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Yumi Heo Image

Illustration by Yumi Heo from The Rabbit's Escape by Suzanne Crowder Han, Copyright 1995. Used by permission of Henry Holt and Company. Enlargement (Warning: Loading may take quite a while)
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist, sometimes a new talent whose work has begun to come into its own and sometimes an old favorite whose reliable contributions deserve notice. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Yumi Heo

Yumi Heo first came to the Bulletin's attention in 1994, with her art for Suzanne Crowder Han's The Rabbit's Judgment. To date she's illustrated seven books, three of which she herself wrote, ranging from realistic stories (Father's Rubber Shoes) to alphabetical geography (Cynthia Chin-Lee's A Is for Asia) to folktale adaptations.

Those folktales are where she shines most. The Rabbit's Judgment is a Korean variant of the Jataka tale about the tiger who wishes to eat the man who rescued him from a pit, and who seeks permission on the fairness of such an act from other animals. The Rabbit's Escape, another adaptation of a Korean tale by Suzanne Crowder Han, features what looks to be that same rabbit as he tricks his way out of the understandably unpleasant obligation of giving his liver as food for a dying king. In Verna Aardema's The Lonely Lioness and the Ostrich Chicks, an ostrich seeks the help of the other animals to retrieve her chicks from the lioness. In her own retelling of the Korean folktale The Green Frogs, two restless frog brothers make mischief until the death of their mother makes them regret their misbehaving ways.

It may or may not be coincidence that these tales all feature mostly non-human casts, as Heo's animals seem to be her best characters. Her tiger, in The Rabbit's Judgment, is sausage-bodied yet sharp-featured, with dark shadowed eyes and spiky collage stripes that look more menacing than the clawed feet. The rabbit whose breakaway stardom really comes in The Rabbit's Escape is pale and pearshaped, with a set of overlong antennae-like ears and flat-expressioned black eyes that take their tone--sometimes creepy, sometimes comic, sometimes on the edge between--from their surrounding features; his counterpart, the turtle, floats through the pages like a decorative half of a planet, his tiny head and feet seemingly just going along for the ride. The Lonely Lioness is the tawniest lion in recent memory, her vast furry expanse contrasting ludicrously with the stringy ostriches. The frog brothers of The Green Frogs are overall-clad amphibians shooting through the pages.

These aren't the only animals in the pages, however, and it's not just Heo's Lane-Smith-esque skewed draftsmanship, which gives the figures deliberately naïve lines, that makes them so contemporary and high-energy. The cast in Heo's art extends beyond the story characters to teeming myriad beings floating in the background, which Betsy Hearne called "amoeba soup" and which do in fact have a distinctly protoplasmic look, as if a coverglass had descended on a slide in the middle of lively microscopic action. There are beetles, fish (some of them being ridden by people), oxen, vegetation--plus bubbles and drips and highlights, all undulating across the page in oil and pencil (with the occasional collage addition). Add to this some intriguing perspectives, as when we look down on the dying monarch and his advisers who are carefully arrayed about him, flattened into a full-front border despite the fact that they're standing, and you've got a different plane of being.

The result is a world of electric life, where those in the background could come forth with their own folktale saga at any moment, and animal speech seems plausible and necessary. It's all the more satisfying that they're not quite of our world, that they're familiar yet strange and gliding through a realm where everything happens at once, if you can only just see it. And with Heo, we nearly can.

--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor

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This page was last updated on November 1, 1997.