By Aram Kim
When I was a little kid growing up in South Korea, I thought I would be an artist who writes stories and draws pictures. The very first book I made was in my first-grade notebook. I titled it A Mischievous Adventurer, wrote a story, and drew pictures. In a self-portrait I made as a second grader, I was sitting in front of a canvas, wearing a beret, holding a palette and a brush. According to a photo of myself I captioned and laminated when I was a sixth grader, my dream was to become a world-famous author!
So what happened to those dreams? When I entered middle school, I put them behind me. Though my parents were supportive of my artistic dreams and no one told me I couldn’t be a writer or an artist, I simply gave up. It may have been societal pressure in general. The art class was considered to be “extracurricular,” and reading for fun didn’t sound responsible when there was so much reading to do to prepare for the standardized exams. Or it may have been the teacher who scolded me for reading comic books during recess. An exemplary student would be reviewing the lessons instead! I drew less and less, certainly didn’t read comic books at school, and wrote very little. Once I entered high school, I followed the expected route in South Korea of studying for more standardized exams and applying to colleges that would supposedly earn me societal respect.
Even when I wasn’t drawing or writing for many years, I always read. Reading was my comfort. Libraries were my favorite places. I was happy with the books. Yet, I never thought that I would be making books. A childhood dream must be idealistic, right? After finishing college in South Korea, and finally accepting that I couldn’t keep pretending that I fit in, I made a life-changing decision to come to New York City to pursue my dream of becoming an illustrator.
During that first week in NYC, I walked around exploring. I saw a bookstore and entered. I needed comfort after landing in the big, seemingly cold city with a very uncertain future in front of me. I stopped at the Children’s Books section and started flipping through the books. I was surprised by how every book I opened fascinated me. The story! The art! Then I picked up In the Night Kitchen. I didn’t know who Maurice Sendak was then. What I knew was that the book was a masterpiece. I felt like I’d found a door to a whole new world. The story was gripping, the illustrations were enticing, and the design of everything was seamless. To me, it was a perfect form of art—the harmonious combination of story, illustration, and design, and it was affordable for anyone. Little did I know that I would eventually enter the children’s books industry.
Even after moving to NYC, it took me many years of exploring and detouring to realize that what I really wanted to do was to make books. When I finally understood it, though, it felt so right that I never needed to look elsewhere. I started working at a publishing house designing books during the day and working on my picture books from home at night.
I always knew that creating books would bring me joy, but the joy of connecting with readers was something I didn’t expect. I started learning that when my second book No Kimchi for Me! came out. I was surprised by all the excitement and love I received from readers. Caregivers and teachers sent me photos and videos of the children reading the book or kimchi pancakes they made together. Many sent messages telling me their own kimchi stories. One reader sent a photo of their family meal delightedly pointing out how similar it looked to the one in the book. Listening to how readers connected with my story was mind-blowing. It also made me realize that we all had been so thirsty to see more diverse books that reflected the world we were living in.
During that time, one parent sent me a message to ask if I could make a book about Seollal, a Korean term for Lunar New Year’s Day. She said that there weren’t enough books about it and she would love to have fun picture books her family could use when they go to the child’s school to share the culture of Seollal. At that time, I thought about it and then went on to write and illustrate other stories for the next few years. But I always remembered that reader’s wish for a Seollal story. During the first year of the pandemic, I finally wrote a story about Seollal. That story became Tomorrow Is New Year’s Day. There were many pauses, many breaks, and many people who helped along the way, but it really started with a reader’s wish to see a certain book and my wish to fulfill that desire.
Books always give me comfort whether I am reading them or making them. It means a lot to me that I became the artist the little-kid-me wanted to become, to write stories and draw pictures. It means even more to me that my books give comfort to someone in the world and might even inspire little kids to tell their stories. A book is a comfort. A book is also a wish. What are you wishing for in a book?
Tomorrow Is New Year’s Day by Aram Kim is available now wherever books are sold.
Aram Kim is a picture book author, illustrator, and designer. She enjoys working with other creators during the day helping to bring their stories to the world. In the evenings, she works on her own picture books with Korean flair. She wrote and illustrated No Kimchi for Me, Let’s Go to Taekwondo, Sunday Funday in Koreatown, and more. She was born in Ohio, raised in South Korea, and now lives in Queens, NY, happily surrounded by diverse food, culture, and books.