Author! Author! Teen has write stuffIt's a modern fairy tale. Once upon a time on a river there lived a sad-faced, elderly boatman. The old man's worn body fascinated and saddened one of his passengers, a young boy. Looking into the plaintive eyes of the boatman, the boy was drawn to those eyes, and found himself swimming in a river of dead souls with others whose lives had been filled with suffering. After hours of floating down the river, the boy, with the other souls, finally reaches a sea of happiness and freedom.
A Seoul high school student, Lee Jun-haeng, 18, not only wrote this philosophical tale, "As the River Flows," and illustrated it, he also wrote it in English and Korean. The 44-page book appeared late last month.
The kid's no one-shot wonder. A few days before "As the River Flows" came out, Mr. Lee published "Apple Hill, Happy Town," another children's book, also with 44 pages and also featuring his illustrations. Both books were published by the Hangaram press in Seoul.
Mr. Lee's books have generated a fair amount of local attention, largely because of their dual languages, and because they were created by a high schooler who has spent only a little time abroad.
Seated in his Bangi-dong bedroom, filled with his artwork, Mr. Lee says with a shy smile that he's not a genius with some kind of special linguistic talent. He spent about nine months in California with his family when he was 10. However, he says it did not help much in learning English. He does go to Daewon Foreign Language High School, a prestigious private school famed for its high rate of matriculation into the top-three prestigious universities in Korea. But his concentration there isn't English, it's Chinese. He was at the very bottom of his class last year, with a standardized English test score much lower than average.
An 18-year-old's life in Korea usually does not allow time for writing and illustrating stories; students are required to sink all energy into getting into university. Mr. Lee, however, frowns at that. "I know I should be studying, but I don't like the idea of being consumed by doing what I don't like," he says. The stiff competition among his fellow students inspired him to write "Apple Hill, Happy Town," where all the children in a country town fight over one fat apple on a tree. The story has a happy ending though, with the children decide to share the apple altogether.
The Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test, the major criterion to getting into a university here, is coming in November, but he remains unconcerned. He says he has made up his mind to go to an American university next year, and plans to skip this year's local test.
His father, Lee Jae-shin, is a dentist in Cheongdam-dong and his biggest supporter, while his mother is a radiologist at a downtown hospital. The younger Lee says his father helped him a lot to write his first story, a school assignment when he was in California. Since then, the high schooler has been influenced by Somerset Maugham's "Moon and Sixpence" and "Native Speaker," by the Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee. He also likes matching his artwork with his stories. His room is full of paintings from his childhood, done in a variety of styles.
His books are available in Seoul's Kyobo Book Center and the COEX Mall. Both are priced at 5,000 won ($4). He expresses some regret that neither book has made a Korean best-seller list, but says that does not matter. "I think it's still worthwhile to me that big possibilities lie ahead."
More in Features
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it
The traveling grandma who's 'alive and kicking it'