It's always a pleasure to share a success story. At Clarion Books, our favorite rags-to-riches tale concerns a previously unknown writer whose first novel was pulled out of the slush pile by Dinah Stevenson, Clarion's editorial director.
It took Linda Sue Park just three novels, published in just three years, to earn the most prestigious award for children's literature in America, the Newbery Medal. Ms. Park won the medal in 2002 for A Single Shard, then followed this triumph with her acclaimed fourth novel, When My Name Was Keoko.
Now, as her legions of fans have been begging for years, Ms. Park has applied her celebrated narrative skills to a story for a younger audience. Clarion Books is honored to present The Firekeeper's Son, Linda Sue Park's first historical picture book.
In The Firekeeper's Son, Ms. Park combines her incomparable gift for lyrical, perfectly composed writing with the ancient Korean setting for which she is best known. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes that Ms. Park "brings an accomplished novelist's sensibility to this suspenseful picture book" and describes her style as "assured, empathetic storytelling" (Publishers Weekly, starred review, 2/16/04).
She joins forces with the talented Julie Downing, the acclaimed illustrator of more than two dozen picture books, who "amplifies the tension with dramatically composed watercolor-and-pastel illustrations" (PW, 2/16/04).
Together, Ms. Park and Ms. Downing have crafted a stunning picture book about a boy who, for the first time, must choose between his own desires and the expectations of his family, his community, and his country. The theme is universal, the setting unusual, and the story as unique as Linda Sue Park's authorial voice itself.
Linda Sue Park won the 2002 Newbery Medal for A Single Shard. Her fourth novel, When My Name Was Keoko, was named both a Notable Children's Book and a Best Book for Young Adults by the ALA and was chosen as a 2003 Jane Addams Honor Book by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Ms. Park's most recent titles are two picture books, Mung-mung! (Charlesbridge) and The Firekeeper's Son (Clarion).
Much of Ms. Park's work draws on her Korean ancestry, which she began researching in order to better appreciate her immigrant parents' native culture. She grew up with a strong attachment to the public library and considers herself a reader first and a writer second. Now Ms. Park's reading and writing most frequently occur in Rochester, New York, where she lives with her husband, one of two teenage children (the other pretends he lives in a dormitory), and a border terrier named Fergus.
A Conversation with Linda Sue Park
Like her first four books, Linda Sue Park's fifth Clarion title is historical fiction set in Korea. Unlike the four novels, however, The Firekeeper's Son is a full-color picture book for a younger audience. Here she talks with her editor, Dinah Stevenson, about why and how she wrote The Firekeeper's Son.
Q) You entered the children's book field as a novelist. How did you come to write a picture book text?
A) Whenever I finish a novel, I feel quite drained, the fiction-writing parts of my brain completely depleted. But I still want to write every day.
Over the years, a pattern has developed: I finish a novel, then I spend a month or two writing poetry. You might not remember, but when I told you about this, you immediately asked, "Could any of those poems be a picture book?" I'd never thought before about writing a picture book, but you can bet I started thinking about it then! In fact, I've wondered if you regretted asking that, because I promptly began bombarding you with picture-book submissions. And you bombarded me right back with rejections.
Q) Then you sent me The Firekeeper's Son, which worked beautifully. What happened in between?
A) At some point I realized that I'd failed to practice what I preach to beginning writers, which is that if they want to write a certain kind of book, they should read a gazillion books in that genre. So I began hauling home stacks of picture books from the library. It was no coincidence that after several months of reading picture books, I had a much better idea of what I was doing.
Q) You have mentioned elsewhere that when you write historical fiction, you begin with a nugget of factual information that fascinates you and then suggests a story. What was the nugget for The Firekeeper's Son?
A) The subject of the book came to me, as ideas so often do, while I was reading. I was doing research for the manuscript that would eventually become When My Name Was Keoko. From my county library system, I obtained every title available on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Korean history. A few of these books were written by European and American adventurers, recording their observations on the "mysterious Orient." One such book, published in 1885, was Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm, by Percival Lowell. (Choson is the Korean word for Korea.) In a chapter of the book called "The Fires on South Mountain," Lowell describes how signal fires were lit on the mountaintops of Korea. When I read that, I experienced what I call a Post-It moment. The image of fire after fire along the mountaintops was so striking that I immediately stuck a Post-It note in the book to remind me to come back to it.
Q) Was it challenging to write such a short book?
A) I worked on the story intermittently in my head for several months, and committed the first draft to paper in December of 1999. The first draft wasn't anywhere near novel length, but it was long for a picture book almost 2,000 words. By the time I submitted it to Clarion, in May of 2000, I had been working on it for about a year. The book as published is version 15 and comes in at around 1,100 words. Imagine writing something a letter, an article, a story and then removing every other word. That's in essence what happened with Firekeeper. It felt more like writing a poem than writing a novel.
Q) You traveled to Korea in 2001 for the release of the Korean edition of A Single Shard. Did any of your experiences on that trip go into The Firekeeper's Son?
A) The manuscript of Firekeeper had been finished long before, but actually there is a connection between the trip and this story. On my first day in Seoul, I was sightseeing in a taxi with my Korean editor and the interpreter. They explained to me that they had chosen my hotel, the Lotte, over the Hilton which Americans generally prefer because the Lotte is more centrally located. "The Hilton," the interpreter said, "is out at Nam-san. You know Nam-san? Seoul's biggest mountain. We're going to drive right past it I will show you." From my research, I knew that Nam-san means "South Mountain." And South Mountain, which Percival Lowell wrote about, is the "last hump" on the dragon's back the one facing the king's palace.
I was practically hanging halfway out of the cab window so I could see everything as we drove through downtown Seoul. We drove by the palace where the king had lived in the time of Firekeeper, and we passed many high-rise buildings that would not, of course, have been there back then. We went over a bridge, and there it was, Nam-san. I could see how in the time before the high-rises, the peak would have been perfectly visible from the palace walls. There are now several radio and television towers on top of Nam-san so it's still serving as a signal base!
Q) Are you pleased with the illustrations for The Firekeeper's Son?
A) I'm just thrilled about them. It's hard to express the illustrations give the story such a different feel they make it so much bigger and richer. On that same trip to Korea, I was taken to visit a mountaintop shrine in the countryside. The view was stunning, and from where I stood I could see mountain after mountain after mountain not huge snowy crags like the Rockies, but more modest peaks, misty rather than snowy, very like those in ink-wash Asian paintings. I was moved by the sight, and I was moved all over again when I saw Julie Downing's beautiful paintings for the book. I hope that when readers pick up the book for the first time, they will feel something of the same thrill I felt as I stood on that mountain in Korea.
Q) What else do you hope readers will take away from The Firekeeper's Son?
A) Enjoyment, first and foremost. Before anything else, I hope readers enjoy my books. Beyond that, it's up to each individual reader. What they take away from a story depends on their own personalities and experiences. I do hope each reader can find something in my stories to take with them as they face the world, but I would never want to tell them what that something should be. It's part of the wonder of reading that the same stories can mean so many different things to different people.
Advance Praise for The Firekeeper's Son
"Newbery medalist Park brings an accomplished novelist's sensibility to this suspenseful picture book . . . The notion of duty to others versus personal longing adds depth to an already fascinating snippet of history." Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Park's command of place, characterization, and language is as capable and compelling in this picture book as it is in her novels . . . Children will be intrigued, . . . caught up in the riveting dilemma, and satisfied by the resolution." School Library Journal
"An attractive celebration of unity, peace, and family heritage." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"A lovely telling that will bring readers back." Kirkus Reviews
"It's another winner." Washington Post Book World