...Ita is afraid of a lot of things... But most of all she is afraid of water.
Written by Polly Ho-Yen
Published by Knights Of Media
For ages 5+
Thank you so much for joining me today for the official blog tour for this superb early reader illustrated chapter book. I loved the first collaboration between Polly Ho-Yen and Sojung Kim-McCarthy 'The Boy Who Grew a Tree' (Knights Of, 2022) and so responded to the PR email within seconds to support the publication of their second book together 'The Girl Who Became a Fish' (Knights Of, 2023).
Below you will find my review of the book, followed by an exclusive Q&A with the incredibly talented award-winning illustrator, Sojung Kim-McCarthy. I was so thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview her due to the exquisite nature of her Children's illustrations, and wanting to learn more about her thoughts on the representation of East & South-East Asian characters in Children's literature, and her own journey having spent her childhood in Korea and now living in the UK. Sojung has also very kindly provided me with some of her in-progress 'The Girl Who Became a Fish' illustrations that were part of her pre-publication creative process.
Change is hard for anyone, but if you’re just a youngster, the baby of the family, you’ve only ever known one home your whole life, and you’ve got to start a brand new school… woah, it’s a lot! The reason Ita’s family have moved is because her dad’s mother is now too elderly to care for herself, so they’ve relocated so Dad can go in to see her every day. Dad is a busy chef and going to care for Grandma is all-consuming, he’s exhausted and promises of spending time with children aren’t always kept.
How is this linked to the title of the book you might ask? Well having read the book and absolutely loved it for the text and the illustrations equally, I’m spewing up all the stresses that little Ita is feeling from the start of the story, as the reader only picks up on this mountain of stuff going on as the story progresses. Now to add in something really big… Ita has a phobia of water, the kind of fear that prevents Ita from jumping in the swimming pool for some weekend fun with her big brothers; having a shower is a no-no, and she feels a constant sense of insecurity. Phew, that’s a lot for such a little one.
Walking home from school one afternoon, the route is still a bit unfamiliar, and getting a little lost, Ita comes across a stream. It’s such a hot day and the water looks so cool. Ita puts her hands into the water. Something beautiful and magical happens to them… her skin changes to sparkling scales. Wow! She starts to think differently about water, if this stream water didn’t hurt her then perhaps the rain won’t harm her, perhaps nothing bad will happen when she puts her hands under the water coming out of the taps. She has these sweet little revelations again and again.
When Ita starts to feel more confident as each day goes by due to her new fishy magic powers, she becomes empowered to try a swimming lesson, to finally connect with Faisal and Olive in her new class who she thinks seem so nice. What’s even more amazing is the positive effect she has on improving her dad’s wellbeing, soothing his worries and encouraging him to share his problems and let the family pull together to all help with Grandma. This is a loving family, a supportive family.
Everything in this story is incredibly relatable both for children and adults. I’m thrilled that Polly and Sojung joined together once more after the success of their first co-creation, ‘The Boy Who Grew a Tree’. I really hope that their new collaboration ‘The Girl Who Became a Fish’ is a sign that there are going to be more early reader chapter books in the pipeline. This kind of exceptional quality East & South-East Asian representation in Children’s books is sorely needed in libraries and bookshops. The price point of this book is £5.99 RRP, which if the publisher, Knights Of Media, can keep the costs down at this level, should mean that schools, libraries, parents and carers feel this is affordable literature for the children in their care, when most books for children these days are around the £7.99+ RRP mark. N.B. fans of wild swimming will love 'The Girl Who Became a Fish'!!
Q&A with Sojung Kim-McCarthy
Nicci: Thank you for talking to me today, It's so lovely to e-meet you, Sojung! You were bought up in Korea and then later studied and moved to the UK. What was your experience of reading for pleasure when you were growing up?
Sojung: I was one of those kids who would read anything that’s in front of them. I devoured the books in the book snug in my classroom as well as the school library. In Korea, there are a lot of comics throughout different themes & genres including educational/informative ones & I loved reading them. From when I was around 10 years old, my dream was to become a comic artist - and I think the influence still shows in my work, in the way I draw facial expressions and postures.
Nicci: Tell us about your journey to becoming an award-winning illustrator?
Sojung: Making art for and with children was always the main thing for me. While I was studying Visual Communication in South Korea, I interned in design and animation studios as well as a school book publisher and learned the basics of making books and characters for children. After graduation, I worked as an art director for a children's monthly magazine before coming to the UK to get my master’s degree in Illustration. I also worked on projects developing children’s art & design education programs for South Korean government. It felt like my life was all over the place at times, but I think it all came together in the end!
Nicci: Who are your favourite illustrators?
Sojung: Have you got all day? Heena Baek, Sydney Smith, Beatrice Alemagna, Sano Yoko, Matthew Forsythe, Armin Greder, Lorenzo Mattotti, Sang Miao, Laura Carlin, Isabelle Arsenault, Julia Sarda, I could go on…!
Nicci: How would you describe your artistic style?
Sojung: I don’t have one distinct style & tend to make images in the style that I think suits each story or project. It might be because of my experience of designing a children’s magazine as well as educational materials where I had to think as a director rather than an artist. I had to make decisions as to what kind of photos or illustrations would go best with texts, and sometimes had to produce those images myself. I still often find myself wondering what the project needs rather than what I want to do. But of course, when an art director picks a certain style from my portfolio, I try and stick to it.
Nicci: Do you have a favourite medium to work with? Digital, paint, etc?
Sojung: For commissioned work like this, I tend to create my illustrations all digitally because it’s a lot faster to draw and easier to make changes. But I trained traditionally and enjoy getting my hands dirty, so I have fun using traditional materials for personal projects.
Nicci: Do you feel children with East & South-East Asian heritage today are accurately or sufficiently represented in UK Children’s publishing?
Sojung: Personally, I don’t see enough ESEA representation in UK children’s publishing. It feels like we get a lot of East Asian stories second-hand from the US, and UK is just starting to catch up. Published or not published, I still see depictions of Asians or Asian-passing characters with slanted eyes and I wonder why it’s OK for illustrators to not study the history of negative representation. Asia is huge and Asian people in different regions have ranges of skin tones and eye shapes, as well as our stories. Until those ranges are reflected in the books we see in UK bookshops, I won’t be able to say we have sufficient ESEA representation in UK publishing.
Nicci: How did your author-illustrator collaboration come about with bestselling Children’s author, Polly Ho-Yen?
Sojung: Our agents at Darley Anderson Children’s Agency brought us together. Team effort!
Words © Polly Ho-Yen + Illustrations © Sojung Kim-McCarthy
Nicci: What is your process with matching the emotion and movement of the story when you are creating the illustrations?
Sojung: As soon as I started reading this story for the first time, I felt an immediate bond with Ita especially because we share the experience of moving to a new place (a new country in my case) and feeling overwhelmed. I could see what sort of faces she would put on and what kind of body language she would use.
Another thing that helped me was the fact that I live in an area surrounded by nature, including a river where people go for wild swimming just like Ita’s family does. Narrow and dusty alleyways, a quiet river that suddenly appears in front of you, Grandma’s house across the river - I felt like I already knew these places, and it was a lot of fun sprinkle my own neighbourhood on the pages.
Words © Polly Ho-Yen + Illustrations © Sojung Kim-McCarthy
Nicci: ‘The Boy Who Grew a Tree’ was published in 2022 by Knights Of, and now we celebrate ‘The Girl Who Became a Fish’, publishing 2nd November by Knights Of Media. Ita is a little girl who has moved recently to a new home with her two older bothers, mother and father. She’s very much feeling like a ‘fish out of water’ - a new school, new friends to try to make, unfamiliar roads. When she discovers a magical stream one day, she dips her fingers in and suddenly her skin turns to scales! In a story that challenges her phobia of being in water, the safety of the magical transformation slowly builds her confidence to find her voice and to overcome her fears. As the illustrator of such a bright and sensitive little girl, how much did you feel you had in common and how much of your family life and experiences influenced the artwork in the book?
Sojung: I think I identified with Ita two-fold - as someone who moved to a new place, and also, as a girl with fish scales. I was born with a red birthmark that now covers the whole of my left leg - it’s called nervous flammeus and is in fact blood vessels grown just underneath the first layer of my skin so they’re visible. Because of this skin condition, I always looked and felt different and was sometimes bullied in school. I used to imagine myself as a mermaid with red scales on my leg, wanting a ‘human leg’ with no blemishes. So, when I saw Ita discovering her fins and fish scales for the first time, I totally understood her fear of having a different body. Sadly, my parents didn’t see this condition very positively, even when I decided as teenager that the birthmark was an important part of who I was, and tried to ‘fix’ me very hard. I’m glad Ita and her family experienced her being different in a positive way!
Nicci: What other exciting projects are you currently working on?
Sojung: I’m working on a picture book that will be my author-illustrator debut! It’s very exciting to be telling a story with both my writing and illustration which is what I always wanted to do. There are also two new picture book ideas that I can't wait to put on a storyboard. I’m also planning a few illustration pieces of Korean folktales as a personal project. I would love to put together a book of Korean folktales with my illustrations.
Nicci: What is your best advice to a child interested in becoming an illustrator?
Sojung: Never listen to other people, especially grownups, if they tell you that your art isn’t good enough. You’re a better artist than any adult around you and they’re just jealous!
Thanks for the super interview, Sojung!! Thank you for your time and your energy in answering my many questions. You are such an inspiration, not just to other illustrators, but to anyone who has ambition and aspirations to tell their story and to make the lives of those who see your work become more meaningful and positive. You have shared your blazing passion for illustration, your frustrations about authentic ESEA representation in UK children's publishing and how working on 'The Girl Who Became a Fish' felt incredibly personal to you in more ways than one. Like my readers are feeling, I'm sure, I simply cannot wait for your own author-illustrator creative publications next year - so exciting and congratulations; and I hope that you and Polly collaborate together again!! Plus - I LOVE your advice to children at the end of the Q&A... spot on!! Thank you for also sharing your illustration process. Nicci x
Download a FREE Ita 'Save Our Rivers' mobile activity sheet
Enjoy making this official cute and colourful hanging mobile at home, a community event or at school courtesy of the publisher, Knights Of Media. File format: PDF
About the creators
Polly Ho-Yen (author)
Polly Ho-Yen used to be a primary school teacher in London and while she was teaching there, she would get up very early in the morning to write stories. Her debut novel, Boy in the Tower was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, Blue Peter Book Award and FCBG Children’s Book Award. All four of her middle-grade novels – including Fly Me Home, Where Monster’s Lie and How I Saved the World in a Week – have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Polly’s previous younger fiction novel, The Boy Who Grew a Tree was shortlisted for the Teach Primary 2022 book awards, and featured in the 2023 Read for Empathy collection (primary). The book is also currently shortlisted for the inaugural The Week Junior Book Awards, in the Younger Fiction category. She lives in Bristol with her husband and daughter. (Source: Knights Of Media)
Sojung Kim-McCarthy (illustrator)
Sojung Kim-McCarthy is an award-winning illustrator who loves drawing children in all shapes, sizes and colours. She worked as a designer for a children’s magazine as well as an art and design educator in Korea. After moving to Bournemouth to study illustration, she stayed in the seaside town and has been drawing and writing stories of children who feel a little bit different from other people. Sojung loves growing plants from seeds she finds in her fruits, and her favourite plant in her windowsill garden is an avocado tree. (Source: Knights Of Media)
Starting a new school
Fear of water or swimming
Caring for elderly relatives
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Publication date: 2 Nov 2023
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*This interview and giveaway (newsletter subscribers only) is in association with Catherine Ward PR and Knights Of Media
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