When Passions Collide to Create Books for Kids, a guest post by Jenna Yoon
The LIA PARK series blends Korean art, history, landmarks, mythology, and language into an action-packed middle grade contemporary fantasy, creating an easily accessible entry point into Korean culture. Through these books, I hoped Korean and Asian kids would feel seen and also all kids would have a fun adventure, while sparking their curiosity and imagination.
I need to back track and start from the beginning to properly explain the inspiration for the LIA PARK series and the reason behind weaving in Korean art history.
I moved around a lot growing up and spent my formative years in both Korea and the United States. When I was three years old we moved from Korea to Topeka, Kansas.
I learned English by watching Sesame Street and replaying cassette tapes of She-Ra Princess of the Universe so much that I memorized it. During the day, I loved to color in one of the workbooks my mom had found for me in the grocery store. My favorite part was when she asked me to write a story about what I had just colored. At night I fell asleep to my mom reading stories from our big book of Korean folktales that she had brought over from Korea. As soon as I was able to read, I was the number one book-borrower at our local library. Of course, I wrote to all my favorite authors and sometimes got responses back which I bragged about to anyone who would listen.
At the time, it didn’t bother me that not a single person in the books I read looked like me. But as a kid, I still wanted to be a writer and wrote story after story in my journal. I even created a pen name for myself to hide my ethnicity. I went by Jessica Smith. With a name like that, I could just blend in with everyone else, be in incognito mode. And besides all my characters were white. No one would notice that I wasn’t right?
In elementary school, I met a teacher who I desperately wanted to impress. Everyone knew she was strict with very high standards. I turned in a paper I had worked very hard on and was giddy waiting for her comments. But when I received my paper, all it said at the very top corner was, “See me after class.” So many thoughts ran through my head. But none prepared me for what happened next. She told me that I needed to bring my parents in because there was no way I could have written this myself. I was terrified and ashamed to tell my parents, even though I did nothing wrong. It meant everything that my parents believed me and was furious at the teacher. My dad, a lawyer at the time, gathered all the evidence, mainly books I used and old drafts to the meeting to prove that I did not plagiarize or had my parents write it for me. She reluctantly gave me an A. But after that point, I lost all confidence and passion for writing and gave up on my dream of being an author.
When I was in eighth grade, I moved to Korea and that’s when I first experienced what it felt like to be part of the majority. There was a bit of culture shock at first but I adjusted after a few months. I took a creative writing class in my senior year of high school and started writing again but deep down I still believed this was just for fun and not a viable career path for me because there were no Asian authors in the States, and I planned to go to college there.
At Wellesley College, I discovered my second passion, art history. The thing I loved most about art history was the research. I felt like a super detective searching for clues in history and in the art, to create a narrative of what was going on. I loved to imagine myself as a person from whatever time period I was studying and try to picture things from that point of view. (Doesn’t this sound very similar to the creative writing process?)
I assumed I’d follow the trajectory set aside for me and apply for a job as curatorial assistant. But during my last semester, I took a Chinese art history class, and was writing a paper on the trade relations between the Song Dynasty in China and the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea. I scoured all the books in the all the libraries around Boston, and noticed a glaring problem. There were shelves of books on Chinese and Japanese history and art history but barely a few books on Korea. I’ve lived in Korea and saw rows of books on Korean history and art at the bookstores, so why were there no books here? When I asked my professor, he said that Korean art history was very new in the States. He saw my indignation and suggested that I apply for a Master’s program in Korea to study Korean Art History and then I could apply for Phd program in the States, and eventually become a professor of Korean art history. I thought it was a brilliant plan and I wanted to help spread knowledge of Korean art history and culture. I wanted to bring to life and share all the beautiful sites I had seen growing up in Korea. After I had closed the chapter on writing so long ago, I felt a renewed sense of mission, in my desire to spread knowledge about Korea.
During my Master’s program in Korea I visited art historical sites and museums all over Korea and in Japan as well. The art was beautiful but there was a sadness knowing that so much Korean art and historical documents were destroyed and forever lost by the many wars that took place on Korean soil. I loved having access to a plethora of journal articles and books, and being able to visit and study everything up close. However, even though there weren’t many books on Korean art history yet in the States, it had been studied and written about for decades in Korea, and I felt I had nothing new to add. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my years translating documents either. I wanted to discover and create. So after earning my Master’s in Korean art history, I took a break to discover what else I was passionate about. Eventually I became a preschool teacher in California.
After I had my first daughter, I stayed home with her and cherished our moments together. She loved everything Disney and of course we caved and bought her an Elsa costume, complete with a wig, crown, wand, gloves and shoes. We loved watching the joy on her face as she danced and sang to Let it Go. Until one day she yanked off her wig and demanded to know, how many sleeps it would take for her to look like the real Elsa. My heart broke hearing her words, and that at such a young age she already knew that she looked different and didn’t think that difference made her pretty.
