In National Book Festival poster, Suzy Lee shows ‘everything that you can do with books’

When Suzy Lee wanted a picture book as a child, often her only option was to try to picture the book. These simply weren’t items her family came across every day in the Seoul of the ’70s, years before South Korean publishing made rapid advances. So when a real, physical picture book did enter her household, it took hold. And if it was illustrated by the great Edward Gorey, it especially held her imagination.

“I remember that there was ‘The Shrinking of Treehorn,’ by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey, on my mother’s bookshelf,” Lee said by e-mail from South Korea. “I don’t think I understood the book properly at that time, but I was instantly drawn to some kind of strangeness that it carried. Probably, this book made me think that every book should have some quality of mysteriousness.”

2013 National Book Festival poster by artist Suzy Lee

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Growing up, Lee had “no idea of picture-book author” as an occupation, but she is now one of the more gifted under-40 children’s book illustrators. She’s a thoughtful artist who imbues her work with clever qualities that beguile. Her most recent visual wonder is “Open This Little Book,” by Jesse Klausmeier (Chronicle). It’s a playful creation that led to Lee’s next big assignment: creating the official poster for this year’s National Book Festival.

Jennifer Gavin, the Library of Congress’s project manager for the festival, spotted Lee’s bright, deft images at a national librarians’ event in Seattle.

“Her work makes you smile,” Gavin said. “There’s something you see that adults as well as children might enjoy. . . . You want to give people something that can bridge those age gaps, and that’s uplifting and colorful when you look at it.”

Lee pursued that same spirit for her new assignment with the Library of Congress. “I wanted to create a poster that can make you smile — the warm feeling that we all know when we have a wonderful book on our lap,” said Lee, who studied painting at Seoul National University and book arts at Camberwell College of Arts in London. “All the words associated with the poster are fun: festival, joy of reading, children, tree of books, a forest library, lots of colors, lot of animals. . . . Then those words and images are all connected together and realized.”

That woodsy land of literature, in fact, is derived directly from “Open This Little Book.” “When I made the image of the forest library in the last page of ‘OTLB,’ I had an urge to make it really big and give it away to the libraries and book lovers,” said Lee, who has also illustrated the acclaimed “Wave” and “Shadow.” “When the festival organizer asked me to do the poster, I thought my wish had come true.”

The assignment came with a primary request: Use lots of color. From there, Lee went deeper.

“I studied the previous posters in the Library of Congress,” said Lee, who did her line drawing in pencil before coloring in acrylic and tweaking the artwork digitally. “All the posters were unique and beautiful, but I thought I could try the lighter and more fun elements.” Besides the creatures adopted directly from “Open This Little Book” — including the ladybug, frog, rabbit and bear — “there are lots of other animals reading various patterned books, and they’re doing everything that you can do with books: reading books, chewing books, swallowing books and doing acrobatics with books. Everybody in the poster certainly enjoys the moment.”

Lee might have grown up behind national borders with relatively few picture books, yet part of her joy as an artist is to do what Heide and Gorey did: Somehow communicate across those boundaries.

“It is such a pleasure to see we’re connected by the picture books, and with no language or cultural barrier,” Lee said. “Moreover, my greatest readers are children — there are no borders in their minds!”

Suzy Lee will speak in the Children’s pavilion on Sept. 22 at 2 p.m.

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