In spite of travel restrictions and event cancellations amid the coronavirus outbreak, the international children’s literature community tuned in together to celebrate a major accolade: South Korean author-illustrator Baek Heena has been named the winner of the 2020 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest children’s book award, with the laureate receiving five million Swedish kronor (just under $500,000 at present exchange rates).
Administered by the Swedish Arts Council, the award was announced live from the home of legendary author Astrid Lindgren in Stockholm, Sweden on March 31, and aired simultaneously via webcast. The news is usually livestreamed at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, but due to the pandemic the fair has been canceled.
Born in Seoul in 1971, Baek Heena is one of Korea’s most acclaimed picture book creators. Heena studied education technology at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and animation at the California Institute of the Arts in the United States. After her daughter was born, she transitioned from working in film animation and multimedia to picture book making. Heena has published 13 picture books, a number of which have been translated and have received awards—both in her home of Korea and internationally. One of her most popular titles, Cloud Bread, was published in English in 2011.
During the prize presentation, Swedish minister for culture and democracy Amanda Lind spoke of the award’s special importance at this moment in history, when children and families across the world are staying at home. “Reading is a way of reducing distances and crossing borders,” she said. Lind also explained that the idea for Lindgren’s most famous book, Pippi Longstocking, was sparked when her daughter was sick with pneumonia and asked to hear a story about a girl of that name.
Reading the award citation, jury member Elina Druker said, “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 marvelous: sensuous, dizzying, and sharp.”