Children’s author and illustrator Yumi Heo, creator of more than 30 distinctive books praised for their varying visual perspectives and stylized, often whimsical imagery, died on November 5 after a long battle with cancer.
Heo was born in Korea in 1964 and grew up there, frequently moving with her family to a series of small rural towns due to her father’s assignments as an officer in the military. In a 2013 interview for Korean-American video series The Portfolio, Heo said that during her childhood in the Korean countryside of the 1970s, “Nature was my playground.” She recalled washing clothes with her mother in the stream and “playing with the frogs all the time” with her brothers near the rice paddies.
Recognizing how difficult it was for her children to keep friends when the family moved so often, Heo’s mother found a way to ease her daughter’s loneliness by encouraging her interest in art and signing her up for art lessons—taken every day after school—beginning in junior high. Heo then studied graphic design at Sang Ji University in Korea where she earned her B.A. After a stint as a graphic designer for an amusement park, Heo saw an advertisement from the New York School of Visual Arts soliciting students, and moved to New York in 1989 to continue her education there. She earned her MFA and also met her husband, fellow artist Steven Dana; speaking about that time, Heo told Portfolio, “I had the best three years of my life.”
As a transplanted New Yorker she was in awe of the city’s huge buildings and masses of people. Heo told Portfolio that she began to find her own voice in her art by spending time in Grand Central Terminal and Chinatown—always with her sketchbook—as well as visiting exhibits and exploring the work of other artists in books and experimenting with different art media in her studio. Turbulent events in New York City in 1990 and 1991, namely the Korean grocery boycott by African-Americans and the Crown Heights riots, inspired Heo’s thesis project for graduate school. She made doll-like sculptures of Korean, Jewish and African-American characters that eventually became the cornerstone for a picture-book project titled In Brooklyn. Various New York editors admired the book, but none took it on. However, Heo’s art made an impression. Not long after Heo’s graduation from SVA, Laura Godwin, then senior editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, thought Heo would be the perfect illustrator for a Korean folktale she had in-house, from a collection by Suzanne Crowder Han. The Rabbit’s Judgment was published in 1994. In an interview with PW that year Heo said, “This was a tale I had known since I was a child in Korea, and I felt a real connection with it.... I was very comfortable with it from the start. I would say that this art came from inside of me.”
Heo illustrated several folktales and picture books by other authors, including Henry’s First-Moon Birthday by Lenore Look (Atheneum, 2001) and Sometimes I’m Bombaloo by Rachel Vail (Scholastic, 2001). She also wrote several of her own picture-book texts, among them One Afternoon (Orchard, 1994) and Ten Days and Nine Nights: An Adoption Story (Schwartz & Wade, 2009).
In addition to her picture books, Heo designed a public art project for the Manhattan Transit Authority’s art for transit program. Between 1996 and 1999, Heo created an art installation called “Q Is for Queens” consisting of 30 stained glass windows spotlighting the landmarks and people of Queens (A Is for Aqueduct Race Park; K Is for Korean Festival are among the images). The windows are located along the #7 subway line at the 33, 40, and 46th Street Stations. Heo has said that the project was inspired by the book A Is for Asia by Cynthia Chin-Lee (Orchard, 1997), which she happened to be illustrating around the same time.
Another Heo-illustrated picture book, Polka Dot Penguin Pottery (Schwartz & Wade, 2011), written by Lenore Look, which featured a paint-your-own pottery studio, inspired Heo to create a mobile pottery store, which she brought around to birthdays, play dates, clubs, and other venues in the Westchester area of New York in recent years.
On November 7, Heo’s husband Steven Dana announced the creation of a Yumi Heo Memorial Fund. The money raised will go toward continuing the training for her daughter, a competitive figure skater, and to fund a scholarship fund for students in Korea.
Holt’s Laura Godwin shared this remembrance: “Yumi was extremely gracious, enthusiastic, and inquisitive,” she said. “I loved the way she incorporated ‘mistakes’ into her art rather than erasing or deleting them. If she drew a squiggle where she hadn’t intended, it would show up in the final art as a tree or a rabbit or whatever struck her fancy. She was part artist, part magician—and always an inspiration.”
Also at Henry Holt, Christy Ottaviano, publisher of Christy Ottaviano Books, who, like Godwin, worked with Heo on several books, offered this tribute: “Yumi was incredibly innovative in her artistic approach to illustration and had such an original point of view. I know she influenced many artists in the industry with her design sensibility, painting talents, and overall aesthetic. I loved working with Yumi. She was a beautiful person who always managed to inspire those around her. She left us much too soon.”
And Anne Schwartz, v-p and publisher of Random House imprint Schwartz & Wade Books, said, “Yumi was one of the gentlest, most dedicated and creative people I’ve had the joy to work with. Her art was quirky, it was playful, it was exciting, it was deeply original. Her vision was unlike anyone else’s, and working with her was inspiring for me. I have a hard time believing that she is gone; I will really miss her.”
Heo is survived by her husband, son, and daughter.
This article has been updated to reflect the correct subway stations where Heo's art is featured.