Whether you’re an adult, a child, or somewhere in between, most of us can relate to the lonely feeling of being the only one wide awake in a household during a particularly restless night. In his new picture book, Star Fishing (Abrams, Feb. 22), South Korean author and illustrator Sang-Keun Kim reimagines the experience of a child who’s having trouble sleeping through the night, taking his young protagonist on a friend-filled, “magical, moonlight adventure in the velvety blue night sky,” our review noted.

As in his acclaimed English-language debut, Little Mole’s Wish (2019), Kim tells his story with great sensitivity, offering a sense of empathy and comfort that young readers across cultures can appreciate in scenarios beyond bedtime. “You and Little Rabbit don’t speak the same language, but somehow, you understand each other,” Kim writes of his child protagonist, who meets a furry friend on the moon—a familiar reference from Korean folklore. There’s an interactive quality to Kim’s charming illustrations, which allow readers to guess page by page the next sleepless animal friend to join the ever growing nighttime party on the moon. The soft glow of the art pairs beautifully with simple, meaningful prose, translated from the Korean by Ginger Ly.

With help from interpreter Jiae Park, Kirkus spoke to Kim via Zoom from his home studio in Seoul. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you find your way to writing and illustrating children’s books?

I started out working in animation, which was my major at university, and I saw how time- and budget-intensive that type of work was. It’s hard to produce animated films all on your own. I wanted to find work that I could do independently from start to finish, so I started drawing and posting my illustrations online. I ended up landing an illustration gig with a Korean American colleague who told me that my style was well suited to picture books. I didn’t know much about picture books at the time, so I went to the biggest library in Korea and spent a whole day there reading books and came up with my first ideas.

I get inspired by the way that short animated films manage to convey many different emotions in a brief amount of time. They’re similar to picture books in that regard. They look small, but they convey a much larger meaning. Some of my favorite animations are Hedgehog in the Fog by the Russian director Yuri Norstein and Father and Daughter by the Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. They’re poetic and lyrical, and the feelings behind them linger. I hope to have the same effect with my books.

I totally see that influence in your books. There’s a real tenderness in the emotions, and your illustrations have great, organic texture. How do your talents as both illustrator and writer come into play when you’re working on a book?

I like metaphors, so I would compare the process of writing and illustrating a picture book to creating a piece of jewelry. Just as you cut and polish a gemstone to eventually achieve the shape you want, when you’re working on the text and illustrations for a picture book, you keep revising until you find the principal idea of the story, deleting the text that isn’t necessary and using the art to express yourself as clearly as possible. Eventually, you’re able to craft something that’s all your own, that perfectly matches the shape you had in mind. I think other writer/illustrators can relate to this feeling.

When it comes to illustrations, I like to use colored pencils and pastels to achieve a natural look and a warm effect, choosing materials that will match the story I have in mind. I like to take advantage of both analog and digital mediums. For example, with Photoshop, I can adjust the light and colors to make the stars and the moon really shine.

When you came up with the idea for Star Fishing, did you start with the illustrations or the story?

The image of a character on the moon tossing a star down to Earth came to mind when I was on a trip with my parents. I thought that would be a great image to build a story around, bringing together a group of little ones who can’t sleep. I did want to make Star Fishing something more than just a bedtime story. When I was a kid, sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night because I wanted to play more, but now that I’m an adult, it’s anxiety or worries that keep me awake. I thought, What if a warm star were to drop down to me in one of those moments? That star could pull me up to the sky, where I could find friends who understand me and sympathize.

[In the book,] I thought of the rabbit on the moon as a kind of alter ego for the child [protagonist]. The child lives on Earth, and the rabbit lives in the sky, and they don’t speak the same language. But they have a special sympathy between them that allows them to understand each other, sort of like how you and your best friend can communicate without words. I hope readers can find their own rabbit—their own counterpart who can stand by their side in hard times and also share the fun times.

How has it felt to reach readers in different countries?

It’s meaningful to see people all over the world connecting with my emotions and thoughts. Before I was an author, I used to visit bookstores every time I traveled, and I thought, how nice it would be to see my books being sold on their shelves. Now my books are there, but I can’t visit foreign countries because of Covid-19, but I do get pictures of events with children from publishers and libraries outside of Korea and through social media. It’s such a surprise every time I see one of these pictures, and it helps keep me going in my work. I hope to visit the countries where my books have been translated [which include the United States, Germany, France, Russia, China, and more]. They hold a special place for me now.

What message do you want readers of Star Fishing to come away with?

I wanted to say to readers that even though you might feel lonely, in reality you are not alone. I want people to find consolation in the book and share that feeling with someone else. When we receive sympathy, comfort, and love from someone, we then want to return those same feelings.

There’s a scene toward the end of the book where the rabbit is sleeping soundly [by itself on the moon, after its friends have departed]. Its friends have left behind constellations, embroidering the night sky with images of themselves [to keep the rabbit company] because they all know how it feels to be alone on a night when you can’t fall asleep. I hope that readers feel this warm message from the heart and share that warmth with others, especially in these hard times.

Hannah Bae is a Korean American writer, journalist, and illustrator and winner of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award