My daughter inspired me and gave me the courage to start writing again. This time I knew I who and what I was writing for. I wanted my daughter, and kids like her, to see themselves as the hero of their own story. To be front and center on the cover. I wanted my daughter to know and be proud of her Korean culture.
I searched for books with Korean or Asian main characters but came up with very few. I knew for sure I didn’t want my daughter to grow up the way I did, I wanted better for her. I began to write with a mission to help create a more inclusive and diverse world for my daughter and kids like her.
After brainstorming a few ideas, it didn’t take long for me to realize how I could combine all my passions, writing, Korean art history, and working with children. The idea for LIA PARK AND THE MISSING JEWEL began with the mythology of King Munmu of the Silla Dynasty, who on his deathbed wished to turn into a dragon to protect the East Sea. It was a natural connection from there to include the Hwarang, an elite class of warriors who were a huge part of the Silla Dynasty. I took these two ideas and created the characters and the story. Once I had the general outline for the book, I knew I wanted to include real landmarks, art historical sites, cities and neighborhoods within Korea. So that kids could look up the locations or even visit them someday.
The art historical sites included in Book 1 are Gyeongbokgung Palace, a royal palace during the Joseon Dynasty, Sungnyemun Gate, large gate surrounding the capital of Joseon Dynasty, Cheomseongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia, located in Gyeongju, the former capital of the Silla Dynasty, Daewangam, the rock in the middle of the ocean where King Munmu was said to have been buried, and the site of the Gameunsa Temple, said to have been built for King Munmu by his son.
The idea for Book 2, LIA PARK AND THE HEAVENLY HEIRLOOMS, began with the foundation myth of Korea. Dangun, the founder of Korea ruled with three heavenly heirlooms, a rattle, dagger and a mirror. I also wanted to shed light on a nine-headed monster, known as the Jihagukdaejeok. Most kids would be familiar with the Hydra in Greek mythology but very few are aware of the Korean nine-headed monster.
LIA PARK AND THE HEAVENLY HEIRLOOMS was the most memorable and exciting to research because I physically climbed Wolchulsan Mountain and crossed the Gureumdari Cloud Bridge. I convinced my mom to come with me and we were both extremely ill prepared for the strenuous climb up. About two thirds of the hike was just climbing over boulders. Once we reached the bridge it was absolutely stunning and exhilarating to cross it. We still laugh about it to this day, how amazing it was and how we kept asking every single person we saw how much longer until we reached the top. Little did we know it would take us three hours to go up.
Some art historical sites and artifacts included in Book 2 are Chamseongdan Altar on top of Manisan, the three heavenly heirlooms, Seokguram Grotto, a stone cave with Buddhist sculptures, and Hwasun, area with a high concentration of dolmen.
Sometimes the path to becoming an author isn’t so straightforward and that’s okay. I think it’s important to remember that nothing goes to waste and all the life experiences can make writing richer.
I took a lot of different roads to becoming an author but it’s allowed me a chance to incorporate all my passions into crafting stories for kids. I love being able to spread knowledge about Korean art history and culture all while writing stories for kids. I like to joke about it, but the LIA PARK series can really be used as a tour book. Most of the landmarks, art historical sites, neighborhoods and cities do exist. I just use them for magical purposes.
Through this journey, I realized that what gets me through the ups and downs of writing is not the dream of becoming a best seller. (Yes, that would be great though.) But it’s the mission, the purpose behind why I do what I do. I write because I want to help create a more diverse and inclusive world for our kids.
Meet the author
Jenna Yoon studied Art History at Wellesley College and received her master’s degree in Korean art history from Ewha Womans University. She’s lived about half her life in both Korea and the United States. When she’s not writing, Jenna loves to travel, find yummy eats, play board games, and take skin care very seriously. Currently, she lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two kids.
Author Website: http://authorjennayoon.com/
Author Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/authorjennayoon/
S&S Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/simonkids/
Author Twitter: https://twitter.com/authorjennayoon
S&S Twitter: https://twitter.com/SimonKIDS
About Lia Park and the Heavenly Heirlooms
Perfect for fans of the Gifted Clans and Aru Shah series, this thrilling second book of the middle grade fantasy Lia Park series sees Lia and Joon on a mission to protect important magical objects—and themselves—from a mysterious enemy.
Twelve-year-old Lia Park and her best friend, Joon, are now full-time students at International Magic Academy after defeating corrupt diviner Gaya, and their first assignment is an ambitious one. The evil nine-headed monster and King of Darkness, Jihaedaegukjeok, wants to destroy the three Heavenly Heirlooms that create fire and light to plunge the world into darkness and destroy humanity.
The heirlooms can only be destroyed if they are all together, so over time, they have been hidden carefully with magic. Except now, one of them is missing. Lia, Joon, and their classmates have been tasked with recovering the lost heirloom and bringing it to IMA for safekeeping. They expected the task to be difficult, but the number of obstacles the magic trainees run into makes Lia start to wonder if the sabotage could be coming from someone inside the school.
Publication date: 05/30/2023
Series: Lia Park #2
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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