Society for the History of Children and Youth

No. 9
Winter 2007

Illustrating the Unspeakable: The Korean War and Children’s Picture Books
Sarah Park
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Controversial, sensitive and even horrific events have been trespassing onto the pages of children’s picture books for several decades now, yet the trauma of the Korean War (1950-1953) is barely represented.  The Korean War ravaged a country already distraught by postcolonial liberation and chaos.  It was one of the most traumatic periods in modern Korean history and left indelible scars on the Korean consciousness.  However, in the United States the Korean War is also known as the "Forgotten War" or the "Unknown War" precisely because it is not remembered.  After the great victories of the United States in World War II, the failure to resolve the Korean conflict caused Americans to distance themselves from a war that they did not win.

In both American children's and adult literature, the Korean War remains relatively invisible compared to books about other conflicts.  The few published representations reconstruct memories and reflect how we as a society perceive a specific topic, who we allow to write about it, and how the form of the story affects the story itself.  Another reason for representing controversial events in children's books is so that future generations will learn not to repeat mistakes.  However, stories about controversial events in general and the Korean War in particular need not be merely didactic.  Although it may be difficult to write poetry after atrocity, it is not impossible to write beautifully about an event that impacted people immensely.

In this study, I look particularly at aesthetic aspects of four picture books and analyze how they represent through both illustration and text the atrocity suffered by Koreans from 1950 through 1953.  These stories do not collectively represent the extent of suffering.  They do not deal with the violence and harsh realities of the Korean War as forcefully as children's books about the Holocaust represent the scope of violence during that time period.  Yet this conclusion is not a condemnation; rather, I acknowledge that as stories about the Korean War are still few in number, this subgenre has much room – and need – for maturation.

The Art of War
The four picture books included in this study are Peacebound Trains (Haemi Balgassi, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet, 1996), My Freedom Trip: A Child’s Escape from North Korea (Frances Park and Ginger Park, illustrated by Debra Reid Jenkins, 1998), Halmoni’s Day (Edna Coe Bercaw, illustrated by Robert Hunt, 2000), and A Place to Grow (Soyung Pak, illustrated by Marcelino Truong, 2002).  Peacebound Trains frames a story about the Korean War within a contemporary narrative about a Korean American girl, Sumi, and her grandmother living in the United States. Similarly, Halmoni’s Day relates the relationship between Korean American Jennifer and her Halmoni (grandmother) and flashes back to the Korean War.  My Freedom Trip tells the journey of one young girl's escape from North Korea, and a father uses the allegory of seeds and healthy soil to tell his daughter about emigration and family roots in A Place to Grow.

Silences in children's picture books about the Korean War indicate what authors are willing to share with young readers and what they think young readers can handle.  That which is unspoken or left out is as important or revealing as that which is spoken or illustrated.  One way to represent silence is to create distance both overtly and subtly through time, place, and focus.  By shifting the reader’s attention away from the War itself and onto other subjects, the authors and illustrators marginalize the centrality of the War in the characters' lives and in the place of the story.  

Distancing through Time
One of the most effective ways to distance a reader from an event is by setting the story in the past.  Two authors, Balgassi and Bercaw, use this tactic in Peacebound Trains and Halmoni’s Day, respectively.  Both stories begin in the present, with granddaughters contemplating an inner conflict.  Their Korean grandmothers tell the Americanized granddaughters their family Korean War stories; Balgassi's grandmother tells a story about the beginning of the War, and Bercaw's grandmother tells a story about its aftermath.  Neither story focuses on the War itself.  After their grandmothers tell these pre- and post- war stories, the granddaughters understand themselves and feel that their conflicts are resolved, and the stories end happily.  In these cases, the Korean War stories are used to offset personal traumas faced by the Korean American granddaughters.  The personal trauma, not the war, is the focus of the story. 

Similarly, A Place to Grow looks backward and sets up chronological distance from the Korean War.  The story takes place in the present, with a daughter and father talking about war and displacement through the allegory of seeds and healthy growing conditions. 

Distancing through Place
Another way to set up distance between a reader and trauma is to displace the story from the site of trauma.  As mentioned previously, the protagonists of Peacebound Trains and Halmoni’s Day are Korean American girls.  Neither story indicates that they have been to Korea, so the Korean War is distant in both time and place.  The same is true for A Place to Grow; the text does not indicate that the daughter has memories of living outside of the United States, although the illustrations indicate that her parents brought her from a different country when she was still an infant. 

