I met Jane Park during a children’s literature happy hour over Zoom. In one of the breakout rooms, she mentioned that her latest picture book, Juna and Appa, was coming out in 2022. It’ll be her second publication with Lee & Low publishers, and her first book with them, Juna’s Jar, was published as a result of her winning Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, which is given to a children’s picture book manuscript by a writer of color or Indigenous/Native writer. Park’s work is joyful and sensitive, depicting with sharpness and nuance a life lived multiculturally, so I sat down with her over Zoom to talk about everything from endings to political activism.
The Writer: When we first met, we had a chat about endings. We talked about how the conventional wisdom skews more toward happy endings in children’s literature. Can we talk a little about how you view endings and how that works its way into your books?
Jane Park: I think to only have happy endings in picture books really does a disservice to our children. We’re socializing them to think that there’s always an answer, all things can be resolved in 32 pages if you just try hard enough. If you’re just special enough. We all know that we can try and be as good as we can be, and things still don’t work out. And, in fact, many old fairytales and folktales have pretty grim endings. When did we decide all children’s stories need a “happily ever after?” Sometimes we might need the fantasy and have things end neatly. But sometimes we just need some comfort from knowing that others go through things like this, too, and that we’re not alone.
When I first started watching Korean films (once they became more available in the U.S.), I used to feel frustrated by the endings. I felt like they’d just abruptly end. But I later realized that I was looking at them through a very American lens. An aspect that I really appreciate about Korean work is that it often defies conventional genre boundaries. You think you’re watching a drama, and in the middle of it, you get over-the-top, gross-out comedy. I mean, what is the phenomenon that is Squid Game? Or the novel Kim Ji-young: Born 1982, [which] has nonfiction elements like footnotes. I love that. Life is comedy and horror and drama all together, and they throw it all at you. Why are we so interested in creating boundaries and limitations and formulas for art? Isn’t art precisely about playing with or even defying conventions?
The ending for Juna and Appa was definitely an issue that came up. [Ed. note: Juna and Appa centers around Juna’s father misplacing a client’s jacket.] I got a lot of initial feedback that the missing jacket must be found. But that’s not what this book is about, and, in fact, [a happy ending] would negate what it’s about. I felt unwavering about the ending. Luckily my editor, Jessica Echeverria, very much related to this story and never once said she thought that the jacket needed to be found. It doesn’t need to have a pat, neat ending in order to feel satisfying.
TW: Juna and Appa draws some inspiration from your own childhood. What’s it like to work with your memories in this fashion? And, at some point, do the book and its characters take on a life of their own? What’s that like?
JP: There’s a lot I drew upon from spending so much time at my parents’ [dry cleaning] shop when I was young, but ultimately it is fiction. So it starts with fragments of memories of being at the shop. It’s strange that I can’t really remember any specific incidents or conversations that happened, but I remember things like the warmth of the steam from the presser, the texture of grimy shirt collars, the slippery feel of rows of plastic-covered clothes. Then, I thought about the character of Juna. What would she do at the shop and with those shop supplies? And how would she process her feelings from witnessing a difficult moment? I would have squashed and repressed them, but how would Juna work through them? Her character drives the story forward.
[The incident with the character who loses his coat,] Mr. Parker, never happened, and it happened a thousand times. To my dad, to my mom, to me when I worked the counter. I often felt like many people saw me as “less than” because I was behind the counter, and they were in front. I hope that the kids who are growing up in their family shops will feel seen. And, more broadly, the kids who have seen their parents, their heroes, treated as “less than,” too. I want these stories to be authentically and compassionately told so that kids might feel that they are not alone.
Felicia [Hoshino, Juna and Appa’s illustrator] also brings in her own memories of her dad and the dads she knows. I think many people believe that the picture book author tells the illustrator what to draw, but this is not the usual process at all. When an illustrator comes on board, they’ve read the manuscript and have their own vision for how to bring the story to life visually. I was unable to even imagine how she would illustrate Juna running through the rows of clothes into the forest. I saw it as a moving image, but how to capture that in a spread? What she did is so magical.
TW: Last year, you participated in a rally for AAPI Youth Rising, an organization largely composed of middle school students calling attention to rising xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States. You wrote a poem for the young women in the audience. What role do you think picture book writers can play in our current zeitgeist in terms of inspiration, politics, and driving public thought?
JP: If you think about what kind of books could really drive social change, I think that picture books would top the list. I’ve seen very few adults actually radically change from reading a book. You pick and choose what you want to read, and they’re usually books that appeal to you, not challenge you.
But picture books are formative. They’re for the time when adults spend the most time reading books with kids and actually have conversations about them. They reach both the adult and child and prompt dialogue. Picture books are powerful because they are visual representations of our existence. They shape the way kids view the world and their sense of themselves and their place in it. So what happens when they’re invisible in them? Or misrepresented? In Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen’s analysis of diversity in picture books, it revealed that not only do picture books feature majority white protagonists but that there are even more books about animals than of all kids of color combined.
