Jenna Yoon’s Search for Lia Park and the Missing Gem: Austin Author Hopes to Bring More Diversity to YA Fantasy with Her Debut Novel

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Photo by Zeke Barbaro

Jenna Yoon stopped writing when she was in third grade. All of her hopes of becoming an author were dashed after her teacher falsely accused her of plagiarizing an original story she had been working on. It was decades later that she was able to create again, but now she’s not just writing again, this summer the Austin author had her first novel, a magical adventure for young adults, published by Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin imprint.

Lia Park and the missing gem is the first in a planned series about Lia, a 12-year-old Korean American who goes on a journey to retrieve an old heirloom in order to save her parents from an evil spirit. The story combines parts of Korean mythology with magic, spies, and family values, focusing on Lia’s adventures in Korea.

Yoon, who herself has traveled between the United States and Korea for most of her school and college life, said she wanted to capture parts of her heritage and her own struggle to balance the two parts of her life. identify. Growing up in the United States, she said: “I didn’t see myself in books, and honestly, I don’t think I ever wondered about that. As a kid, I just thought, ‘Well, he there are a lot more white people” – until I moved to Korea when I was in eighth grade. … There was a little culture shock, but I also started realizing, ‘Hey, everything Everyone here is Korean!'”

After returning to the United States for her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, Yoon noticed a severe lack of Korean history and awareness, and so returned to South Korea to study art history. Korean at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. She said she moved with the intention of becoming a teacher, but her plans changed shortly after completing her master’s degree. She returned to the United States and studied preschool education before becoming a teacher. However, she was still hesitant to believe that she could write a book. “I thought, first of all, that all authors were white. So if I wanted to write a book, it wouldn’t sell with my Asian face and I would probably need to use a pen name.”

Jenna Yoon, author of Lia Park and the missing gem (Photo by Scott R. Kline)

“It’s important to know your language, to know your culture, to be able to be proud of it and to connect to it one day when you’re ready.” –Jenna Yoon

It was only after having her first daughter and then a miscarriage that she started writing again. “These moments often make you think about things, and for me, writing has become kind of a healing process,” Yoon said. She got pregnant again, and that’s when she really started working on what would become Lia Park’s first adventure. Unlike many women who rest and relax throughout their pregnancy, Yoon took the opportunity to make these months really count. Setting a strict deadline, she promised, and succeeded, to finish her novel by the time she had her second child. “My motivation was that even though I didn’t see myself growing up in the books, I don’t want that for my daughters,” Yoon said. “I want my kids to be able to see themselves as heroes in their own stories, and I want them to grow up in a world that’s better than me, a world that’s more inclusive and diverse.”

Lia Park, Yoon said, is based on herself and what she thinks her daughter will grow up to be. She wanted to engage her culture in The missing jewel so that children who read it, including his daughter, can appreciate Korean history and mythology. “It’s important to know your language, to know your culture, to be able to be proud of it and to connect to it one day when you’re ready.”

When she received her first copy of the book, Yoon said she felt a little scared that so many people were reading her work. But she said her daughter’s pride was what drove her the most. “It was surreal when [my daughter] started first grade and she went to school and older girls, maybe in third or fourth grade, said to her, “We know your mother, your mother wrote this book and we like this book and we love you too!” So now they are her new best friends and when she comes home she tells me about them. I can see there’s a lot of pride in his eyes.”

Yoon said she hopes her writing will bring more diversity to the world for her daughter, where everyone can read and have a fun adventure with Lia Park. Contrary to her own experiences as a child, she doesn’t want anything to cause her daughter to lose the ability to have great aspirations. “I want her to feel like there’s nothing stopping her from becoming what she wants to become. There won’t be any obstacles because she’s Asian,” Yoon said. “I want my daughter to dream big.”


Lia Park and the missing gem

by Jenna Yoon
Aladdin, 352 pages, $17.99

A version of this article appeared in print on July 15, 2022 with the title: On the hunt for Lia Park and the missing gem

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