Today we are celebrating Linda Sue Park’s initiative to bring together and highlight Korean American children’s book creators on her kiBooka website. Linda Sue will talk about the site’s inception, and we’ll hear from creators Janet Wong, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Paula Yoo, Aram Kim, Helena Ku Rhee, and Chris Soentpiet about what this site means for them professionally and personally.
Linda Sue, what was the initial inspiration for the kiBooka site?
Linda Sue: I’ve been working on inclusion and equity issues in children’s books since the beginning of my career in the late 1990s, but I hadn’t found a satisfactory way to support creators of my own Korean-ancestry community. I mean, I wish I could blurb or blog about every worthy book, but that will have to wait until cloning technology is perfected!
Then when the pandemic became a reality, Asians everywhere were and are being harassed, shunned, or worse—something I myself experienced more than once. I felt an urgency to do something that would contribute to making Asians more visible in positive ways.
Many Asian cultures emphasize the importance of the group over the individual, which is something American society could learn from. But it also means that we’re often slower to trumpet our achievements. I wanted a way to show people that my community of Korean Americans and the Korean diaspora are doing fabulous work to create great books for all young readers, so I decided to make a list and put it on my website. That was the genesis of what is now www.kibooka.com
What has been the response to the site? How will it grow or evolve?
Linda Sue: I’ve received messages from librarians, teachers, parents, educators, thanking me for kiBooka. Often the message is an appreciation of the ‘mirrors’ (as in the ‘mirrors and windows’ posited by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop); for example, from parents looking for books for their children of Korean ancestry. Other messages are from librarians and teachers seeking ‘windows’ for dominant-culture readers. I especially appreciate those working to increase inclusivity on their shelves and in their classrooms.
Almost every week since the site launched in October, listings have been added to kiBooka, and I expect that the site will continue to grow in this way, as more creators discover the site, and as we discover more creators! I also hope to foster a sense of community, so we can support one another’s work.
It might sound strange to say, but quantity is important in this context: When the number of creators and books centering specific cultures is small, each bears too much of the burden of representation. We need more books by creators from every kind of group and community—many more, so that young readers (and their adults) can see the variety of experiences and the individualities within, which are assumed and granted to white culture. I hope kiBooka helps service that vital need.
kiBooka is meant to provide a jumping-off point: Here we are, and please click through to find out more about us and our books. Thanks to the web magicians at Winding Oak, I think the straightforward layout is attractive and easy to navigate. I love the simplicity of the site: It never fails to make me smile when I look at the faces and book covers.
Since the site launched, enthusiasm has grown. Can you each talk about what being included in this consolidated list means for you personally? For your career? For readers?
Janet: For those of us who are “old-timers” (published for a couple of decades and more), kiBooka has provided an energizing affirmation. Scrolling down the page, I was truly filled with wonder at how far we’ve come in terms of representation.
For way too long, it was possible to count the number of Korean American children’s authors on a single hand. Now we have enough creators to clap our hands, stomp our feet—and do backflips, too!
Marie: My novel Finding My Voice (HarperCollins, 1992) was putatively the first contemporary set Asian American YA novel—that also meant my book almost didn’t get published because publishers didn’t know what to do with it and they also like “comps”—comparable.
Now there are so many more Korean American authors and it’s as a wonder to behold on the site! For readers, it also means they can see the richness and depth of Korean American children’s literature.
Paula: I was very moved to see the list of Korean American writers listed in Linda Sue Park’s website. I know a handful of us either professionally or personally, but to see such a long list of names had a profound effect on me. I hadn’t realized how large our community has grown over the years, especially with the next generation of younger authors. It made me feel very proud to be a part of this list and to see that our numbers are growing.
Aram: It is truly amazing to see a consolidated list of Korean and Korean American creators. Personally, it is a great honor to be included in the company of other wonderful and talented creators. The site represents a community and a safe space where we can support and lift one another. It meant so much that Linda Sue Park, who is an established and renowned author, made this happen with her kindness, support, generosity and her wide platform.
