North Korea

Inspired by tradition

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 February, 2007, 12:00am


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Born in the United States to Korean parents, children's author Linda Sue Park says her heritage has provided a rich source of inspiration for most of the 10 titles she has had published.

And the fact she speaks only a little Korean, has only visited the country twice, can only read the alphabet and write her name, hasn't hindered her in drawing on many aspects of the country's history and culture for her stories.

'I think it definitely gives me a different perspective, and sometimes distance [from my background] can be helpful,' she explains from the home in upstate New York she shares with her husband and two children.

'I haven't been there often, so I feel that I'm exploring [on my own].'

From the age of four, Park has been an avid reader and writer of poems and stories and her first piece of published work was a haiku in a children's magazine when she was nine years old.

After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in English (a useful degree for a would-be writer, says Park), she worked in public relations, for an advertising agency and taught English as a second language to college students, before her first book, Seesaw Girl, was published in 1999.

The book tells the story of Jade Blossom, a young girl growing up in 17th-century Korea who yearns to expand her horizons beyond her confinement within the four walls of her family home's Inner Court.

Her latest work Bee-bim Bop!, which means 'mix-mix rice' in Korean and refers to a dish of rice, egg strips, vegetables and meat that's mixed together by hand at the family table, is a happy picture book for pre-schoolers.

Her best known work and the book for which she won a 2002 Newbery Medal was A Single Shard - the story of an orphan that dreams of becoming a master potter.

Park says she gets her inspiration from all around her - reading books and articles, listening to people talk, watching films and television. A voracious reader, Park's advice to would-be writers is to read, read, and read some more.

'If you want to be a writer, you have to read a lot. Reading is training for writers the same way that working out is training for athletes,' says Park, who still teaches English, visits schools and lectures on writing.

'Get a notebook and make lists of your favourite songs, foods, baseball players, and books. The 10 things that bug you the most; 50 things you want to do in the future. The thinking process that goes along with keeping a list can lead to more writing.'

Another of her books, When My Name Was Keoko, draws upon her mother and father's life growing up in Korea under Japanese occupation. It tells the story from the perspective of a brother and sister growing up in 1940s Korea. At that time, all Koreans were given Japanese names.

'I went to a museum and found this out and asked my mother if she had a Japanese name,' explained Park. 'She said 'Of course, everyone did. My name was Keoko Kaneyama'. I was shocked.'

The author's mother isn't the only family member to get involved in Park's writing. For her book The Kite Fighters, she asked her father to sketch a Korean kite reel for the Chinese illustrators of the book because the two are completely different. The publisher was so impressed her father's drawings were used as the chapter headings in the book.

Park says her own children are teenagers now and as such don't tend to read her books. However, that doesn't stop them offering advice.

'My own children are beyond my books, but if my son reads them he's like 'Mum, that's so lame',' she says.