The placement of Korean War stories away from the war front is another interesting silence.  By distancing the reader from the war front, the author is forced to place the story elsewhere; most of the authors place the story in the United States with an emphasis on the family.  My Freedom Trip is an exception; the story begins at home in Korea but then takes the reader along Soo's dangerous journey through treacherous mountains and confrontations with armed soldiers.  My Freedom Trip is the closest the readers get to wartime danger because it is not embedded in a contemporary story though it is “many years ago” and allows the reader to join Soo in her dangerous journey south.

Distancing through Focus
The stories also distance readers from the reality of war by displacing the focus away from the Korean War.  For example, the Korean American author of A Place to Grow wrote the text based on her family's Korean War and immigration experiences; the illustrator provided the accompanying images based on his own family's Vietnam War history and subsequent immigration to England and France.  Rather than focusing specifically on the Korean War or the Vietnam War, editor Cheryl Klein purposely chose to create an "immigration story that transcends cultures" by pairing Korean American Pak with Vietnamese-English-French Truong (personal communication, 1 February 2005).  The endpapers ground realism into this transcendent story by including two-tone photographs of the author and her family’s migration route and the illustrator and his family's migration routes. 

In Peacebound Trains, Balgassi includes an army motif in her contemporary story about Sumi and her grandmother that parallels the army motif necessary in the Korean War story.  By paralleling Sumi's current situation with that of her grandmother's past, the author tries to make current audiences empathize so they can better understand issues of family separation.  That is, the story of family separation in the Korean War itself does not merit identification.  Readers need another way to "get into" the story. 

My Freedom Trip does not focus on the War itself, but on the time period immediately preceding the outbreak of the War, yet it still brings the reader closest to the experience.  The story is not told as a distant memory nor is it embedded within a contemporary story.  It is told in past tense by the third person, but the first page opens with a first person introduction by Soo, the protagonist: "Many years ago, when I was a little schoolgirl in Korea, soldiers invaded my country."  Soo then steps back into the third person voice, yet because of the introduction the reader feels like Soo is telling her own story, just stepping into an observer's role as with the reader. 

Illustrating the Unspeakable
Every picture book is a unique combination of illustration and text.  All four picture books included in this study are illustrated with paintings, but some are more sophisticated than others.   The illustrations in both Peacebound Trains and A Place to Grow are heavily textured, yet they differ in terms of style, composition, and narrative context.  The text in A Place to Grow is literally about seeds taking flight and finding their way to healthier soil, so although the heavy dabs of paint might otherwise weigh down the illustrations, Truong's sophisticated uses of color and content make some scenes appear lighter.  For example, in the second spread the protagonist and her father are in the garden; she peeps at her father from behind his coat.  He stands tall and dignified with a dark coat and hat; vertical lines run up his white turtleneck.  By contrast, she looks small yet protected next to him.  Trees and flowers reach for the sky; the way these tall, colorful plants frame some of the spreads gives a protected, warm feeling.  Also, the vertical height of the book works well with the theme of growth.  Plants and adults appear taller and stronger; the extra vertical space also leaves room for potential movement and upward growth. 

Scenes where the protagonist and her father interact exude warmth and life; bright green foliage and colorful flowers frame these pages and the father is always shown very close to his daughter, often touching because he is handing something to her or holding her hand.  In contrast, the few illustrations about "shadows," "gloomy shade," and "dark with no sun" are appropriately darker and include less color.  Yet even these more somber illustrations show people in movement; they look like the artist caught them in action.  Thus the illustrations complement the text; both the text and illustrations are about flight and movement. 

The illustrations and text of Peacebound Trains do not complement each other as well, mostly because the stilted photorealism detracts from the naturalness of the story.  The characters in the illustrations appear stiff, as though they are posing.  The illustrations make the textual story seem contrived and scripted.  This "posing" makes the reader disbelieve that the Korean War was something real; the War is a pretend game for which characters step in to play roles. 

These illustrations are also done in paint, but colors are not very effective because they often contradict the text, making the mismatch clumsy.  For example, Soentpiet tries to use color to evoke certain moods.  The sixteenth and seventeenth pages show a warm family portrait in bright, festive colors.  The pages immediately following show a group of soldiers wearing olive green, advancing from a residential background of bright, lime green towards the reader, but the army’s advancing towards the reader is startling.  In relation, the army is marching away from the town, not towards it.  Thus, even though the guns are pointed slightly off the page, the image makes the reader fear for himself or herself, not for the townspeople. 

