Writing for young minds

“It is important for children to see themselves or someone who looks like them in books they read”


Linda Sue Park is an American children’s book author of Korean heritage. Her book A Single Shard, about an orphaned boy in 12th century Korea who wants to become a potter, was awarded the John Newberry medal in 2002. She was recently in Kathmandu for Bal Sahitya Mahotsav at Rato Bangala School, and spoke with Nepali Times about reading, writing, specifically for children, and learning English. Excerpts:

Nepali Times: What are the things to keep in mind when writing children’s books, as opposed to books for adults?

Linda Sue Park: This has changed and evolved over the years. Children’s books used to be instructive, like how to be a good little girl or boy. When I broke in more than twenty years ago, the emphasis was on stories. It was sort of very amorphous, we just want exciting stories, adventure stories, happy stories, sad stories. The current phase in the US is activism. Mostly how you’re going to save our planet. This is something that kids are going to have to deal with.

I have a book called A Single Shard. Young people come up to me and tell me that this book is about perseverance. Other people will say no, this is about family. Then there are those who say it is about how our lives would be a bleak misery without art. Am I going to say that any of those are wrong? No. So the message or the theme of the book is what that individual reader most needs at that time in their minds.

If it's a really good book you can read it when you’re ten years old and get one message and then read it when you are fifteen and get another, and read it when you’re 50 and still get a third.

Read also: Adventures of a little dumpling named Momo (and other books), Sahina Shrestha

It has been said that all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.'A Single Shard has elements of both. Do you think that the journey Tree-ear goes through to learn pottery has parallels in learning how to write?

Absolutely, and I was not conscious of that, it was a young reader who pointed that out to me. He heard me talk about revision. I’ve talked a lot about revising, and this little kid said to me, that’s just how Min makes a pot.

Do you start with an outline and then flesh it in?

My fiction is a character with an external and an internal quest. The character has something they want, that’s the external quest, or what other people call the plot. They also have an internal plot, the emotional growth they need to experience, sometimes that’s called the theme. Often the character does not know their internal quest. That’s how I start a story.

I’d say the first month of thinking about the story, I write them each down on a post-it, and I stick them on either side of my trackpad, so that everything I write, it’s got to be this or that.

In writing A Single Shard, how much of it was first-hand personal experience that influenced the story, and how much of it was external research?

I traveled to Korea and visited some of the sites that are in the story. When I would come across something in Korean that I thought was important, my parents would translate it.

So how am I going to write this book because it is so much trouble to find out about 12th century Korea? Well, because Korean pottery at the time was so famous, pottery experts had done a lot of work on it. Every piece mentioned in the book is real.

I am not an expert on Korea or Korean history, I grew up in America, I have done some research on Korean pottery of this era, just enough to write this story.

One of your parents cut out the phonics of the English language into a notebook and another parent took you to the library.

My son learned with phonics. My daughter had no patience for it. She learned what is called whole language, she would just hear the book over and over and read it. So their development as readers was quite different. He can figure out an unfamiliar word quicker and easier than she can. She comprehends a whole story much better than him.

What you have to have is a wonderful teacher who is trained in many different systems, and that teacher says, “Okay, this child is a phonics kid. But this child maybe not so much.” It's so difficult for teachers. Where it really has to happen, is at home, which is also really difficult.

Kids who have parents who support their reading at home, are far ahead by the time they get just to kindergarten.

Read also: The Thappad, Anbika Giri

What is the importance of having diverse stories for kids?

I do a lot of work around this as it pertains to children’s books. We need to see everyone in their full humanity. We need to realise that they are people just like we are, because if you don’t, that means that you feel you can treat them as lesser than you are.

I grew up in an era of children’s books where there were very few Asians portrayals. I never saw one Korean character. It does terrible things to a child’s self-image. It is important for kids to see themselves or someone who looks like them in books.

Those of us who do this sort of work are very fortunate to have that experience. Little girls running up to you and saying, “She looks like me!” It’s just really heartwarming.

But to me, even more important, is the dominant culture, to say, “Oh, they want to do whatever it is just like I do. They’re like me.” And that second part especially is what still needs so much work.

Read also: The power of reading aloud, Sanghamitra Subba

What advice do you have for budding writers out there who want to make it their career?

As a writer just starting out you don’t make a living. Many people have a vision of either being a great novelist or biographer, or Hollywood screenwriter. That is a reality for a very few people. Many of us who do writing do other things that are less glamorous. A lot of writers teach writing. They teach in university programs and so forth.

The rest of us do what we call writing-adjacent jobs, such as school visits. I’m one of the fortunate ones, I’m not J K Rowling, but I can live off what my books make. But I love to travel, so I do very, very few school visits now in the United States. I accept invitations from schools abroad, like now in Nepal, because I want to see the country.

What was your first impression of Nepal after coming out of the airport last week?

I have only been in Kathmandu, and it's very lively, a lot of people, a lot of life, and Nepalis are very friendly, very helpful, smiling, they’ve got their own thing going on. We’ve really enjoyed it.

Vishad Onta


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