This interview is the first in a series on this year’s four finalists for New-York Historical's Children’s History Book Prize. Join us on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we talk to the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Our jury of teachers, librarians, historians, and middle-grade readers will help us select the winner, who will receive a $10,000 prize. We hope this prize elevates the winner and encourages authors and publishers to continue to create challenging, engaging, and well-researched history books for kids!
This week, we’re chatting with author Ellen Oh about Finding Junie Kim, a book inspired by her own family’s special bonds, their story of surviving the Korean War, and their immigration to the United States.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Finding Junie Kim depicts so many touching family stories. How much of the family dynamics and characters are based on your own family relationships and history?
Ellen Oh: Junie’s story is my most personal because it includes so many of my own family’s stories. The relationship of my father with my children, especially my oldest, mimics Junie’s relationship with her grandfather. The bullying and suicidal ideation of Junie directly comes from the experiences of two of my children. And of course my mother’s long journey as a child during the Korean War.
DCHM: One doesn’t often read about suicidal ideation in middle-reader books. You handle Junie’s struggles with mental health with such care and honesty. Could you talk about why you felt it was important to include her mental health journey in the story?
EO: All three of my children suffer from mental health issues. Two of them have been hospitalized for extended periods due to suicidal ideation. And they were both younger than Junie when they had to fight these urges. This is so much more commonplace than we as a society would like to accept. But if we don’t talk about it openly and honestly, how can young children get the help they need? Especially because sometimes they are too young to even understand how to express what they are going through. It was so important for me to write about the struggles our young children deal with so that they can know they are not alone. That there is help and hope for them.
DCHM: The book’s structure of moving back and forth between time periods is exciting and engaging for the reader. Why did you decide to set up the book in this way? What do you think it added to the overall story and pacing of the novel?
EO: Thank you so much for these kind words! I had a hard time figuring out how to tell this story at first. But rewatching my absolute favorite movie, The Princess Bride, gave me the idea of telling Junie in three parts. I wanted her to comment in the same way the little boy comments on the story to his grandfather. That way the reader remembers that Junie is hearing the story at the same time they are and maybe asking questions that they might have also.
DCHM: As a history institution, we’re always curious about research. Were there certain sources that were particularly helpful in your research and writing process?
EO: Research is my favorite part of writing any book. In fact, my greatest problem is knowing when to stop researching as I can get lost in history. For Junie’s story, I immersed myself in the National Archives for all their material of the Korean War. I can’t tell you how helpful it was. I was able to recreate my mother’s journey using archival maps of Korea. I also went to South Korea to do research at the war museum and to speak to several historians working there. But the greatest research was oral history. My mother’s, my aunt’s, and my dear friend Soo’s uncle, who gave me history that ended up being the grandfather’s story.
Oh on a research trip to Korea
DCHM: Your book has such an important message about how racism negatively impacts everyone, including those spewing hate like Tobias. Do you have any advice for young people experiencing prejudice or racially based bullying?
EO: I want them to know that they’ve done nothing wrong and that they are not alone. Racism and prejudice comes from ignorance and hate. It says more about the person spewing such ugliness than it does about the victim who must suffer it. Know that you are stronger, better, and wiser than your bullies. You will beat them by simply being true to yourself.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Finding Junie Kim?
EO: Family, friends, compassion
All photos courtesy of the author