Jenna Yoon talks about mom guilt, representation in text and inspirations behind her book Lia Park and the Missing Jewel.
By Brianna Salinas
Jenna Yoon is a writer, mother and lover of Korean art history. Currently living in Austin with her husband and two young daughters, Yoon drew inspiration from her daughters and her passion for the cultural arts to write her debut book, Lia Park and the Missing Jewel. After studying art history at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Yoon went on to receive her master’s degree in Korean art history from Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul, South Korea.
“Growing up, I wanted to be an author. But then at some point I realized, ‘Maybe I can’t become an author,’ because I hadn’t seen any main characters that looked like me. Or any authors that looked like me either. At some point I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll have to use a pen name,’” Yoon shares. She continued to write as a hobby, writing for adults. “My characters were all white; there were no Asians. In some way it might have been this subconscious fantasy about a life that couldn’t be mine.” It wasn’t until Yoon moved to Korea in eighth grade and attended international school that she began seeing more books and media that shared her identity.
A Mother’s Inspiration
While writing Lia Park and the Missing Jewel, Yoon attributed a lot of her inspiration for her work to her daughters. She recalls a story of her eldest daughter, who became upset for not having “yellow hair” like Elsa from Frozen. After this exchange, Yoon went on the search for books with Korean and Asian main characters but came up short. “Growing up, I didn’t see myself in books. I didn’t really think much of it [at the time]; it was normal. But I didn’t want my daughters to grow up like that. I wanted something better for them. I want them to grow up in a more diverse, inclusive world.” In order to remedy the lack of representation in children’s books, Yoon “decided to write books with Korean-American main characters, so that [my children]could see themselves in books.”
Yoon cites her other inspiration: Korean art history. “I always wanted to come to the States to be a professor here and teach Korean art history. I changed tracks, but I feel like through these children’s books, I have a way of incorporating Korean art history and culture, all of my passions into one book.”
As a mother of two young daughters, Yoon must actively seek writing time throughout the day. “When I started writing Lia Park, it was when my daughter was going to preschool full time. So before then, the only time I had [to write]was between naps. It was finding those little moments where I could just write something. It didn’t have to be 1,000 words; even 200 words would feel like a win for the day,” she shares. “Find those moments of time that you can spare; all of those moments add up.”
Being in the Moment
At the cost of publishing her first book came mom guilt. In order to counteract this feeling, Yoon reminds herself that her daughters will come to see her as a “role model, who is also a mom and also works. It will show them that they can do whatever they want. You’re not limited to just being a mom; you can do other things too.”
Yoon stresses the importance of “being in the moment” for mom authors. “I have so many things running through my mind. In terms of my work, I think about how to plot a scene. I’m thinking in my head and not focusing. When [my kids]are telling me their news for the day, I try to turn it off in order to focus on them and be in the moment to give them their quality time. And when I’m working, I try to be more focused and just work.”
Jenna Yoon is Lia Park
Lia Park and the Missing Jewel is packed with action, Korean myth and a lot of familial love. Protagonist Lia and her best friend Joon are on the precipice of taking a test that will reveal to them if they make it into a secret spy academy. Lia, who believes she lacks magic altogether, is whisked away into a great adventure that includes teleportation, magic spells and fighting dragons in order to save her parents from the evil magician, Gaya. On this heroic journey, Lia begins to see the world in a new light while her ordinary life slips away into the grasp of the shadow monsters. Using her extensive knowledge of Korean culture and art history, Yoon creates a mystical world for the heroes that are not as represented in the Western canon.
“I want readers to understand each other a little better. It’s not just written for Korean Americans to read it; it’s for all kids to enjoy. It brings differences to light in a way that is celebrated. In a way where everyone can appreciate and understand those differences. I would be so happy to hear if people said, ‘After reading your book, I researched all of these signs and wanted to learn more about Korean art history and Korean this or that.’ That would make me so happy. Just to spark their imagination and curiosity, as well.”