Yumi Heo, Dearest Friend, Kindest Soul

By Charise Harper and Lenore Look

With heavy hearts we share the news that our dearest friend and beloved colleague,Yumi Heo, mother to Auden and Sara Jane, wife to Steven Dana, daughter and granddaughter, sister to Yun and Yunsoo, award-winning author and illustrator, whose picture books brought to colorful life Korean and Scottish folktales, as well as stories of contemporary Asian and Asian-American families, passed away on November 5, 2016, in White Plains, NY, after a courageous battle with cancer. She was 51.

Charise: I remember our first hello. I don’t always remember hellos, but ours was important. It was the first time I thought, “I’m going to like it here.” I was new to New York and eager to find like-minded creative friends. It wasn’t easy, I was illustrating a book and looking after two small children – free time was scarce. One day while walking in Rye, New York, something in a store window caught my eye. As I got closer, I realized the entire display was made up of books by Yumi Heo – one of my favorite illustrators. I’m not generally brave, but I summoned up the courage, marched into the store and asked, “Why do you have so many of Yumi Heo’s books in the window?” The man behind the counter said, “Yumi Heo is my wife.” We talked for a while, and I told him I made books too. Suddenly he picked up the phone. “I’m going to call Yumi and tell her you’re here.” Now I was worried, there was no way Yumi Heo was going to know who I was. Well, she did and after that first hello, we became friends. I am grateful for that day. Grateful that my family got to know Yumi and Steven and their children. We have shared many holidays and Thanksgivings together. We have supported each other’s creative adventures and shared dreams for the future. Yumi always inspired me. She was fearless in her art, incredibly creative, sweet, gentle, loyal, determined and funny, and always- all these things with a smile. My children adored her. I feel lucky to have known her. It’s not easy to say good-bye.

Lenore: Yumi illustrated three of my picture books, which garnered many starred reviews and awards, including two Charlotte Zolotow Honor Awards and ALA Notable Books. But more importantly, she became one of my dearest, sweetest friends. She was very good at friendship maintenance, and she’d often pick up the phone just to ask how I was doing. And up until a year ago, we were meeting every few months at the ice rink in Hackensack, NJ, where Sara Jane was training, to chat and plan new books together. We first met through my editor, Anne Schwartz, who paired us together for HENRY’S FIRST-MOON BIRTHDAY and UNCLE PETER’S AMAZING CHINESE WEDDING. After that, we did POLKA-DOT PENGUIN POTTERY, which is autobiographical – everything that happens in that book actually happened during the day I spent in her pottery studio, where she had invited me to “try something new” to help dispel my writer’s block. It worked! Our day together became our next book. Charise was there too – and appears as a store, “Charise’s Cookie Caper” – and her children became characters – Ivy and Luther (their real names). Yumi is herself in the work – and she really is like that – happy, fun, playing wonderful music, and busy, busy – doing a thousand things at once, helping everyone all the time. She also loved introducing her friends to each other – I think she loved seeing people she enjoyed, enjoy one another.

The gang, the day Yumi introduced me to Charise Harper, author and illustrator of the popular FASHION KITTY series, in 2007. img_0034L-R: Charise Harper, Yumi Heo, Sara Jane, Auden.

Born in the rural village of Kang Wang Do, Wangju, Korea, Yumi first came to the United States in 1989, as a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. There she met Steven Dana, a fellow student, who became her husband.

“As a child,” Steven said, “her mother had a rule for her.  Every family outing or picnic that the family went on, Yumi had to bring crayons and paper with her.”

Using collage, pencil and oil, Yumi’s work is characterized by its strong use of color and cut-outs, turning text into frantic activity that sings with a child’s sense of wonder and joie de vivre. Insects, bizarre little creatures, strangely shaped inanimate objects, random pencil marks, scribbles, patterns, and other-worldly flowers often float dream-like in the background of the main action, creating a narration of their own. Publishers Weekly has praised her “Matisse-like art” as a combination of the Cheshire cat, Lane Smith, Maira Kalman, “with a touch of Marc Chagall.” Her signature style was offbeat, playful and childlike, as though rendered by the child or animal character within the book, with “details that accentuate . . . emotions, and . . . traditions.”

“Yumi was one of the gentlest, most dedicated and creative people I’ve had the joy to work with,” says Anne Schwartz, at Schwartz and Wade Books. “Her art was quirky; it was playful; it was exciting; it was deeply original. Her vision was unlike anyone else’s, and working with her was inspiring for me. I have a hard time believing that she is gone; I will really miss her.”

Yumi illustrated SO SAY THE LITTLE MONKEYS, by Nancy Van Laan, SMILE, LILY, by Candace Fleming, and THE LONELY LIONESS AND THE OSTRICH CHICKS, by Verna Aardema, a NY Times Best Illustrated book, with Schwartz.

