Writing About Your Past
My latest picture book, The Paper Kingdom, is loosely based on my early childhood. My parents worked as night janitors in a corporate building in Los Angeles when I was little. And on most nights, they took me with them to work, where they turned drudgery into magic. They told me funny stories about the people who worked in the offices by day and they encouraged me to use my imagination so that I wouldn’t get too bored or cranky.
I never considered writing a story about that experience, partially because it didn’t seem all that special. Like many of the hardworking families who lived in our apartment complex, we made the most of an unpleasant situation simply because we had to.
But one night about five years ago or so, I was driving along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles when something about the city lights and the empty street triggered long-ago memories. What stuck out about those memories was the incredible power of imagination, as well as the love within our small family unit. I knew I wanted to capture that magic, wonder, and warmth in a story for kids… but how?
I started by asking myself a series of questions. Since the story would be based on my personal history, should the protagonist be me? Or should the main character be any kid out in the world, perhaps even a little boy? I went with the latter choice because I didn’t want the book to be an autobiography—instead, I wanted the character to be Any Kid in order to expand the experience. I wanted the reader imagine whomever they wanted.
Also, how could I conjure a sense of wonder and magic in less than 1,000 words? I knew I had to incorporate lots and lots of paper into the story. Why? Because my parents cleaned a law firm with mountains of paper. And I also knew that kids love dragons. After all, I loved dragons as a child (and still do!). So putting all that together, I came up with the idea of having my characters imagine a paper kingdom within the office building. The construct of a paper kingdom with a king, queen and dragons came quite quickly to me. It was truly a gift, the power of imagination at work again.
Incorporating a kingdom allowed me to weave in subtle social commentary about the haves and have-nots, and also highlight the invisible but very essential workers in our societies. With a king and queen standing in for the boss and executives, and with the dragons representing the workers, I had fun setting up an imaginary world within the real one of the office building.
NPR interviewed me and illustrator Pascal Campion about The Paper Kingdom. In the interview, we talk about our respective creative processes. The interview must’ve struck a chord because I received an outpouring of messages from strangers telling me that they found themselves weeping in their cars, garages, kitchens. Click here to listen to the six-minute interview.
I believe that some of the most powerful and emotionally resonant stories come from our personal histories. If you’re writing for children, the key is to figure out why certain memories keep resurfacing at various moments of your life. Then use your imagination to make those memories even more magical and wondrous.
Helena Ku Rhee is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can read more about her books and writing process here at HelenaKRhee.com. If you want to keep posted about Helena’s events and news, subscribe here. All new subscribers will receive a free dreams-to-reality worksheet Helena put together to achieve her writing dreams. You can also follow Helena on Instagram (@helenakurhee) and Twitter (@HelenaRhee).
This giveaway is for a copy of The Paper Kingdom + a 20-minute Skype call with Helena Ku Rhee. Many thanks to Random House Children’s Books for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of The Paper Kingdom + the call with Helena, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 22nd at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Tueday, May 26th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. NOTE: There may be a shipping delay due to shipping-related issues caused by the novel coronavirus. If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – HELENA KU RHEE. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Comments are now closed. Kimiko Wadriski is the winner of this giveaway.