Ann Choi & Soyeon Kim talk recalling childhood stories
and using a Korean folktale as inspiration
Hello Ann, I am so happy to connect with you via Word Meets Picture Chats! I cannot believe that it’s going to be almost one year since Once Upon an Hour was published.
When I first came across the manuscript of Once Upon an Hour, I remember thinking how excited I was to be able to illustrate a story that I grew up with in Korea. Would you be able to share how and why you decided on telling the story of Once Upon an Hour?
I wanted young readers in Canada to know that there are many different ways of telling time. One such way involves using the sun, the moon, and traditional animals of the Korean zodiac. As well, I also wanted to weave other Korean symbols, like the doraji plant, which is associated with healing. While the importance of cooperation and empathy are key to the story’s messaging, I also wanted to bring visibility to cultures that young readers might not be familiar with in order to build community and inclusivity.
You did an incredible job of bringing the story alive with your artistic vision. I really appreciate that the dragon, for example, reflected East Asian dragons, which are different from their western counterparts. How did you come to depict the characters as you did?
To depict the characters, I revisited my childhood memories in Korea. Korea is filled with rich and long history, surrounded by mountains and water. There are lots of historic sites (e.g. temples, palaces) I visited with my family and friends. I always loved visiting these places, as they were secretly tucked into mountains or located near cliffs, and had architecture that was covered with traditional art inside and out. It was these memories that I had used as a reference and inspiration for the illustration of the characters.
For other main characters, like Yu-Rhee and her mom, did you have a specific look in your mind when writing the story? How was the character in your imagination different from the one I created?
You did a great job of capturing the character designs. One of the things I told the editor we worked with was that it was very important for me that my characters looked Korean. There are facial and bodily features that distinguish East Asian groups of people. It may not be obvious to all readers, but something that many people of East Asian backgrounds would notice. It was important for me that the book captured this to make the storytelling as authentic as possible. I’m grateful that our publisher, Orca, respected this request and connected us.
I also wanted to have the character in the main story blur the lines between gender so that young readers could determine for themselves whom they saw driving the action. I think that could be especially challenging for illustrators but you did a wonderful job!
I appreciated the setting you created in the opening and ending of the story. It captures a very different mood from the story within the story. Could you share your thought processes for managing both narratives (the opening and ending and the quest in the middle)?
When I first read the manuscript, I thought it was really special with the way that was written— a story within the story! It was a challenge to illustrate the two stories, but I also wanted to show the connection between them. Since the world that Yu-Rhee and her mom were in was set as the “current” world, I wanted to make the scene look more three-dimensional. The bookcase, bed, chair and other objects were painted and built to add to the “reality” of the scene.
For the child’s story, I wanted to make the scene more whimsical with colours and lights. I also depicted the child to have the resemblance of Yu-Rhee, so that the character has more connection to the child from the story.
There is also one more element that was added at the book designing stage: the text box. This idea was suggested by the designer from Orca! Could you spot the difference? Illustrating the story within the story was a challenge, but a fun and creative one!
Did you have any challenges when writing this book? What was the hardest part for you in making this book?
Writing a children’s book, I discovered, was challenging work. The final manuscript underwent significant editorial changes. In one case, an editor wanted to remove all the dialogue from the animals. Luckily, the editor we landed with shared my vision for giving animals their own voices. It took over a year to complete the manuscript which runs under a thousand words.
While I was writing the manuscript, I received ongoing constructive feedback and suggestions from my agent and editor. What about you?
It was the same for me!
My art process starts this way: idea sketch > rough sketch > building diorama frames > drawing, painting, and cutting > assembly. For every stage, I check in with the editor to make sure that everything is on the page with enough room for text.
Even the photoshoot session was an ongoing collaboration! We took photos with slight changes in the angle and focus, which was shared with the editor and designer to roughly place the text to ensure that we captured the scene the best way we can.
During the photoshoot session of Once Upon an Hour, we finally had a chance to meet! I’m not sure if readers know, but we (author and illustrator) don’t get to meet very often! You visited at the end of the photo session. I was so happy to meet in person and share the dioramas.
Ann, could you share your experience when you saw the dioramas in person? What was it like compared to seeing them in the book?
These photos are stunningly beautiful! Yes, I don’t think most readers realize that in traditional publishing, authors and illustrators do not work together. I was in awe when I saw the dioramas and thoroughly impressed with the process and detailed work. I’d love to see the dioramas on display someday!
I get asked a lot about how to write children’s books. I advise them to do their research and focus on developing a memorable main character. What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators of children’s picture books?
My advice for aspiring illustrators of children’s picture books is to start with a doodle! Doodle by observing what’s around you, how you feel, and what’s in your thoughts and imagination. When I was in my elementary school in Korea, we used to have homework to keep a daily journal of what was memorable each day with drawings. This continued, even as I grew up and moved to Canada. I still take my small sketchbook everywhere I go to draw my thoughts, take visual notes of what I see and how I feel. I hope to see your illustrations in the future!
Once Upon An Hour, published by Orca
Illustrated by Soyeon Kim