There are studies that show that kids who were read picture books featuring cross-racial friendships became more inclined to reach out to and play with kids of different races. That’s a mind-boggling finding! It provides a concrete, actionable step that could be implemented tomorrow! If we are all working toward a more equitable and just future for all kids, shouldn’t this incredible finding impact the decisions about the kind of picture books that are published?
We need books that feature a diversity of kids with different lived experiences who have stories to tell. All these diverse experiences need to be normalized, not exoticized or “othered” in picture books. We know they are deeply impactful! We talk about our favorite kids’ books, remember and cherish them into our adulthood. Isn’t it far more effective to represent a more honest truth when kids are forming their perceptions of the world rather than try to undo the skewed messaging as adults?
TW: What role would YOU like to play, if any?
JP: I would love for my work to speak for itself, but at this moment in time, I don’t feel like there’s a choice to be more anonymous. I’m usually resistant to put myself out there or to join groups or identify myself by profession. But we need to take up space and tell our stories! If not, other people tell our stories for us and decide who we are. We are not just about holidays and food.
We don’t all have to be public speakers to make a difference. I want to encourage kids to do what they do to express themselves – speak out, write, draw, code, create, sing, dance. We are quiet, and we’re loud – we’re not a monolith, and I wish we would stop instilling this “self-help” mentality that kids have to be fixed, to be better, to be different. They are enough just as they are.
AAPIs aren’t being attacked and scapegoated because we’re so quiet and complacent. AAPIs are being attacked because of racism. This is essentially what I wanted to share with the AAPI Youth Rising girls. I had expected maybe 100 people to show up and felt OK about reading my poem, a love letter to my daughter and these girls. The girls somehow managed to get 1,200 people to show up! I was pretty shocked, but at that point, there was no way out of it. I had to take these girls’ lead and be brave.
I hope to continue to have the opportunity to write stories about kids of color just being kids, but with cultural specificity and universal themes. Like the scholar Rudine Sims Bishop wrote, all kids need windows and mirror books – ones to look into people’s lives and ones that reflect your experiences back to you and affirm who you are. Such a genius way to put it! When I was a kid, I devoured books, but they were definitely all window books. I remember literally crying and accusing my dad of not loving me because what I learned from books is that you show love by saying “I love you” and with hugs and kisses. My dad never hugged or kissed me or ever once said that he loved me. But he worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week to make sure we were sheltered and clothed and fed. He always cut the fruit after dinner for us. And I love chestnuts to this day because they remind me of him scoring and roasting piles of them for us. Like the Darwin frog says in Juna and Appa, parents show love in lots of different ways. I don’t want kids to have to wait until they’re adults and discover Subtle Asian Traits to realize that their parents, of course, had deep, deep love for them. [Ed. note: “Subtle Asian Traits” is an online group that connects “Asian individuals globally to create a community that celebrates the similarities and differences within the subtle traits of Asian culture and sub-cultures.”]
TW: Can you tell us a little about the craft of writing a picture book? You are also a television writer; do the skills complement each other or merge into one another at any point?
JP: Writing for TV/video and having to think visually helps a lot in writing picture books because the images play such a key role in the storytelling. When writing nonfiction scripts, I have a column for the words/sound and a column for the footage/images. This format helps me see the story visually when writing picture books, but in the final manuscript, art notes are generally not encouraged. The artist will read the manuscript and interpret it with their own creative vision. So, after I write all the art notes, which help me figure out the whole story, I go back and take them all out.
This is all just in general, and there are always exceptions. In nonfiction, I think art notes are actually preferred. I wrote two nonfiction picture books that I actually submitted with all the rough visuals – photos and layout. This is usually not what agents and editors want from [writers who are not] author-illustrators. But because of the specific nature of the book, I felt like you have to see the images to see why kids would love this kind of book.
Another way that writing for TV/ video helps with picture book writing is that you are working with time/length constraints. The video has to be 20 or two minutes, and you have to tell the story, deliver the content within the timeframe. In picture book writing, you have 32 pages and ideally under 500 words. The Juna books are longer, but I know that’s not the norm, and, like I said, there are always exceptions!
TW: What’s next for you?
JP: Juna and Appa comes out in May. Hidden Animal Colors comes out in spring 2022 and Hidden Animal Features in fall 2022. They’re playful animal books, but the underlying message is to pay attention to the overlooked, which is a theme that drives most of my work.
I’d love to create another Juna story and have been working on a third manuscript. I would love to see more adventures with Juna navigating her emotions and her fantastic worlds. Also, having worked on several animal TV shows for kids, including creating an original show featuring a diverse group of kids on adventure (Nickelodeon bought and made a pilot, but it didn’t go to series), it would be a dream to me to have Juna as an animated wildlife series.
—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.