Mary Cash, v-p and editor-in-chief of Holiday House, reports on her trip to the Seoul International Book Fair in South Korea.
Being asked to be a guest of the Korean Publishers Association at the Seoul International Book Fair was like winning a prize. The 13-hour time difference and a 14-hour flight seemed like a small price to pay for a chance to visit a country that buys so many U.S. children’s books for translations. Nearly every year the fair is held the third week of June – although last year the MERS outbreak caused the fair to be postponed until the fall. This year the fair took place from June 15–19.
Seoul is home to about 10 million people – one and half million more than live in New York City. It’s the perfect place to be up all night because of the number of restaurants, bars, shopping malls, spas and movie theaters that never close. As a person who does better with a bit of sleep, it was a relief to find out that the book fair would confine its hours to 10:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. on the three days I’d be attending.
Before the fair began a priority was to meet the energetic agents from the Korean Copyright Center, longtime representatives of Holiday House. Rockyoung Lee, president of the agency, met me in front of the beautiful and imposing gate to the Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. While whisking me down one of Seoul’s busiest streets, Sejokro, she pointed out notable sights including the Kyobo building, home to the subterranean Kyobo Book Centre, which is the largest bookstore in Korea. A huge plaque on the building’s facade displays quotes from poems, inspiring passersby and reminding them that more literary gems (as well as a lot of other kinds of reading) can be found inside.
At the KCC offices I met the staff of 19 people busily working in cubicles nestled among shelves of books. Separate displays of children’s and adult books sold by KCC currently on the Korea’s bestseller lists spoke for themselves. As the representatives for the big five publishers, numerous U.S. literary agencies and many mid-sized publishers, KCC is probably the conduit through which most American children’s books find their way to the Korean market. I had the opportunity to get to know the dedicated children’s book team at a truly scrumptious evening feast at a favorite local restaurant, which began my love affair with Korean cold buckwheat noodles.
After dinner the Kyobo Book Centre beckoned. To call the store spacious is an understatement. Its gigantic children’s section included a toy and book area as well as an English-language studies section. Books, CDs, and DVDs fill most the space. But there are also department store-like displays of stationery, gifts, and chairs that looked particularly comfortable for reading.
The fair itself is held in the ultra-modern Coex complex which houses, in addition to the exhibition space, office towers, hotels, a dizzying array of restaurants and shops, a multiplex cinema, a museum, an aquarium and a casino.
If this is all too overstimulating for you, sanctuary is available directly across the street at the Bongeunsa Temple. If you’ve really overdosed on extreme modernity you can check yourself in for a temple stay, during which a few days of simple vegetarian food, Buddhist rituals, and meditation should restore you.
Although publishers come to the Fair from all over the world, the largest non-Korean contingents hail from Japan, Taiwan, China, and southeast Asia. Guest fellows of the Korean Publishers Association were from Australia, Austria, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Taiwan, the U.K., the U.S., and Vietnam.
The general public is welcome on all five days of the fair, and school groups of all ages, families, and readers of all sorts attend.
Korea’s literary community was buoyant from the recent announcement that Han Kung’s The Vegetarian had won the Man Booker International Award. U.S. agent Barbara J. Zitwer spoke about her 10-year struggle to get the book published in English, and what she has christened the “Korean new wave” of literature.
I spent most of my time getting to know Korean children’s book publishers. I had the pleasure of meeting Eun Mi Cho (center) and Jeong Weon Hwang (r.) of Hyeonamsa, whose Look Up by Jung Jin-Ho will be published by Holiday House this fall.
Claire Yang (r.) rights manager of Bir and Gorilla Box Publishing. Bir is the original publisher of Tiptoe Tapir by Hanmin Kim, which Holiday House released in 2015, as well as this year’s Newbery Medal-winning book Last Stop on Market Street. At most of my meetings I both presented Holiday House titles and was then introduced to Korean books and educated about the children’s book business in Korea. Ji Young Park of Mirae explained to me that her house is the number one publisher for books adopted by Korean schools. I met with several publishers who had founded their companies less than 10 years ago. Soon Young Lee’s seven-year-old BookGoodCome entered the market with the Coda bear series, which has now been sold to seven countries. Woongjin, Daaekyo, and Froebel Media are companies that specialize in selling sets of books from door to door. Woongjin’s Yolanda Kim told me about the new online support offered to subscribers, and new learning programs that incorporate e-books. Eunsoo Joo of KCC was on hand to help translate and take terrific photos.
I tried to get a sense of Korean culture during my short visit, partly to put the many books I had seen in context. I was struck by an obvious reverence for nature that was definitely reflected in many children’s books. Seoul itself incorporates several majestic mountains and even a national park in its city limits. In my visits to palaces and temples it wasn’t uncommon to come across a tree that had been named a national treasure, such as the 500-year-old lacebark pine at the Buddhist temple of Jogyesa. A visit to the National Museum of Korea’s galleries of exquisite celadon ceramics from the Goryeo Dynasty left me with a greater understanding of Linda Sue Park’s now classic Newbery-winning novel A Single Shard.
The paintings and calligraphy helped explain the elegant use of white space in so many of the books I’d admired and the muted tones in some of them.
In examining the Korean books what struck me most was that despite cultural differences and varying tastes in art and humor, common purposes were evident. We all seem to want our children to brush their teeth, get along with each other, and put down their mobile devices and pick up more books. We all strive to introduce children to what is beautiful and inspire them to love reading. We want to educate them for a technology-filled future but also encourage them to hold onto traditions that help to give them a base and balance. Publishers have a shared faith that books can help accomplish these goals.