The happy, frenetic activity of her pages can be used to describe the pace at which she worked, producing 35 books over a 22-year career that began with the publication of THE RABBIT’S JUDGMENT, written by Suzanne Crowder Han in 1994, to her final book, SOMETIMES I AM BOMBALOO, written by Rachel Vail, released in May 2016, when Yumi had already devoted herself full-time, to fighting the relapse of her cancer. Additionally, she had also created public art for the Queens #7 NYC subway line, and short animations for Nick Jr. In 2005, she founded her pottery studio, Polka-dot Penguin Pottery in Rye, NY, which became a creative outlet for children throughout Westchester County and Connecticut.

Yumi’s own exuberant personality was reflected in her sunny, dining room studio, filled with books and quirky little stuffed animals that she had made by hand. It felt like a sacred place of wild invention and even wilder dreams, especially in the windowless little corner where she sat at her drafting table. This is the photo I took of her in her studio in 2008, when I saw it for the first time, and that’s where she’ll always be for me. img_0287

We are devastated by the loss of our beautiful and cherished friend. There is no tribute adequate enough for a life that brought as much kindness and joy to others as hers did. But we offer two haikus, Charise’s first, followed by mine:

 

white page perfect line

worn, wispy, soft, bold, fresh

eye to heart to soul

 

Yumi, is that you?

Tea wisps, frog shoes, tiger pipes

Page after page, love.

 

A private family service will be held in Korea.

Steven has set up a Yumi Heo Memorial Fund to help their family through this difficult time. Any amount is deeply appreciated. If you would like to make a donation, please go to: gofundme.com/krlds

 

 

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Dear Damien

I received this letter recently from a young reader named Damien.IMG_4525

Here is my reply:

Dear Damien,

Thank you for your letter. It’s been sitting on my writing desk, where I’ve read it over and over. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond, but I really needed to think about my answer to the very important question that you ask at the end of your letter. And I hope you don’t mind my answering you here, on my blog, because my answer is turning out longer than I expected, and will not fit on my stationary.

I had a terrible time making friends, too, when I was your age. If someone had said that they would play with me only if I traded something with them, I surely would have traded my most prized possession — a chicken egg that I had snatched from a 4H Fair exhibit, that was about to hatch any day because I was keeping it “incubated” in my socks drawer. I loved that egg like a mother hen!

In many cultures around the world, people are expected to exchange gifts when meeting. In fact, it would be considered rude not to do so. Gifts say you thought about them, and that you’re happy to see them.

But what if they don’t trade back with you? I think that this is the question you are asking. Should you “trade something,” just so they will play with you? In other words, everyone else gets to play for “free,” but you have to “pay” to play.

This is not trading. This is bullying. Do not trade with a bully. They don’t really want the thing you are giving them. They only want to control you – to make you feel a certain way, or to do something you don’t really want to do.

If you are being bullied, the best thing to do is to surprise them with something they didn’t ask for. Something really fantastic! A snake in a lunch bag is a good start. Be sure to include a note around the snake’s neck that says it’s from you. If that doesn’t turn your bully into your BFF, try a bigger surprise. Find a large watermelon. Cut it in half. Scoop out the insides and make helmets with the rind. Be sure to cut peep holes and a nose notch. Wear one, carry the other to an upstairs window or up into tree, and wait. When the bully is one step away from being straight underneath you, drop the helmet. It should slip perfectly on their head as they pass. What a great surprise! Now you’re instant BFFs, ready for a sword fight with the proper headgear!

But if your bully is particularly resistant, like a bad strain of bacteria that just won’t become your friend, there is just one more thing you can try. It’s really not a wonderful idea. In fact, you could get SO busted for it. But if you choose to do it, don’t say you heard it from me, and definitely, under no circumstances, brag about it. Here it is:

Damien’s No-fail, No-mess, Anti-bullying Treatment:

  1. Get a box. It should be large enough to fit your bully inside with a BSK (Bully Survival Kit).
  2. Put stuff in the BSK: sandwiches, water, sunscreen, a couple of books. In the box, put pillow and blanket.
  3. Climb in.
  4. Wait.
  5. When your bully sees that you’re enjoying a book in your new boat and sailing off to far-off lands without him, he will bully you again.
  6. He will say something like, “that’s my boat, if you want to play with me.”
  7. You will say, “Oh dear, it is!”
  8. His name, indeed, is painted on the outside of the boat with an address in a foreign language neither of you can read.
  9. You climb out.
  10. He climbs in.
  11. When he falls asleep reading, close and tape box.
  12. Call 1.800.GoFedEx.
  13. FedEx arrives quickly and can move most things without dropping.
  14. BBBFF (Bye-Bye Bully Flown Forever)!

