Though Joowon Oh was a student at South Korea’s most competitive visual arts high school, she had never given illustration a second thought. “I had only studied fine arts—mostly painting,” she explains. Then the Bologna Children’s Book Fair’s Illustration Exhibition came to Seoul, and she went to see it. She was 18. “Every illustration [in the exhibition] had a main character,” she says. “I had never painted characters before. And the artwork was sequential. I had only made single paintings; I never knew I could make narrative art. I thought children’s books were the perfect tool to tell a story.”
There was no school that awarded a degree in illustration in South Korea, so Oh applied to programs in the United States. She spent a year at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., before transferring to the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she could be closer to her sister, and to the city’s ever-changing landscape of galleries and museums. When she finished her undergraduate studies, she went on to get an MFA.
A project completed for a yearlong bookmaking class grew into Oh’s first book, Our Favorite Day (Candlewick). The quiet story about a grandfather sharing dumplings and doing crafts with his granddaughter is illustrated with gouache images that she layered to make collage-like spreads.
The character of Papa is based on Oh’s grandfather, who lived with her family throughout her primary school years and who gave Oh her first painting lessons. “He had his own painting supplies in his room,” she says. “He taught me how to hold a brush, how to grind the ink, and how to paint bamboo and orchids.”
After Oh came home from school, while her parents were still at work, her grandfather would sometimes share steamed dumplings he had brought back from a restaurant in town. In the book, Papa, the grandfather, brings home a double order of dumplings for lunch with his granddaughter. One spread shows him waiting patiently at the table for her to arrive, the dumplings wrapped in a white cloth to keep them warm. “This may seem like a simple and insignificant detail in one’s childhood,” Oh wrote for Candlewick’s spring preview, “but for me, it is a cherished moment that inspired me to write... about the special relationship between a grandparent and grandchild —and dumplings.”
It was the dumplings that caught the eye of an agent who approached Oh about the story. At the invitation of two classmates, she brought a dummy to a SCBWI conference in New York. The agent liked the illustrations, but the text would need some changes, she said. It was too quiet; it needed more of an arc. The focus needed to be on the dumplings. Maybe it could be a book about how to eat with chopsticks.
Oh knew she needed an agent, but this was not the book she wanted to write. Her story, she felt in her heart, was about family, and the importance of spending time together. It took her three more months to find Steven Chudney, the agent who now represents her. He liked the book as it was, and he kept her spirits high as they searched for a publisher. Several rejected the story before Candlewick said yes.
“Every time I was discouraged by noes, Steve encouraged me, telling me that he felt the story was just as it was meant to be,” Oh says. “He kept saying that there would be one editor who would like my story, so I was able to wait patiently. Finally, in the summer of 2017, I heard the good news that Candlewick had made an offer. I had had the flu for a week, and it went away!”
Oh’s original editor at Candlewick left just after the contract was signed, and executive editor Kate Fletcher took the project on—a providential development, people who knew Fletcher told Oh. The two clicked right away. Fletcher suggested including brief exchanges with the restaurant server and the craft clerk so that Papa’s life wouldn’t seem so lonely. It was important that children see that he had a community of his own and people who were looking out for him. Candlewick’s designer, Lauren Pettapiece, suggested ways to step up the pace visually as the granddaughter’s arrival drew closer, another idea Oh embraced.
Now Oh is at work on a second book for Fletcher, with a storyline she can’t yet disclose, and is illustrating a story for a Korean publisher, as well. And, for an illustrator who grew up in South Korea, and for whom many classic American picture books are new, there is more exploring to do. Asked about recent finds, she names Gyo Fujikawa: “I love her style—classic and traditional, but it looks trendy at the same time, and the colors are amazing.”