The twentieth and twenty-first pages showing the coldness and emptiness of the family’s living quarters confuse the reader once again.  Although the illustrator rightly uses color to evoke certain moods, the stiffness and lack of sophistication and attention to detail in the illustrations make for a clumsy story.  Moreover, the family wears the same brightly colored hanboks (traditional Korean clothes) in both the pre-war and war scenes.  These hanboks are not meant for common usage, and it is strange that they are wearing the same hanboks in all the indoor illustrations despite the passage of time. 

One of the most effective illustrations is the portrait of the Harabujy (grandfather) on the last page.  Although it is certain that he was lost, the story never confirms his death in the text.  Yet the portrait of Harabujy on the last page looks like the kind of picture used in Korean funeral services.  However, this image would be more effective if it were in black and white instead of color.  Showing it in full color reminds the reader of how Harabujy looked when he left his family at the train station.  Making it black and white would have shown the permanency of separation and death.  Also, at the time, a full color photograph would have been virtually impossible in Korea.

Robert Hunt, the illustrator of Halmoni’s Day, uses the illustrations to emphasize the cultural and generational distance in the relationship between Jennifer and her Korean Halmoni.  By portraying Halmoni in a hanbok throughout the entire story, Hunt emphasizes how different Halmoni is from others, while Jennifer is an assimilated American who cannot understand basic Korean.  Thus even in the illustrations, Hunt emphasizes that the story is more about Jennifer and her grandmother than the grandmother and the Korean War. 

Many of the paintings look unfinished, as if Hunt did not finish drawing lines or adding details, such as wrinkles on Halmoni’s face.  In other illustrations, he adds too much detail; bamboo shoots in the background of some of the illustrations indicate orientalist fetishism and exoticism.  Also, in a few scenes the characters look as though they are posing in the same way that Soentpiet’s characters looked as though they were posing.  Again, "posing" makes it seem like the stories are not real; that they are just as constructed and fabricated as the pictures.

My Freedom Trip is an excellent example of textual and visual harmony in a picture book.  Frances Park and Ginger Park's said their mother felt that the picture book accurately depicted her flight south from North Korea (Speech, Smithsonian Institute, 2003), giving more credibility to the story.  On the first page, the protagonist Soo says, "Many years ago, when I was a little schoolgirl in Korea, soldiers invaded my country.  The soldiers drew a big line that divided Korea into two countries; North Korea and South Korea."  The authors do not identify the soldiers, thereby emphasizing the journey southward rather than the politics that caused that journey.  This beginning does show that this story is real, that it happened, and that it was not because Korea itself was primarily at fault; other unidentified soldiers invaded Korea and caused chaos. 

In the thirteenth scene, Soo and the guide are walking through the trees when they are suddenly accosted by a soldier.  In this particular illustration, though Soo is hiding behind Mr. Han, her face is still clearly visible.  She and the guide are standing on the left, facing the reader.  The soldier, in contrast, is facing Mr. Han and Soo, so his back is to the reader and his face is not visible.  The hidden is often scarier than the defined.  However, he is carrying a gun, with the black barrel clearly pointed directly at Soo.  Her black eyes are wide with fear, and she is staring straight at the barrel. 

The linear contrast of the black barrel against the beige and green background is striking.  The vertical, brown trees stand in contrast to the almost horizontal positioning of the black barrel.  The only other black colors in this scene are Mr. Han and Soo’s black eyes and hair.  These black also stand in contrast to the green and beige foliage, and the tan clothing worn by both men.  The only real color is Soo’s pink dress, which thus immediately captures the observer's eye. 

This illustration and text represent a pivotal moment in the story.  The shock of seeing a gun pointed at a little girl enhances the reader’s concern as s/he realizes that this scene is a powerful moment of potential change of direction for Soo.   If the soldier stops Soo, she will have to return to North Korea and forever be separated from her father, and a supposedly free and democratic way of life.  If the soldier lets her go, she will be forever separated from her mother, but at least she would not suffer under the oppressive dictatorship that took over North Korea.  In the end, he lets her go, and she is able to continue the last few steps of her freedom trip.

While children's literature about other conflicts such as slavery, the Holocaust, and the bombing of Hiroshima have matured to the point where representations of atrocity are acceptable – even deemed necessary – representations of the Korean War are still in the process of maturation.  Rather than fault the authors for writing stories, with creative license, that focus on events related to but not exclusively about the Korean War, I suggest that this body of literature is not yet willing to risk including more traumatic experiences and troubling a conflict that remains unresolved.  The irreconcilability of the Korean War, could, on the other hand, spur more interest in reading Korean War stories; thus it is imperative to understand how the textual and visual elements of stories convey cultural, factual and political information.

© Society for the History of Children and Youth, 2007

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