After 25 years of living in Manhattan, children’s book writer and illustrator Yangsook Choi (MFA 1995 Illustration as Visual Essay) moved back to her hometown of Seoul in 2015 and found that, like her, the city had changed. “When I was living in Korea before, it was almost 100 percent monoculture,” she says. “Now it’s very international.”
Inclusivity and respect for different cultural traditions are themes that can be found in all of the 12 books Choi has illustrated or authored. New Cat (1999) takes place in a Bronx tofu factory. Behind the Mask (2006) merges the customs of an American Halloween with those of Korean mask dance. The Name Jar (2001), perhaps Choi’s best-known work to date, tells the story of a young Korean immigrant’s anxiety over sharing her given name with her American classmates. Later this year, the Emerald City Theatre in Chicago will premiere a live adaptation, and Houghton Mifflin is preparing an educational textbook as well as English and Spanish audio books based on the work.
A frequent traveler, Choi has visited more than 10 countries to speak at schools, libraries and conferences, where she often talks about the importance of maintaining reading lists that speak to a variety of experiences and heritages. In November, she will be in Baltimore to participate in a panel discussion as part of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) 2019 Annual Convention. She also journeys to orphanages and refugee shelters, often in remote locations, to make art with the children and paint on-site murals.
“If you go to these places and open a package of colored pencils or paper, kids flock to you,” she says.
When in Seoul, Choi volunteers with a local NGO that delivers vegetable seeds to farmers in North Korea, whose people suffer from chronic food shortages. North Korea also figures in her latest project, a middle-grade novel about children in the country; Choi spent several years interviewing North Korean defectors about their experiences living under the repressive regime. Tentatively titled Double Thunder and featuring her own black-and-white drawings, she is now in the final stages of writing it, while thinking about her next, more illustration-focused project.
“I can draw or paint for nine hours and it’s effortless,” she says. “But I can’t possibly write more than four hours a day. Writing is the biggest monster.”