We spoke to Jenna Yoon ’02, author of the middle-grade fantasy Lia Park and the Missing Jewel, about her path to writing a children’s book and the importance of depicting courageous girls.
How did you settle on writing a fantasy?
Growing up, I was a huge reader but didn’t see myself in books. Even reading contemporary books was a sort of fantasy. I don’t look like the girls in Sweet Valley Twins. Their family culture is different from mine. When my daughter was 3, she loved everything Disney, and she wanted to be like Elsa. She asked, “Why don’t I look like that?”
I said, “You are you, and you’re beautiful just the way you are,” but she was never going to look like Elsa. I tried to find books with Asian main characters that fit her interests: fantasy, magic. There wasn’t much. That propelled me to start writing this book for my daughter, so that she can read books like this. And now, she wants to be like Lia Park.
What were your priorities for the cover?
The most important part was having a Korean girl front and center with a determined look on her face. I also wanted to make sure that the elements on the cover looked Korean—not Chinese, not Japanese, because they’re all different.
Did your art history background play a role in the writing process?
I wanted to incorporate Korean mythology and art history in a fun way. I think my book creates an accessible entry point into Korean culture. I wanted to incorporate real places—the art historical sites, neighborhoods, and cities, they do exist. I wrote my master’s thesis in Korea, and I went again to visit specific places, to really put myself there. I would consider it a win to spark a child’s curiosity, to broaden their worldview, and if they wanted to learn more about Korean places or language.
How do you hope Lia Park impacts girls—particularly Asian American girls?
It’s important for girls to see themselves in characters that show grit, perseverance, and courage. So they know: You can do anything and be anything. Writing this book, I was like, “Why not? You can be anything you want to be.”
I would love to help [Korean American and Asian American girls] feel seen. Seeing yourself in books makes you feel like you matter. I wrote it as a celebration of culture, to show that [Korean culture is] something my daughter and girls like her can be proud of. I also wanted to make our culture seem less foreign to people. Differences create strength, and I hope it can help kids understand their friends better.
Funderburg is a publishing professional whose work focuses on diverse books and equity in education.