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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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.