Born in South Korea, award-winning illustrator Chris Soentpiet moved to Hawaii at the age of 8, when he and his sister were adopted.
He studied Fine Arts and Education at Pratt Institute in New York City and he credits illustrators Ted and Betsy Lewin for encouraging him to pursue a career as a children's book illustrator.
His many book projects reflect his interest in people, history and culture, and include My Brother Martin, Coolies, Jin Woo and Molly Bannaky.
He lives with his wife, writer Yin, and young son in Flushing, New York.
How has your cultural heritage influenced you as an artist?
My heritage has certainly influenced the Korean projects that have been given to me. For example, Jim Woo by Eve Bunting is about a family waiting to adopt a baby boy from Korea. I could relate to that, since I was adopted from Korea myself. With Peacebound Trains, being Korean helped me with the authenticity of the illustrations. But since I am, clearly, no authority on all things Korean, I always do my research - I believe in doing as much research as possible to ensure authenticity in every project I embark on.
Initially, publishers tended to give me projects related to Korea, but in time I was able to demonstrate my range and ability to portray other ethnicities. I enjoy the challenge, and I learn so much about other cultures in the process!
Could you please talk about your first visit back to Korea as an adult, when you were researching Peacebound Trains?
Returning to Korea as an adult was an intense experience. When I was given the opportunity to illustrate Peacebound Trains, I decided to go to Korea to do research, and that gave me a chance to visit my three older sisters and one older brother, whom I hadn’t seen since I left Korea as an eight year-old to be adopted by a family in the US. I first met them at the airport and, in spite of the language barrier, I could tell by the look in their faces that they were very happy to see me. It was a very emotional and happy reunion.
What kind of routine do you follow when you are painting?
I start my research at the library. Then I take pictures of the models that will play the main characters in the story. I make the costumes, do their hair… The reason I start with pictures is to capture the realism of the characters and to make their look consistent from page to page (this method of painting is very similar to that of my idol, Norman Rockwell). Then I make pencil sketches that I show to the publishers, before I lay down the colors. Once I get the publisher’s approval, I start to paint. It takes me about a year to finish a book.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a book called Amazing Faces by my favorite poet, Lee Bennett Hopkins. The book, due out by Lee & Low in 2010, is an anthology of poems that celebrate multiculturalism. I was very honored to have been chosen to illustrate it.
Posted April 2009
Illustrated by Chris Soentpiet:
Happy Birthday to You: The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World, written by Margot Theis Raven
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2008)
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, written by Christine King Farris
(Simon & Schuster, 2006)
2004 International Reading Association Teachers' Choice
Brothers, written by Yin
2006 Junior Library Guild Selection
2007 International Reading Association Teachers' Choice
Coolies, written by Yin
2001 Parents' Choice Gold Award
2001 Junior Library Guild Selection
Jin Woo written by Eve Bunting
(Clarion Books, 2001)
Molly Bannaky, written by Alice McGill
(Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
2000 Jane Addams Children's Book Award
So Far From the Sea, written by Eve Bunting
(Clarion Books, 1998)
Peacebound Trains, written by Haemi Balgassi
(Clarion Books, 1996)
1996 Society of Illustrators Gold Medal
1996 Notable Children's Book for a Global Society
More Than Anything Else, written by Mary Bradby
1996 International Reading Association Children's Book Award
The Last Dragon, written by Susan Miho Nunes
(Clarion Books, 1995)
1995 Smithsonian Notable Book
For a complete bibliography and list of awards, visit his website.
More on the web:
The multicultural Life and Work of Chris Soentpiet
Conversations with Yep and Soentpiet
Jin Woo Discussion Guide
Chris Soentpiet is available for school visits.