I hope this helps.

As for your other questions, I’ll send you my answers on stationary.

Thank you again for writing to me, and for your great drawing of Alvin. I love it!!! I’m attaching it below for all to see and enjoy. Keep reading, writing, drawing and turning bullies into your BFFs, or BBBFFs.

Your friend,

LenoreIMG_4523

 

 

 

Debbie Alvarez, Human Being Extraordinaire

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My good friend, Debbie Alvarez, Mother to Declan, Wife to Doug, Sister to Rachel, Daughter and Granddaughter, Avocate of children’s authors and illustrators, Fierce Reader of books, Enlightened Keeper of Literature, Adventurous Traveller, Inspiring Leader, Brave Warrior, Human Being Extraordinaire, passed away this week.

I am heartbroken.

The above photo shows Debbie, just minutes after we first met, when she welcomed me to the Bradbury School library in Hong Kong, for Author’s Day in 2012.

The next year, she and her family joined me at Shaolin Temple in China for a week of Kung fu lessons.

Earlier this year, she invited me to stay with her while I was on book tour in Hong Kong.

We had many heart-to-heart talks, the kind you have with a BFF you grew up with. Here we are during our final dinner together, with another wonderful librarian friend that she introduced me to, Tanja Galetti, in the middle. (Photo will be added at a later time.)

We kept in touch through email and by following one another’s blogs and social media posts.

We said we would make plans to have adventures together in the U.S. after they moved back to Oregon.

I promised that I would come see her at Christmas, when I would be visiting my mom in Seattle.

We settled on December 26. In her last email to me, on 12/15/15, she wrote, “So excited about you coming…Many hugs, much love, Debbie.”

The next day, she posted an alarming update on her blog, Life’s Journey, Interrupted, in which she has documented her battle with cancer. For more than two years, she gave readers an unflinching look at what it’s like to fight for her life. The harder the blow, the more courageous she became. She faced  the storm and hollered so fiercely that it scared the bejesus out of her tumors. But she never became a full-time patient. She charged full-speed ahead as a mom, librarian, reading advocate, writer, adventurer, and a nurturer of enduring friendships. It was an uncommon bravery, the likes of which I have never seen. I believed in a miracle for her — that she would triumph. She had to. Her Son With the Most Tender Heart will have a mother who beat the odds to see him marry and to hold his children, just because she said so. But now, she said she  might have pneumonia.

Pneumonia. It’s not a blow, like chemotherapy. Or a feeding tube. Or even a new tumor. It is Death’s threshold itself. Anyone who’s had it knows. I’ve stared into the airless abyss myself, as a child with asthma. It fills your lungs with liquid, just like that.

The next thing I knew, she was gone.

But she was SO alive, that even today, she managed to post to her blog, The Styling Librarian, which I’ve re-blogged here.

I am sad beyond words. I will not be saying hello to her again, but I will be traveling to Portland after Christmas, to say goodbye.

To paraphrase Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good librarian. Debbie was both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Migrant School Visit

Dear Reader,

My life took a turn for the crazy in October, and I’ve been having one #AlvinHoAdventure after another! In fact, #AlvinHoAdventure is now on Instagram and Twitter so that you, too, can have a home for all your scary adventures, or read about mine😉 !

Anyway, one thing lead to another, and by early November I was heading to my second Asia book tour this year!  This time I was invited to speak at the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair in Shanghai and to help launch the Chinese version of my Alvin Ho books. You can see my photos of the book fair and my scary #AlvinHoAdventure by clicking on the Instagram icon on the right.

But here, I want to tell you about my final official appearance of the tour, because it was one of the highlights of my trip: a visit to a migrant school on November 18. What is a migrant school? Does it move? Does it go from place to place looking for students?  Here I am arriving at the school: IMG_3574The school is the white and green building in the back with the sign above my head that reads, from left to right, jiluolanxuexiao, which taken literally, says, “Purple Net Catching Birds Gracefully Elementary School. Or, the first three characters could be someone’s name for which the elementary school is named. I can’t tell which. The people along the road are buying and selling vegetables.

Here we are stepping into the first courtyard of the school. IMG_3575On the left is Selina Shen, the sub-rights agent from my Chinese publishing house, and also my invaluable translator. With her is our host, Rick, a businessman and leading reading advocate in China.

And here is the class inside, waiting for me.IMG_3577They are fifth-graders. They are all enthusiastic readers (see the well-worn books on their desks), and they love to practice their English. I was very impressed by their good manners and quick questions. One boy, sitting closest to the front door, immediately grabbed one of the Alvin Ho books that my publisher had brought, and started reading it to the class. It was the first time I’d heard Alvin in Chinese. It was fantastic!

