Yangsook Choi considers herself something of a reluctant writer. “I was scared of writing in English,” says the Korean-born artist, describing how she first transitioned from illustrating children’s books to eventually authoring her own.

So it seems fitting that she would dedicate her latest picture book, A Letter to My Best Friend (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 9), “to every child who is a reluctant writer.” In the book, which our reviewer calls “a delightful tale of fostering connection through art,” a young boy named Jihun, newly immigrated from South Korea to the United States, struggles to complete an in-class assignment to write a letter to his best friend. “I don’t have a best friend yet,” says Jihun. “I’m not good at writing in English. Not just yet.”

Rest assured, the story comes together with a poignant payoff, which is something of a hallmark for Choi, who’s also releasing a fully revised and re-illustrated version of her heartwarming 2005 picture book, Peach Heaven, on the same day as A Letter to My Best Friend.

Choi, who splits her time between the United States and South Korea, spoke with Kirkus about both books via Zoom from her home in Seoul. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to children’s books?

I moved from South Korea to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York, and after graduation I started working as an illustrator for other people’s stories. One day, Tracy Gates, an editor at Knopf, took me to lunch and asked me, “Why don’t you try writing your own books, instead of just drawing?”

I panicked. English is the biggest monster I’ve ever encountered. Even at this moment, I’m a little nervous to do this interview in English. But it was hard to say no to someone who’d taken me out to a nice restaurant, so I said, “Sure.” Tracy gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted, and the first book I wrote was The Name Jar.

Gradually, I fell in love with writing. I’m passionate about writing for children because I love them. Children make me feel normal. When you write about what you love or write for who you love, it’s bearable, or even enjoyable.

It’s striking to me that A Letter to My Best Friend is also a book about learning the letters of the alphabet through drawing. How did you come up with that idea?

My agent, Miranda Paul, came with me on a school visit in New York. I led the kids in an activity where I taught them how to draw a cat, step by step, using letters of the alphabet. Afterward, Miranda said, “Oh, Yangsook, the kids were so excited to draw with you. Why don’t you write a story about drawing with letters?”

As an illustrator, it comes naturally to me to break down a lesson with simple images, so I never thought that could be something worth turning into a picture book. But I liked the idea the more I thought about it, and I found inspiration for the main characters in my real life.

I based Jihun off a boy whom I used to visit at a local orphanage here in Korea. He was one of many kids I’d take on outings for food and fun. He was so fun-loving, and although we had a huge age gap, we became really good friends. He taught me that two people who are really different and have all kinds of barriers between them can become good friends.

Piper, the little girl in the book [who ends up befriending Jihun], is just as important as Jihun in my mind. During the pandemic, I fostered a girl from the orphanage for one year. She was a high-energy child with special needs, and she’d gone through the worst storms a child could endure in her very early years. She’d had little opportunity to learn about or identify her emotions and connect them to her thoughts, so she had a hard time making friends. [In the book, Piper seems to annoy Jihun initially, peeking over his shoulder and butting in with unprompted suggestions.] Like Piper, she also had dysgraphia [a learning disability characterized by a handwriting impairment]. The text of this book doesn’t use the word dysgraphia, but you can see the letter Piper writes in the book and understand that she struggles with writing.

I helped my foster child learn to write letters to other kids in her class to help her express herself, which really made a difference in her ability to make friends. I was so proud of her courage, and that experience gave me hope that as long as you put your heart into your writing, it doesn’t matter how eloquent you are or what the letters look like.

You really do love children! What does it feel like to reach a whole new generation of readers, nearly 20 years after the original edition of Peach Heaven was published?

I didn’t even think about that! It’s amazing to think about how time passes and the modern history of Korea. It has changed so much. Now there’s so much culture and new trends coming from Korea, which is great. But I don’t want the traditional culture to be buried, either, because Korea has so much to offer.

Peach Heaven is based on a storm that I witnessed in August of 1976—I’ll never be able to erase the sight of peaches rolling down from the roof and floating in the floodwater. I feel like my illustrations of a 1970s [traditional Korean courtyard] home capture the setting and narrows the time gap between then and now for readers.

I started visiting schools more than 20 years ago to meet young readers. I would usually start by asking the kids, “Guess where I flew in from?” Back then, no one would guess Korea. But nowadays, the kids know—they specifically say, “South Korea.”

I like showing kids a video of my studio in Seoul, which includes a huge drawing of the letters in the Korean alphabet, Hangeul. I’ll ask the kids to imagine dipping their hands in a big, wide ocean of Hangeul Korean letters, and they’ll grow silent and make motions with their hands as if they’re really picking up letters. It’s so cute.

It’s also timely that Peach Heaven is about a flood, because natural disasters are more common now due to global warming. We might not be able to avoid catastrophic events entirely, but all of us, even children, can still find opportunities to do good after a disaster. I wanted to lift up the spirit of community and have children understand that they can play a part, too.

I’m so happy with how this new version of Peach Heaven looks. The 2005 version was all done in oil paints on paper, which I literally had to hand-deliver to the publisher. It was such a different way of working. Now that I can use more digital media, it gives me more options for colors and room to maneuver parts of the illustrations around. It makes me feel more free.

Korean American writer Hannah Bae is a journalist, illustrator, and winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.