When I first received an email from her, encouraging me to join kiBooka, I couldn’t quite believe it, and thought, is “the” Linda Sue Park really emailing me? What is even more impressive is that launching the site, which inevitably takes a lot of time, effort, and energy of many people, wasn’t the end.
Since then, Linda Sue has been building bonds among us, welcoming new members, and spotlighting anyone’s good news and achievements. I feel incredibly lucky that I can see firsthand how someone who is so well-established can use their own influence to grow and build a community that can help one another.
Helena: On a practical level, kiBooka came at a really great time. About a month after kiBooka first launched, a reader emailed me to see if I could recommend books written by fellow Korean American authors. Apparently, her child’s librarian had tapped her (because she’s actively involved with the library and the school) to help diversify the library’s book collection. And I was so happy to be able to provide the link to kiBooka. So kiBooka had an immediate impact, which is awesome.
On a personal level, it’s truly amazing to be part of this community of fellow Korean American authors. It’s so gratifying and inspiring to see the wide range of voices and stories we’re telling. I’m very grateful to Linda Sue Park and her team for putting kiBooka together. Linda Sue is a pioneer and trailblazer, so I’m happy to follow wherever she leads!
What do you want people to know about Korean American representation in literature?
Janet: The brilliant format of the kiBooka landing page gives people an instant appreciation of the wide variety of topics represented in our work and also shows the wide variety in our faces. It’s really important for people to understand the diversity within our demographic—in terms of what we create and also our backgrounds. For readers who self-identify as part-Korean and feel marginalized, kiBooka’s inclusion of part-Korean creators (like myself) honors us all.
Marie: That our experiences are all different and no one is “representative” of Korean Americans, just like there’s no white author who represents all white people.
Paula: I was one of the earlier Korean American authors to be published. My first children’s picture book biography is Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee & Low) about Olympic gold medalist Dr. Sammy Lee came out in 2005. My first YA novel Good Enough was published in 2008 by HarperCollins and was inspired by my life growing up as the Korean American daughter of immigrants and by my love of music (I’m a professional violinist).
But stories of culture identity, immigration and dealing with racism are not the only stories that can be told. It’s refreshing and inspiring to see Korean American representation in literature expand into sci fi/fantasy and romance and stories where race and identity are not always at the forefront. I think there’s room for all of our stories.
Aram: I want people to know that there is new literature published every year by Korean and Korean American creators carrying their authentic voices and perspectives. Sometimes I feel frustrated to see readers or gatekeepers creating a list of Korean literature only consisting of very old publications.
Some are classics meant to be read over and over again, but some are outdated and even misrepresent the culture. I am excited that kiBooka carries both classics and new voices so that it provides readers with a wide range of choices and information.
Helena: The wonderful thing about diversity in literature is that we’re hearing stories that need to be told and stories we’ve never heard before. Stories written by members of marginalized communities often ask questions such as, “How do I belong here?” and “How can we all figure out how to respect each other and get along?” These are important questions to ask, and exploring them through stories will hopefully make a lasting impression on readers.
How about the literary conversation of Korean American children’s-YA books over time?
Janet: Back when there were few Asian American children’s books—and very few Korean-themed (English-language) children’s books—each book shouldered way too much responsibility. Editors seemed to want only those books that fit into a mainstream or universal idea of Asian culture, so that’s what got published. Now that there are many more Asian American children’s books, we can write about anything—and we do!
Helena: I love that the books showcased on KiBooka are not just about the immigrant experience, but also about universal childhood experiences such as growing up, fitting in, standing out, finding your place in the world. I also love that many of the books are what you would call “commercial fiction,” but told from a different perspective.
More globally, the field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, illustration, literature and publishing?
Janet: While the attention to #ownvoices has been hugely empowering for BIPOC authors and illustrators, I would also like to draw attention to potential problems that might come from limiting ourselves in terms of the characters we are “allowed” to include in our stories.
