Skip to content

Writing About Your Past

Leave a comment on the bottom of this post for the chance to win a copy of The Paper Kingdom + a 20-minute Skype call with Helena Ku Rhee.

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).

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

  • 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.

47 thoughts on “Writing About Your Past Leave a comment

  1. I have been on the hunt for this book for some time now. It is on my wish list & love how so many students could connect to the story.

    Like

  2. I love reading the story behind the story. Thank you for sharing it. This is a book that has been on my radar for a while. Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy to share with my students!

    Like

  3. As a part-time cleaner who also had to take her daughter to a job, it’s encouraging to hear how being at work with a parent was beneficial for a child. I can only keep inspired as well as keep inspiring my own daughter in her creativity as your parents fostered yours. Can’t wait to read this book!

    Like

  4. Thanks so much, Helena! This advice is very useful. I look forward to reading the entire story. I, too, have written a 1000 word or less picture book about my family’s past. It’s called The Hockey Stick and it’s based on my Dad, a Toronto star paperboy and Maple Leafs hockey fan, growing up in wartime Toronto, Canada. It’s interesting how, in your picture book, you turned your parents’ nighttime work area into a kingdom. I, too, used an analogy to start my story. My Dad, the protagonist, delivers a newspaper with the headline: NAZI U-BOAT SIGHTED IN ST. LAWRENCE! He imagines a sea serpent snaking its way up the St. Lawrence River. However, he only mentions the sea-serpent one more time whereas you weave the kingdom analogy through your whole story. The sea-serpent would help highlight the Battle of the St. Lawrence (1942-1944), the battle which sparked the story.

    Like

  5. What a great memory about something that as a child felt so “ho hum normal” and yet completely wasn’t — may we all think about our memories of childhood, realize how special they are, and grab hold of the inspiration to share them through a story that inspires others as you have, Helena.

    Like

  6. First, congratulations Helena on publishing this beautiful debut PB! As an Asian immigrant myself, it is all the more special to see you share your experience and perspective in this unique way. I recently wrote my own first PB manuscript. I hope one day to be able to share it with the world as well. Your success story is very timely and inspirational for me. All the best!

    Like

  7. It’s so significant the things that we remember versus the things that we forget. I like the suggested method of revisiting those memories that continually resurface to develop stories that connect to children.

    Congratulations on your recent book! I am eager to read it.

    Like

  8. I love how how you took a sequence of events and created a magical story out of it. It is storytelling at its finest. I can’t wait to read the story.

    Like

  9. I just listened to the NPR interview. Beautiful! I can’t wait to read the book. And I understand the tears. Helena validates hardworking parents.

    Like

  10. I just did a shout out about The Paper Kingdom on Twitter this week–this book keeps popping up for me! I love hearing about how this story came into form for you–and yes, it is touching so many hearts!

    Like

  11. Love how you incorporated the essential workers into a child’s book. Very smart to use the dragons and royalty to attract the child’s attention. Cannot wait to be able to read this to my library classes.

    Like

  12. I love how the author captured the love and encouragement of her parents in this memoir that would have many roles as a mentor text. The author write of an ordinary family working hard to make a living and a life; this is a perspective our students ALL need.

    Like

  13. What a wonderful way to introduce memoir to my 7th-graders! AND to show them… it’s all about mindset! Everyone has to work, why not make it magical?! I can’t wait to read the book and share it with my students as we all write together!

    Like

  14. THE PAPER KINGDOM sounds and looks enchanting. I listened to the NPR segment and loved hearing about Helena’s father’s reaction. So happy for her success!

    Like

  15. I loved listening to the author and illustrator talk about this book. The illustrations are beautiful. What a great story. Thank you for making me aware of this book.

    Like

  16. I love how the author’s parents encouraged and inspired the art of imagination! What a neat book to share with students and teachers!

    Like

  17. My father worked at night cleaning a restaurant where my sisters worked on weekends during school. He was in between jobs and studying to get his high school diploma. I never thought about it until now that Dad just did his best for our family. My Dad had a couple of my teachers which felt a little awkward for me at school. But my Father got his diploma and got his job he was waiting for. My Dad has always been there for me and my inspiration. “The Paper Kingdom” sounds magical!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. The first thing I noticed was that the author went to work with her parents, long before it was a popular event. I love that they made it magical, and that the magic came up as she drove up Wilshire Blvd. I cannot wait to read this and share it with a treasured colleague!

    Like

%d bloggers like this: