Today we’re welcoming back NYC-based author, illustrator, book designer and art director Aram Kim to talk about her brand new picture book, Tomorrow is New Year’s Day: Seollal, a Korean Celebration of the Lunar New Year (FSG, 2022).
This year, Lunar New Year falls on Sunday, January 22. While many of us may think of Lunar New Year as Chinese New Year, there are actually other Asian communities (including Vietnamese and South Korean) who also observe this important holiday at the same time, each with their own set of traditions.
I was especially happy to see Tomorrow is New Year’s Day because I don’t know of any other picture books about Korean Lunar New Year. Aram has created a much needed, charmingly illustrated, truly delightful story centered around family, togetherness, and the joy of celebrating age-old cultural traditions.
Since it’s her favorite day of the year, Mina is excited to share the customs of Seollal with all her classmates. Dressed in traditional clothes (hanbok), she shows them how to play games, do sebae (a special bow to respect elders), and how to make tteokguk (rice cake soup). She’s proud to have both parents there to help, but her little brother Miro is in a bad mood. Will he spoil her special day?
I love Aram’s colorful, emotive illustrations. You can just feel the happiness and excitement of Mina’s classmates (as well as Miro’s obstinance), and there are lots of interesting details for eager eyes to discover in each picture.
She varies single and double page spreads (some with speech bubbles) with step-by-step action sequences, displaying a masterful use of scale and cool perspectives (check out the yutnori board game illo). There’s also an illustrated recipe! Dare I say, I find her art absolutely adorable (Cat on the Bus fans have surprises in store too).
Let’s find out more from Aram, who was born in Ohio, grew up in South Korea, then later returned to the U.S. to study art and work in children’s book publishing.
Saehae bok mani badeuseyo! Happy New Year!
What prompted you to write a children’s story about Seollal?
Seollal is a Korean term for Lunar New Year’s Day, literally translated as “unfamiliar day.” I started thinking about it in 2018 when a reader reached out and said it would be great to have a book about Seollal. I saw many Korean American families go to the kids’ classrooms to share the culture of Seollal and I realized that they didn’t have many fun picture books to use.
Lunar New Year is celebrated by a lot of Asian countries but many people in western culture know it as Chinese New Year. I thought it would be great to make a book about Seollal, to share the Korean celebration of the Lunar New Year, but couldn’t quite come up with a story I liked.
It took some time, but one day in the fall of 2020, during the first trip I took with the family since the pandemic started, I came up with a story of a family who went into the kid’s school to share the culture of Seollal. It felt right given that the families I saw and met were my main inspiration for the book.
I was about to head out for the train, so I just squiggled the entire thumbnails of the story into a piece of paper within a few minutes which later became the backbone of the story that I finished when I returned home.
What was your favorite part of celebrating Seollal when you were growing up in Korea?
Seollal is one of the biggest family holidays in Korea, so there is always a lot of excitement! I think every child in Korea would agree with me on this though – the best part of Seollal is getting sebaedon! It’s the pocket money elders give to children along with words of good wishes for the new year.
Young kids get this after conducting sebae, the traditional bowing on the floor to show respect for elders. Especially for kids who aren’t old enough to get an allowance, getting money of their own feels very special. The amount doesn’t matter as long as it’s the bills. (The Korean bill starts with one thousand won, which is about $1.)
The banks are usually crowded before Seollal with people who are getting the crisp bills to give as sebaedon to their young family members. Bokjumoni (translated as a lucky bag or a fortune pouch) is a small decorative pouch where kids can put their sebaedon!
Are there any notable differences in the way Seollal is celebrated here in the U.S. vs. in Korea?
Most Korean Americans in the U.S. celebrate Seollal on January 1st using the Gregorian calendar, while people in Korea celebrate Seollal on January 1st using the Lunar calendar, which generally falls between late January to mid-February each year.
It seems to me that more and more Korean Americans celebrate or acknowledge Lunar New Year as well. I love celebrating it on Lunar New Year’s day because then it feels like getting New Year’s Day twice! I celebrate the new beginning on January 1st, with all the shiny new year’s resolutions, then by the time they sort of fade away, in about a month, I get a second chance to start the new year all over again!
What did you enjoy most about creating this book? What was the most challenging part?
I always loved drawing animals and I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy drawing human characters as much as I would animal characters. Turned out that I very much enjoyed creating a whole group of human characters. Unlike animal characters I’ve been drawing, these human characters all needed unique hairstyles and skin tones on top of all different outfits!
I also felt that human characters’ facial expressions and body languages are much more visible than animal characters and I spent a lot of time on each. It was enormously fun to develop each character with their own little backstory.
I think the same answer can be applied to the most challenging part. It took a very long time for me to develop each character and also there were many kids to draw on almost every page. The cafeteria spread shows all the characters from the book in one scene and it took me a long time to plan the layout and to make sure that everyone gets drawn with love!
How did you make the illustrations? Was your process any different from your Yoomi, Family and Friends series, which featured all animal characters?
The process remained quite similar to the Yoomi, Family and Friends series. During that series, I slowly transitioned more towards digital painting and that trend stayed with this new book. I first draw everything on the copy paper, not necessarily as a full scene, but rather piece by piece. I used to scan these preliminary drawings with a scanner, but nowadays, I use a convenient “scanner” application on the phone to take pictures of the drawing and then put them together in Photoshop on my computer.
Then I will start tracing and painting in my iPad mini which actually is quite tiny – the same size as a moleskine sketchbook. After I draw/paint on the iPad, I would transfer the files to the computer to look at it on a bigger screen and get any details right. I print the work-in-progress from time to time to make sure that everything looks good printed. Sometimes things that are hard to catch on-screen are very obvious when printed.
[Process pics for double page title spread, from rough sketches to final art]:
I love Mina’s and Miro’s traditional clothes. Please tell us a little about designing and drawing their hanbok. What are the different layers Miro refers to?
It was fun as well as hard! It was fun because hanbok is so beautiful and there are limitless color combinations and different kinds of layers. For the same reason, it was hard. I couldn’t decide what colors and layers I wanted the characters to wear to convey the beauty of hanbok but at the same time be realistic in what kids these days would wear.
I searched for a lot of reference photos and they were so easy on the eye that I saved those photos and still look at them occasionally!
Traditional hanbok is quite complex starting from several layers of underclothing, but in modern days, it’s simpler and much easier to wear. What Miro is showing to Mina’s classmates is how he buttons his jokki (vest) over the jeogori (top), wears his blue jeonbok (long over vast), ties bokjumoni (lucky bag), and finally wears bokgun (headwear for boys). That’s a lot for a little child to wear by himself!
Please share a fond memory of playing your favorite New Year’s game with family or friends. Which game are you best at?
My favorite game for Seollal is yutnori, the board game, needless to say! It can be played by as few as two people to as many as you wish as long as they can be divided into teams. When it’s played by many people, it gets very exciting very quickly. Each team throws four sticks (called yut) into the air as dice, and that is a really exciting moment. Everyone screams! My little nephew loved it so much that he asked me to make a book about yutnori a few years ago. Now that the book is finally here, he doesn’t seem to remember that he had asked. Yutnori played during Seollal is often used to determine who does the dishes after a big holiday meal!
In addition to tteokguk (rice cake soup), what other Seollal foods do you especially like?
When I was a kid, my grandma used to get freshly made garaetteok (long white cylinder shape tteok) for tteokguk from the neighborhood gristmill. We slice them into coin shapes to cook in tteokguk, but we set aside a few of them to eat as a snack.
Garaetteok is made very simply only with flour and water. It’s simple, chewy, and yummy! We roughly cut them in thirds or half, grilled them lightly, and eat them with honey. Mmmm so yum!
What do you most want young readers to know about Seollal?
What I love about living in the U.S. is that I get to learn so much about other cultures that I didn’t know about before. It’s eye-opening to learn what people celebrate, how they celebrate, and what is important to them. It expands my world. With this book, I wanted to help young readers, Koreans and non-Koreans alike, get a glimpse of Korean culture on Seollal and how they celebrate the Lunar New Year’s Day. Along the way, I hope they have fun! If they enjoy reading this book, that’s all that matters.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the book?
There are subtle, but not so subtle easter eggs in the book that I’m excited that some readers might recognize. The main casts from my first book Cat on the Bus are back in this story.
Originally, I was planning a different pet in the family – a dog or a guinea pig. But when I realized that Mina, the little girl from Tomorrow Is New Year’s Day, actually looks a lot like the little girl from Cat on the Bus, I decided to bring those characters back.
The cat in this book looks similar to the one from Cat on the Bus, and they are implied to be the same. The grandpa who originally brought the cat from the bus appears at the very end of the story when the family gathers for Seollal. It was fun for me to imagine those two worlds I created coming together.
Thanks so much, Aram!!
TOMORROW IS NEW YEAR’S DAY: Seollal, a Korean Celebration of the Lunar New Year
written and illustrated by Aram Kim
published by Farrar Straus Giroux BFYR, December 2022
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
**Junior Library Guild Gold Selection**
♥️ Signed copies available at Yu and Me Books!
♥️ Visit Aram’s Website to view videos about How to Fold a Paper Bokjumoni (Korean Lucky Bag), How to Pronounce Korean Words from the Book, and How to Make a Mini Book on Seollal. There are also two fun downloadable activity pages.
♥️ Enjoy this Kidlit TV video on How to Make Tteokguk:
🌺 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 🐱
The publisher is generously donating a brand new copy for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EST), Tuesday, January 31, 2023. You may also enter by sending an email with SEOLLAL in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
*Interior spreads posted by permission, text and illustrations copyright © 2022 Aram Kim, published by Farrar Straus Giroux. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.