Cartoonist Robin Ha speaks to upper school community about comics, cooking and culture


Trisha Iyer

Juniors Hita Thota and Karina Chen watch the screen as Robin Ha presents. Upper school students gathered in the library classroom to meet the author, while middle school students attended over Zoom.

by Trisha Iyer, Reporter

Learning to speak English after an abrupt move across the globe. Drawing page layouts and lettering comics. Finding a group of friends to serve as mentors and peer editors. New York Times-bestselling cartoonist Robin Ha covered all these topics and more in a virtual presentation to around 15 attendees in the upper school library on April 20.

Ha debuted with the cookbook “Cook Korean!: A Comic Book with Recipes,” which placed fourth on the New York Times bestseller list in 2016. In 2020, she published a memoir, “Almost American Girl,” detailing her experiences with culture shock, her relationship with her mother and her deepening love of comics after she moved from South Korea to the United States at the age of 14. 

During the Zoom visit, which upper school librarian Amy Pelman organized, Ha discussed how she first fell in love with comics and shared tips about her writing and illustrating process. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she briefly worked in fashion illustration before finding a key group of friends at a comic convention. These friends would later form the artists’ collective she stayed with and used as a support system when workshopping her first graphic novel work, her memoir. When she first sent out the premise of “Almost American Girl” to publishers, she received a wave of rejections, but she persevered in breaking into the publishing world. 

“If you’re a writer or a comic book writer, it’s very important for you to get an agent,” Ha said. “[HarperCollins and other major publishers] prefer to take submissions from agents who are kind of the gatekeepers.” 

After illustrating several Korean recipes for the magazines of a friend from the collective, Ha began the blog “Banchan in Two Pages,” in which she illustrated and described many recipes learned from her mother. Her blog became so popular that a publisher invited her to publish “Cook Korean!”. After the success of her cookbook, many publishers reconsidered her memoir, and she ended up receiving multiple bids for the publishing rights of “Almost American Girl.”

As Robin Ha talks on the Zoom call projected in the upper school library classroom, she shows and discusses examples of her early comic illustrations. Ha also shared early art from her next work, a retelling of the Korean mythological figure Kumiho. (Trisha Iyer)

“This was a God-given chance for me to prove to the publishing world that I could make a book,  and that I could make it successful,” Ha said. 

Felix Chen (9), who does not read many graphic novels, nevertheless appreciated the depiction of Ha’s journey and how it mirrored many other immigrant stories when he read “Almost American Girl.” When he attended the event, Ha’s discussion of her path to being published resonated with him. 

“She was a very good speaker,” Felix said. “I really enjoyed her story of persistence and effort and never giving up on her dreams.” 

Ha also shared her tools of the trade. Although she began drawing comics with pencil and paper, she made the switch to using Clip Studio Paint to create her art in digital files, now the industry standard. She has also honed her process for creating comics. 

“I write the story, a short script in essay form of what will happen in the scene,” Ha said. “I concentrate on actions and events because comics are an action-driven media, just like film. Then I group sentences together so I can make a panel, then draw and ink.”

Upper school librarian Meredith Cranston expressed joy at the student turnout, both in-person at the upper school and virtually from the middle school, to Ha’s visit. She hopes more such author visits will supplement the experience of incoming freshmen as they read “Almost American Girl” as part of their summer reading, after which they vote on a 16-book lineup to find the winner of a March Madness-style Tournament of Books. 

“We judge the success of our event by how many students attended and we had a full house,” Cranston said. “[Ha’s] story as an artist is such an interesting one, so this is definitely something that we’re going to try and do again.”