Then I began my author talk in fluent, confident, speaking-like-a-native Mandarin. Here’s proof that I did so!IMG_3578TGFS! Thank God For Selina! because I used up my entire Chinese vocabulary in 10 minutes flat. Okay, maybe it was seven. And okay, maybe I have a funny little accent that makes people tilt their heads as if to shake my words out of their ears so that they can figure out which characters I was using, or meant to use. And sometimes, they even have to rearrange my words until they make sense. But that doesn’t keep me from trying! I LOVE speaking Mandarin. It makes me feel like a badass in a kung fu movie!

Look, they’re even gasping at my jokes!IMG_3579I digress.

The school was opened for migrant children. All the students here have followed their parents from their homes in the countryside to Shanghai to look for work. Though the parents may obtain permits to work in the city, mostly as laborers, factory workers and janitors, their children are barred from attending the city schools. And city children do not attend migrant schools. There are more than a hundred migrant schools set up, mostly by parents pooling their resources and hiring a few teachers, in poor neighborhoods on the edges of Shanghai. This school was founded by a wealthy businessman who located it close to a factory where many of the parents work. It is a private school, where no one pays tuition, and some of the teachers work for free.

This is their library.IMG_3595There is a computer and projector in the fifth-grade classroom, but resources are very limited.

This is their playground/track/basketball court/soccer field/all-in-one. It was donated by the basketball player, Yao Ming. IMG_3596As you can see, the asphalt is crumbling, but the students run right over it anyway. This area was packed with gym classes after I took the photo.

Though their resources were limited, their hospitality was not. Rick had treated me and Selina to a yummy lunch beforehand. At the school, the teachers prepared hot mugs of tea for us and shared this very interesting fruit: IMG_3576It looked like a HUGE grapefruit, the size of a melon!

After my presentation, the class filed into the courtyard to take a photo with me. Here they are lining up like dominoes, the class leader is at the front, facing his classmates, and using his arm as a plum line to straighten the queue:IMG_3582IMG_3583IMG_3586IMG_3594Success! The kids in the center of the back row are holding the new Alvin Ho books.

See the elevated track behind us? It’s the subway line that’s being extended into this area. The school is scheduled to be demolished next year to make way for the new line. No one at the school is aware of it yet, and Rick asked me not to mention it to the students or teachers. But since WordPress and Google are blocked n China, I will note it here, because it’s an important piece of the migrant family story.

This is what I learned from Rick, through Selina’s translation:

Will their wealthy benefactor build them a new school? Not likely.

Where will they go? Back to their villages to live with grandparents and to attend village schools. Before migrant schools were established, it was typical for migrant parents and their children to be separated for long periods. For the past 30 years or so, migrant, and often makeshift, schools have allow families to stay together, but only while the children are young because all of them are elementary schools.  When migrant children are older, they must return to their rural villages for their education, and for the gaokao, the university entrance exam that causes epic anxiety for every child and parent in China. [According to an online article in The Economist, Shanghai had 170,000 students enrolled in high school in 2010, but there were 570,000 migrant children aged 15-19 living in the city, unable to attend those schools.]

How well do they do on the gaokao in the village schools? If they’re good students, they can stand out among their peers in the rural areas, where there’s less competition.

How many of them actually make it into the top universities in China? None.

How many attend the lower-tier schools? None.

What are their job prospects? The same as their parents. Labor, construction, factory work, street sweeper, janitor.

I told Rick that my parents were also from the rural countryside in China. I am one of those kids. But my parents migrated to Seattle, instead of to Guangzhou, the closest metropolis to their villages. I was allowed to attend the city schools in Seattle. My host nodded and said that there’s a name for people like me (I’ll insert it here when I find it), someone who came from poverty, and found the golden ticket in education. They all want to be that, he said, but they have to find the golden ticket first.

This was the scene outside the school when I left: IMG_3598IMG_3600IMG_3599I never would have had a panda’s chance in hell.

 

Now on Instagram!

Check out my un-bloogie globby — more pics, less text! Click on the photo icon in the right-hand column, it will take you to my Instagram account. My handle is lenore_look, in case the link doesn’t work.

Follow me on Instagram for another chance to win a signed copy of the newest Alvin Ho book (see below). Winners will be announced soon!

Enter to Win Alvin Ho 6!

Look what just arrived from my publisher, Penguin Random House: IMG_2220Alvin Ho Allergic to the Great Wall is now out in paperback! Woohoo!

Enter to win a signed copy by hitting reply below with your email address. Re-tweet this post and/or post a link to it on your FB page for two extra chances to win!  I will part with five, yes, FIVE (5) of my precious author copies in a random drawing.

Read about Alvin’s scary and scarier adventures in China for summer reading. It’s still not too late!

xxoo