ROOTSI loved reading ever since I could remember," Linda Sue Park is saying to a group of elementary schoolers. "I'd read everything from 'Charlotte's Web,' 'Little House' books to 'Nancy Drew.' If there was nothing else to read, I read cereal boxes."
Linda Sue Park, 42, is the author of "A Single Shard," a novel that won this year's prestigious John Newbery Medal for best children's book. On this day, she is speaking to 4th and 5th graders at the Seoul Foreign School.
"For me, reading is a form of entertainment. It's purely at the pleasure level for me. When I get lost in a good book, the words and images and dialogue have a much richer mix for me. I believe that to be a good writer, you need to read books. A lot of them."
During her talk, she shows slides of her books' jackets and her family. When a dog appears, she says, "This is Cosmo, our Border terrier and my writing buddy. When I write stories during the day, I talk to Cosmo and ask for his opinion and in my head, he replies, 'I think you should put a dog in the story.'" A pause and then much laughter from the group.
Ms. Park relates how she chooses topics for her books ("I don't get my ideas, the ideas get me"), the writing process ("When I write two pages per day and keep at it, soon I find myself writing a novel"), the disappointments ("Be prepared to be rejected!"), the editorial procedure ("Don't believe it when your editor says the book is fine, because most probably, she wants you to revise it 10 times more").
Receiving the Newbery award was a complete shock, Ms. Park says. "The 20-second phone call telling me I had won completely changed my life." These days, Ms. Park spends half of each month on book tours, which curtails her writing time. "Sometimes I miss writing, but it's exciting to meet all these writers, teachers and librarians."
Her life has also become much more colorful. "I was invited to the White House and to the Blue House."
Born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1960, to Korean parents who came to the United States to study, Ms. Park was given two first names because her parents, who had gone to college in the American South, thought that everybody should have two first names. Says the author in a slow Southern drawl, "You know, it should be pronounced, Leeeen-duh Suuue."
An interest in reading fiction and nonfiction fueled her passion to become a writer. "When I was 9, a poem of mine was published in our town newspaper. I wrote that my dream was to become a 'children's book writer.'" She went to Stanford, majoring in English literature. Why? "I wanted to keep on reading." Upon graduation, she worked as a publicist for Amoco, an oil company, for two years. She met her husband, Ben Dobbin, an Irishman and a journalist, at a party in Chicago.
She followed him to Ireland in 1983 and studied at the University of Dublin. When Ms. Park's husband became a reporter for the London bureau of the Associated Press, she moved to that city and her two children were born there. During her time in England she worked as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers and taught ESL at a local college. "All my full-time and part-time jobs had to do with writing."
She returned to New York in 1990 and became a suburban mom while teaching ESL at two colleges. In her free time, she started reading books about Korea to learn more about her parents' homeland.
She began her first novel in 1997 after her husband gave her what she calls "a wake-up call."
"I'm sick and tired of hearing you always talk about writing a book," Mr. Dobbin told his wife. "Why don't you just do it?" After several rejections and endless editing and revising, "Seesaw Girl," about a youngster in the Joseon era who yearns to go outside her walled house, was published in 1999.
"The Kite Fighters," a story idea provided by Ms. Park's father who used to love flying kites with his friends in Korea during the colonial period, was published in 2000.
The idea for "A Single Shard," which appeared last year, came when Ms. Park learned that Korea's Goryeo Dynasty (the 11th and 12 centuries) had a reputation as the period when the country's best ceramics were produced.
"Pottery was actually a metaphor for what Korea represented, a small country being better than a giant one," Ms. Park says. "It was impossible for me to write about contemporary Korea because I have never lived there, but historical Korea no longer exists. I felt more comfortable to write fictionally about a sliver of life during that era."
Kathleen Odean, chair of the Newbery Medal selection committee, wrote of "A Single Shard": "A masterful piece of historical fiction."
Even though she admits her account of the ancient life in the Goryeo and Joseon periods may not be entirely accurate, she says the emotions are universal. Children who read her books frequently tell her they feel a deep connection toward the main character.
Earlier this year she published "When My Name Was Keoko," a story based on Koreans who had to change their names to Japanese ones during World War II. Once again Ms. Park's parents' experiences inspired the novel.
Her book tour in Korea has not been without pleasant surprises. "Korean food has so much variety, it's incredible," she says. Greeting fans has been equally memorable. "I was in Daegu attending a conference when I met a 9-year-old Korean boy who spoke English. He said to me, 'I'm a Linda Sue Park maniac; I've read all your books!'"
"If my readers are able to draw good values from my books, then I've done my part," she says. "Once I publish a book, it's not mine anymore."
"A story of universal values"
This inspiring tale of a young boy's quest to become a master craftsman of ceramics takes the reader to 12th century Korea, during the Goryeo Dynasty. Tree-ear is an orphan who lives under a bridge with Crane-man, an eldery, crippled weaver who teaches the boy integrity and honesty among others attributes. Tree-ear dreams of one day creating a beautiful celadon pot of his own and often goes to spy on Min, an talented but fastidious potter. One day, Tree-ear accidentally breaks Min's works and offers to work gratis. Later, he becomes Min's apprentice.
By royal decree, Min is given a great opportunity to create ceramics for the royal court, and Tree-ear volunteers to carry her masterpieces to the capital, an arduous journey by any standards. The trek is replete with adventures and setbacks that put Tree-ear's courage to the test.
Ms. Park's depiction of ancient Korea may be mystifying or misleading to the reader. For instance, a pottery-maker was considered among the lowliest of professions in those days, but the author elevates the position in society to that of a respectable craftsman. Infused with a bit of fiction, the story attempts to paint a portrait that resembles historical facts about Goryeo society, such as honor for elders and the famous locales.
Even though the setting may appear exotic to non-Korean readers, as does the use of Korean words such as ajima (auntie) and jiggeh (coolie rack), the theme touches upon universal values. Tree-ear's quest is as moving as it is regaling, and brings to light loyalty, integrity and perseverance in their truest forms. --- Choi Jie-ho
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