An understanding of intersectionality is crucial, if the goal is for our bookshelves to look like our neighborhoods; and authors need to feel safe about including a broad spectrum of people and viewpoints in our books.
Marie: I recently was asked to review this group of books for the New York Times and half of them were Asian American and that made me so happy!
Paula: Confession: I was a straight-A student, concertmaster of my youth orchestra, and was accepted into five Ivy Leagues. And yes, I was good at math. But I cringed when TIME Magazine published the story “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids” in 1987, my senior year of high school.
These stereotypes of the Asian “overachiever” diminished my individual achievements. I became part of a monolith which is why I wrote Good Enough, inspired by my life as a Korean American teenaged violin geek. I hope it shows the universal humanity—and humor—of my life experience since as a young reader, I never saw any books that mirrored my life.
In school, Asian American history was rarely—if ever—taught. This lack of representation and education contributed to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders being treated as “perpetual foreigners” in our own country. As a result, I started researching on my own which led me to Dr. Sammy Lee’s story, the first Korean American to win a Gold Medal in diving at the Olympics. The obstacles he faced and overcame inspired me to write Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story.
Since then, I have published more books that have Korean American and Asian American characters including a narrative nonfiction YA book centered around the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin that led to the first federal civil rights trial for an Asian American. From A Whisper to A Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and The Trial That Galvanized The Asian American Movement (Norton) comes out this April.
I write to fill in the gaps of our missing history with books that are not only diverse and inclusive but also provide equity in our educational system. It’s been 34 years since I first cringed in disbelief at that TIME Magazine cover story on Asian American “whiz kids.” Today, I am proud to be part of a growing group of diverse voices fighting back… and writing back. #RepresentationMatters.
Aram: There has been a slow but steady and definite move of making sure the voices represented in the literature are authentic. In the past, the creators were mainly responsible for their creations. Nowadays, more and more publishers are actively involved to make sure to minimize the possibility of misrepresentation or cultural inaccuracy by hiring authentic readers and fact checkers in various stages of publishing. I appreciate this collective effort to ensure that voices in published literature are well-represented.
Helena: I remember going to SCBWI conferences about a decade ago, and hearing maybe a panel or two focused on diversity. Now, diversity and representation seem to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind and integral to so many discussions. That’s very encouraging and a huge step in the right direction. As a writer, it gives me confidence that what’s considered art and what’s considered literature has broadened, and that the gatekeepers of the industry have become much more open-minded and inclusive.
My own bookshelves at home have evolved from carrying primarily books from the Western canon (I was an English major in college, so that meant reading lots of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton) to including works from authors from many different backgrounds and from all over the world. I love this evolution and wish that my younger self had been exposed to such a plethora of rich, diverse voices.
Chris: When I go to schools to give author visit assemblies my goal is to celebrate diversity using children’s books. These days, more than ever we need more multi-cultural awareness and tolerance. To achieve this, we need to promote books that celebrate diversity.
Linda Sue Park is the author of many books for young readers, including the 2002 Newbery Medal winner A Single Shard (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) and the New York Times bestseller A Long Walk To Water (Clarion, 2010). Her most recent titles are Prairie Lotus, a historical fiction middle-grade novel, and Gurple & Preen (Simon and Schuster, 2020), a picture book illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. The One Thing You’d Save (Clarion, 2021), a collection of linked poems, will be published in March 2021.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Linda Sue grew up in Illinois, and has traveled widely to promote books and reading. She serves on the advisory boards of We Need Diverse Books, SCBWI, and the Rabbit hOle children’s literature museum project. Linda Sue knows very well that she will never be able to read every great book ever written, but she keeps trying anyway. Visit her website at www.lindasuepark.com; follow her on Twitter @LindaSuePark.
