Most people find an illustrator to be a person who depicts words in the form of pictures. But for Han Sung-ok, the first president of Picture Book Association (PBA), illustration itself is a form that contains its own text. Han said her childhood as a girl who simply liked drawing.
“Since I was the only child in my family, I did not have time to share my thoughts with someone around my age at home,” Han recalled. “Drawing was a way for me to express my thoughts.”
Her characteristics of constantly thinking deeply on her own made her become interested in the spiritual world, leading her to Christianity which emphasized offering kindness to others. This teaching made her think that talents cannot be achieved purely by herself. Since then, Han started using her talent to help others.
“At that time, night schools were crucial for people who gave up their education to restart their studies, but there was not enough support from the government to establish a night school,” Han said. “Making a brochure for a concert to raise funding for a night school was my first official work as an illustrator.”
After graduating from Ewha, Han studied design at School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, New York. While staying in the United States Han found out that Korean children born in the U.S. did not have many chances to encounter Korean traditions compared to overseas residents of other nations, as there were no Korean books available.
“I wanted to write a book that could help these children learn more about their cultural roots, so I decided to write one based on Korean folktales,” Han explained. “At first I was dominated with the thoughts to depict Korean traditions as much as possible, trying to fill the book with traditional scenes of Korea. Only later did I realize that I should focus on writing a storybook, not on writing a book that solely focuses on teaching readers a lesson.”
Her book “Sir Whong and the Golden Pig” was the first book written by a Korean author to be included in American textbooks. Despite her success in the U.S. she soon faced a slump. All of a sudden, her activities seemed meaningless to her. Ironically, Han was able to overcome her self-doubting days from the book that she took part as an illustrator, “Basho and the Fox.”
“The main character Basho makes a bet with the fox on writing a better haiku, a Japanese short poem, to get a cherry but fails to come up with one until it is time for him to meet the fox,” Han said. “However, Basho goes on his way to the fox anyway and a good haiku suddenly comes up in his head when he meets the fox under the moonlight - this struck me with the thought that life was about going on your way despite the circumstances and this will lead to an answer.”
Han is now about to embark on a new challenge as the president of PBA. She plans to provide better treatment and working conditions for illustraors.
“Fairy tale and picture books are independent genres but the current classification puts picture books within fairy tale books,” Han explained. “Since we do not have our own genres it is harder for picture book writers to receive support from the government. Even though it is one of the genres that takes up a large portion in exports when it comes to publication copyrights, it is still very difficult.”
Han is now trying out for a new challenge in her life to enact a new law for picture book writers and to run an association successfully. Han, who is also a starter in a new challenge, offered students who are taking their first step into the society to stay determined in what they believe is right.
“Each and every individual is special in their own way,” Han said. “I hope students take time to think deeply of their own strengths and have courage to step forward into what they want to do.”