My Favorite Korean Children’s Book

  • onNovember 21, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byDafna Zur

My interest in Korean children’s literature began in 2007, with the birth of my second child. I was struggling to come up with a topic for my doctoral dissertation. My older son was two and a half, and began to request that I read longer books to him at bedtime. Back then we were living in Canada, and the books I owned and borrowed from the library were the ones I had read as a child.

At that time I had been reading Korean literature for almost 10 years, but I suddenly came up with a new question: What do Korean children read? My question surprised me because I had never asked it before. But thanks to my children’s growing interest in books, my curiosity about the Korean children’s book industry grew. Having been raised in a house full of books, I asked some of my Korean friends and peers what they had read as children. I was surprised when many could not remember a favorite book, or when they mentioned biographies of Western characters, or Aesop’s and Anderson’s tales. Where, I wondered, where are all the original Korean stories?

It was this question that started me on a quest to discover the origins of Korean children’s literature. My research took me back to 1908 and the publication of Choi Namseon’s magazine Sonyeon, and drew me into an investigation of the children’s magazines published in the colonial period including Eorini, ByeollaraSinsonyeonSonyeon, and Sonyeonsegye, and others. In all of these magazines I found fascinating essays, wonderful short stories, amusing illustrations and moving poems, and it is these that I used to teach my courses on Korean children’s literature at Keimyung University and now currently at Stanford. My focus of the last few years, then, has been primarily on the prewar period.

Of all the works I have researched in the colonial period, no voice resonates in my mind as prominently as that of writer Hyeon Deok (1909-?). Hyeon Deok, who published short stories in the late colonial period, was very much forgotten until Won Jong-chan brought him back to light through his research, and through publications such as I’m Not Playing With You (1995). This book is a collection of roughly 40 vignettes and short stories published by the writer throughout the late colonial period. And it is one of the only children’s books that I have read so far that has moved me deeply.

Hyeon was a great writer for several reasons. First, in his works he introduces delightful yet complex characters. They are not wholly good or wholly evil, as was typical of children’s literature since its inception at the turn of the 20th century. They are children, but they are also capable of a range of human emotions including anger, jealousy, pettiness, as well as love and hope. They are not caricatures, but rich individuals in which any reader can find a little bit of him or herself.

Second, he does not teach; he shows. One of his deep concerns is with the social and economic inequality caused by the colonial capitalist system. But rather than use the children as mouthpieces, or deliver a didactic speech on the subject, Hyeon tells stories in which the wealthy child refuses to share his snacks; in which an impoverished boy wants a toy so badly that he sees the toy in every inanimate object around him; in which children mimic the market exchange by exchanging mounds of sand, a game that emphasizes the inherent paradoxes of capital exchange. Hyeon’s texts are not only emotionally rich but they are linguistically rewarding. His language is both lyrical and colloquial—the reader can hear the children’s voices, and laugh at the nuances of their speech—with repetitions and attention to details that reads poetically.

My research has so far kept me reading works mostly from the pre-1950s period in Korea. At a time when book markets are concerned with new talent and publishing houses depend on sales, not many would look to Korea’s early publishing history for compelling literature. However, Hyeon Deok’s works promise great rewards to those who make time to read him. I would like to suggest the reading of Hyeon Deok’s 40 vignettes and their inclusion in the classroom syllabus (a sample of one of his stories, “The Sky,” can be found in Azalea 2012 along with the original illustrations by artist Jung Hyun-woong). His readers will not be disappointed. 



* Dafna Zur is an assistant professor at Stanford University, where she teaches courses on Korean literature, popular culture, visual culture, and Asian children’s literature. She is currently working on a manuscript which examines the imagined reader in colonial period children's magazines. Her translations of Korean fiction have appeared in