Janet Wong is a graduate of Yale Law School and a former lawyer who switched careers to become a children’s author. She is the author of more than 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects, including issues of identity and her Korean and Chinese heritage: A Suitcase of Seaweed & More (Pomelo, 1996). She is the winner of the 2021 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, a lifetime achievement award that is one of the highest honors an American children’s poet can receive. Her most recent anthology, co-edited with Sylvia Vardell, is HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving (Pomelo, 2021). You can learn more about her work at janetwong.com and pomelobooks.com.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s novel, The Evening Hero, is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster, and her young adult novel, Finding My Voice (HarperCollins, 1992), has just be re-released by Soho Press. Her stories and essays have been published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, Salon, Guernica, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Nation, and the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in Smithsonian Magazine. Lee is a founder and former board president of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and teaches fiction at Columbia where she is Writer in Residence.
Paula Yoo is an author, screenwriter, and musician. Her latest YA non-fiction book, From A Whisper To A Rallying Cry: The Killing Of Vincent Chin And The Trial That Galvanized The Asian American Movement (Norton Young Readers, 2021), is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Her other books include the YA novel Good Enough (HarperCollins 2008), an Asian/Pacific American Award for Youth Literature honor book, and the IRA Notable picture book biographies Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee & Low,2005) , Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story illustrated by Lin Wang (Lee & Low, 2009), and Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank illustrated by Jamel Akib (Lee & Low, 2014). She has also written three books for Lee & Low’s “Confetti Kids” early reader series and has a chapter book series coming out in 2022 from Lee & Low.
As a TV writer/producer, her credits range from NBC’s The West Wing to The CW’s Supergirl, and she has sold multiple TV pilots and feature scripts. She is also a former journalist (The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, and People Magazine). She graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in English, an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College, where she was the recipient of the Larry Levis Fiction Fellowship. When she’s not writing, Paula is a professional freelance violinist who has played and toured with orchestras and such national recording acts as No Doubt, Il Divo, Fun, and Love. Website: https://paulayoo.com
Aram Kim is a NY-based author, illustrator, and designer for children’s books. She was born in Ohio, mostly grew up in South Korea, and now lives in Queens, NY, surrounded by diverse food and culture. Her debut picture book Cat on the Bus (Holiday House, 2016) was included in Children’s Choice Reading List by ILA/CBC, and New York Public Library’s Summer Reading List. No Kimchi for Me! (Holiday House 2017) is a Junior Library Guild selection and won numerous awards. It is the first book in the series Yoomi, Friends, and Family, followed by Let’s Go to Taekwondo! (Holiday House 2020) and Sunday Funday in Koreatown (Holiday House 2021). She is an illustrator for Children’s Book Week bookmark and activities for 2021. Visit her online at AramKim.com for downloadable activities and video resources.
Helena Ku Rhee is a writer of books for kids and the young at heart. Her most recent picture book, The Paper Kingdom illustrated by Pascal Campion (Penguin Random House, ), was hailed as “enchanting and powerful” (Booklist, starred review) and “heartwarming…a must-read” (Kirkus, starred review). It was included on many year-end Best Books lists, including Kirkus, NPR (and a staff pick), Parents Magazine, the Los Angeles Public Library, BookPage and Amazon, among others. Helena is also the author of the picture books The Turtle Ship illustrated by Colleen Kong-Savage (Lee & Low, 2018), SORA’S Seashells (Candlewick, forthcoming 2022), and Rosa’s Song (Random House Studio, forthcoming 2022). Her writing has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.
Chris Soentpiet is an illustrator and author of children’s books. He was was born in South Korea. When he was eight-years-old, his sister and he were adopted by the Soentpiet family, and they moved to Hawaii. Much later, while doing research for his book Peacebound Trains by Haemi Balgassi (Clarion, 1996), he had the opportunity to return to Korea and visit his biological siblings for the first time since he was adopted.
Chris studied fine arts and education at Pratt Institute in New York City. There he met two very special friends, Ted and Betsy Lewin, who encouraged him to pursue his passion for painting by illustrating children’s books. Since then, his work has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Houston Chronicle and Newsweek.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.