraft and animation into her books in new and exciting ways. Baek’s feeling for materials, spatiality, physical form, and gesture is impressive and innovative. Her intricately composed picture books invite multiple readings and close contemplation of their minutely constructed visual worlds. Yet their skillful execution never stands in the way of the story. Baek’s enchanting picture book worlds engage, amuse, amaze, and move us.

The child’s perspective runs through them all, as does an unshakeable belief in the power of play and imagination in our lives. From the pages of her picture books a chorus of voices invites us to step into their world and find new ways to see, think, and feel.

* Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Jury Committee’s presentation of Baek Heena’s works



Sources. Bearbooks Inc. Naver Post (http://naver.me/FmpjZfUU)


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