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(April 10, 2000)


Chris Soentpiet sees the world through a child's eyes. Which is a good thing because Soentpiet is a children's book illustrator, an artist charged with turning a writer's words into images that complement the text for readers in the kindergarten to eighth-grade range.

Soentpiet has provided the art for 13 books. For one of those, "Around Town" he also wrote the words.

The 30-year-old Pratt Institute graduate already has won an International Reading Association award as well as a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators.

Which means the periodic thumps heard at some midtown publishing houses are editors slamming their heads into the walls because they turned Soentpiet away when he came looking for work fresh out of college. Actually, it was even a bit of a surprise for Soentpiet.

"I knew when I was in college that I was going to make a living as an artist, either in commercial art, as a graphic artist or in computers," Soentpiet said from the spacious studio of his home. "I did not have children's books in mind."

But then life has taken some incredible turns for the Korean native who was raised in Hawaii and Oregon by his second set of parents.

That deserves a bit more explanation. Soentpiet was 6 and living in Korea when his mother died of a brain tumor. Almost exactly a year later his father died in a car accident.

Both parents were Mormons, so Chris a brother and four sisters were placed with a church adoption agency, which found a Mormon home for him and an older sister with the Soentpiet family in Hawaii. He was 8 and spoke no English when he arrived on the island. His new father was Indonesian and his mother, is Irish and Dutch. Both worked in a factory that made airline parts, and they had four other children, including a Hawaiian they also had adopted.

But the hardest shift was leaving the bustle of Seoul for the country living of Hawaii, where "you could see coconuts growing on the trees," Soentpiet said. Two years later the family moved to Portland, Oregon where the parents divorced. Soentpiet was 16 years old, sitting in a grant High School art class, when he made his first drawing with watercolors. "Once I touched it, I knew watercolors were what I wanted to work with," he said. "When you layer it, the colors are so brilliant, vibrant, so beautiful. I loved it."

Two years later Soentpiet was living in Brooklyn, doing construction work on the side while attending Pratt on a scholarship.

He was convinced that he would have a career as a commercial artist until life took another turn. In his senior year Soentpiet went to hear illustrator Ted Lewin speak at the college and took some of his watercolors along.

Lewin convinced him he had a future in children's book. Then Soentpiet had to convince the book publishers.

Art in hand, the first 10 publishers he visited turned him down. The 10th, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard (now Harpers Collins), loved his art so much they suggested he write a book to go with it.

That book, "Around Town" would be followed by 12 others. It takes Soentpiet about six months to draw the 20 paintings that typically go into each book. That does not include the weeks of research, which can be extensive.

The book "Molly Bannaky", about the mother of black inventor Benjamin Bannaker, required a trip to a recreated 18th century village in Virginia. "Peacebound Trains" by Haemi Balgassi, required a trip to Seoul so Soentpiet can capture the flavor of people fleeing the Korean capital during the war years.

"It's better if there is something in a picture that is not mentioned in the text, like a tool or someone doing something the text does not explain" he said. "A great illustrator is someone who can tell a story in a story."

His models are all real people, photographed in his studio or on the streets where he finds them. He shoots about 60 rolls of film per book, he said.

Soentpiet is proud that his work has appeared in books about a variety of ethnic groups, from African-Americans and Japanese to Chinese and Arabs.

"I like to think that I'm giving children the type of work that parents want them to have," Soentpiet said. "At the end of the day I know I have done something to be proud of."

--Reporter: Clem Richardson
photo- Shannon Stapleton.



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