Writing a Korean American Story for Kids
"I knew a younger version of myself would have appreciated it... all children deserve to see themselves represented in the literature they read."
As a kid, I was a voracious reader. Fantasy, realistic fiction, thrillers, mysteries, I read them all. Each week, I would beg my parents to take me to the local library, and each time I would leave with a stack of books almost as tall as me. Despite this, it wasn’t until college that I found books with Korean protagonists. I had moved into a wider pool of novels, adding translations and adult literature to the mix. When I was younger, I just didn’t see that many middle-grade or young adult books with Korean leads.
According to an infographic from Sarah Park Dahlen in a School Library Journal article1, only 3.3% of children’s literature depicted Asian characters in 2015. Books featuring all people of color combined only made up 15%. In 2018, the number of books with Asian representation grew to 7%. Even with that increase, children’s books about white characters were still 50% of the pool. The number of books revolving around animal characters had a greater percentage than all books featuring a nonwhite character. In addition, these numbers only speak to the quanitity of representation, not the quality.
I think about these statistics often. I’m half-Korean and half-white. When I wrote books as a kid, some of the stories had white protagonists and some had Asian ones, but I didn’t think too much about it. It wasn’t until I started reading more books with Korean characters as an adult that I realized what a literary lack there had been in my childhood. Every time I read a new book about a Korean character, I got excited all over again because there were so many tiny details I could connect with—from the food to pop culture references to hearing characters speak Korean. When I wrote Pippa Park Raises Her Game, I knew that I wanted the main character to be Korean because I knew a younger version of myself would have appreciated it and because all children deserve to see themselves represented in the literature they read.
Increasing diversity in children’s publishing is a momentous task, and there is a lot of work ahead of us. The sky is the limit in terms of increasing the number of diverse books that exist. But I find glimpses of hope when reading recent children's books with Korean characters. I look at my bookshelf now and see novels I would have snapped up as a kid like Jessica Kim’s Stand Up, Yumi Chung! and Linda Sue Park's Prairie Lotus. I hope my reading list only grows as the number of published diverse children's books grows too.