Fast facts

Born: 1 December 1971 in Korea
Lives in: Seoul, South Korea, along with her husband, two children aged 17 and 11 and the dog Moongchi
Dream profession as a child: Painter
Reading right now: ‘Tangerine People’ by Sung-ra Kim, ‘Voyage Alone for Food’ by Takaki Naoko
Nickname as a child: Pippi “Because I was very skinny with big teeth and freckles. I looked like Pippi when I smiled. I used to ask my grandmother to braid my hair like Pippi’s, because she was my heroine.”

Baek, Heena. Photo: Bear Books

"I would be very happy to live in my stories"

Baek Heena’s nickname when she was little was “Pippi” because she adored Astrid Lindgren’s irrepressible heroine - and had freckles herself. The film-making process taught her how to tell a story in visual way, but the real reason she became a children's book maker was her desire to escape from the real world.

What inspired you to become a storyteller?
"The desire to escape from the real world."

Has anything in Astrid Landgren’s writing been influencing you?
"The Pippi books and ‘The Brothers Lionheart’ were my favorite. Especially, I was so much into Pippi drama when I was little. Every joy and fun time in Pippi’s life was absorbed in my childhood. I admired how she lived—eating a huge cake for breakfast, young and rich, strong, going on a journey with a flying bed, living on her own in a colorful castle with animal buddies."

How do you decide the themes in your stories?
"I don’t aim for themes, but for ‘the joy’ for the readers. I search for something that might amuse the readers."

Of all the characters you have created, are there any that you feel especially close to?
"Yes. Sometimes I use people I know as a reference when I design the characters. I’d better keep my reference people a secret. I tend to make characters that are not too pretty and fancy."

If you could become one of your characters, which one would you like to be?
"Wow. I would be very happy to live in my stories. The black cat in ‘Last Night’—I love to work, and especially since his job is delivering cake—what a delight. The little girl Duck-gee in ‘The Bath Fairy’—I’d love to go back to my childhood. I had the same life as Duck-gee has."

How does your background in making animation films affect your work?
"The film-making process taught me how to tell a story in visual way. It is very interesting to me to try various materials and mediums to make the story more attractive. Studying the history of picture books also helped me a lot. Each stage of picture book development in history helped me think of many elements of the picture book that I easily take for granted. For example, the effect of movies on the picture book. Just like in movies, various camera angles started to be used in picture books also, and I am so used to it now that it can happen that I ignore the usage of angles. But thinking of the very beginning of using those elements in picture books helps me think carefully again about their importance and usage. We easily forget the very basic things."

How does your creative process begin?
"I have to sit and start working. I have to force myself and say, just finish a story no matter if it is good or bad. I should not aim for the masterpiece, not create that pressure. Mostly the story comes first. Then I work with text and images at the same time."

Do you work with several projects at the same time?
"I have to be very focused to finish books on time. Especially when I work with three-dimensional projects, there are so many things that I have to consider and control. Also, I am a mother of two kids, which means I need more than two brains and bodies! So it is not possible to work on several projects at the same time. But sometimes while I am working on one book I get an idea for new books. When I finished sculpting the dog for ‘Magic Candy’, I just loved the way she came out. So I took a photo of her and it became the cover picture of the new book."

You use a range of materials to create your worlds. How do you decide how to tell the story?
"I search for the best way to tell the story, to make it more interesting. For example, ‘The Chick’s Mama’ is a story about a street cat who happened to give birth to a chick. Since she was a dirty street cat, I used chalk coal. ‘The Bath Fairy’ is a fantasy about a little girl enchanting a fairy in a very normal, routine kind of day, while taking a bath. So I decided to shoot little sculptures against the real background, the real public bath. The way I visualized was as magical as the story. I had so much fun photographing the sculptures. I believe that readers might feel the same way as I felt when I was working on the book."

In some of your books the lighting in your images become like stage sets. Are you influenced by theatre or stage design?
"Yes, maybe. I thought I was influenced by films, but I have loved playing with dolls since I was little, and that trained me to be a storyteller, I believe. Playing with dolls could be another form of theatre."

You often use animals as characters in the books. What is your relationship to animals and what role do they play?
"I love animals. My favorites are dogs and lionesses. I think animals are cuter than humans and there are advantages to using them as characters—no prejudice having to do with men or women, or age. If the animal characters live and act like human beings in the story, it makes it easier to bring the readers into the fantasy world."

How do you know when you’ve written something good?
"It is embarrassing to say, but sometimes if I am so pleased by my story, I even cry. I am so thrilled that I can even hear my heart beat. I just love my work so much, just like all mums love their kids."

What is the position of children’s literature in South Korea, according to you?
"It is blooming. There are especially many talented young writers/illustrators in Korea. Their works are very new and interesting."