Children’s author challenges young readers

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Children’s author challenges young readers

Kim Ryo-ryeong is part of a new generation of children’s novelists that often juggles contemporary literary ideas with the conventions of the genre, offering young readers insight into the world around them.
It’s a tough task for serious writers like Kim. She prefers to use rich symbolism and more ambiguous and open endings in her stories.
Her latest book, “There is a Seahorse Living in My Heart,” blends together a subtle mix of hope and hopelessness in a tale about Han-eul, a teenager adopted by a liberal middle-class family when she was less than three months old.
The narrative begins with a classic mother-daughter tussle. Han-eul’s mother is a shrink for troubled youths and she seems confident about her family in public, but in private she questions whether or not her daughter regards her as her “real” mother.
Kim, who won the top award this year for children’s literature given out by Munhak Dongnae, a renowned publisher of Korean literature, said writing the story was hard, especially when dealing with perceptions of reality.
“In this case, it was hard to show how Han-eul could be reconciled with her mother without having to make mother and daughter look too happy or too hopeless,” she said.
In many ways, the book is an unconventional contribution to children’s literature. The story is not self-explanatory. Instead, there is an emotional void hidden between the lines, and the writer makes extensive use of flashback and fragmented imagery, instead of giving a direct and clear picture of the narrative.
For example, Han-eul hints at her feelings of helplessness. “There must be a sadness of parting left in my memory though that happened even before I could remember. It’s the kind of sadness where you don’t really know how to feel sad. It’s the sadness that makes you more angry and lost as you think about it more.”
Kim says there’s been a generation change in the way children’s books are written. “But the tone of writing these days is not as didactic as before,” she said. “Instead, I’m more interested in raising questions. But a writer has to take care because children’s literature should also paint vivid pictures.”
Kim’s writing is vivid enough. She uses a complex symbol of a sea-horse in her story. It’s not only a visually rich idea, it is also a physical and emotional reminder of love and pain. The sea horse is used to refer to the scar that Han-eul receives after heart surgery and to her attachment to her adopted father, a dentist to whom the narrator easily connects. A male seahorse supposedly carries the mother’s eggs in his pouch before they hatch.
“I feel that when you write a story, you have to be above the story, and know how you are going to position each character,” Kim says. “It really comes down to an issue of perspective, whether you can predict how your characters are going to look and react to certain situations.”


By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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