Jenna is relatively new to Austin and is represented by Penny Moore at Aevitas Creative Management. In her books, Jenna’s background in art history is reflected through inclusion of historical sites such as the Joseon Dynasty’s royal Gyeongbokgung Palace, Cheomseongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia, and Mount Wolchulsan‘s Gureumdari/Cloud Bridge. Korean mythology and artifacts are incorporated into the stories as well.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I grew up both in the States and in Korea. As a kid, I grew up in the south and New York. Then, my family and I moved to Korea when I was in middle school. I returned to Korea for graduate school and received my Master’s in Korean art history. Having had the opportunity to grow up in both countries was invaluable. The experience shaped who I am, and my work. I love blending Korean art, history, culture, and mythology into my stories.
Did you always want to be an author, or did that come later?
I was an avid reader growing up and wanted to be an author. As I got a little older, I realized that no one in the books I loved so dearly looked like me. I didn’t see any authors who were Korean either. So for a very long time, I truly believed that being an author could never be a career path for me. And I thought that if it could be, then I’d have to use a pen name with no picture. It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I started to pursue my dream again. She loved all princesses, especially Elsa. One day, she was dressed head to toe in Elsa gear when she suddenly yanked off her braided Elsa wig. She demanded to know when she’s going to start looking like her. It was in that moment I realized how not seeing yourself in books or media really affects kids. She inspired me to continue writing, but this time I wrote with a mission. I wanted my kids and others like her, to grow up differently than I did. Writing is doing my part in helping to create a more diverse and inclusive world for our kids.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
If someone were to follow me around for 24 hours they would see the chaotic life of a mom and author. I usually wake up at 5:30 a. m. to take my kids to ice skating in the morning. After that, I quickly shuttle them off to school. Then, I have until they get out of school to finish tidying up, prepping dinner, and writing. Once I pick them up from school, I take them to their extracurricular activities, which varies depending on the day. After dinner and putting the kids to bed, I have a little more time to unwind, hang out with my husband, or write. My day pretty much revolves around my family and writing these days. But it’s amazing how much writing you can get done when you know you only have limited hours. I think I was the most efficient writer when both my kids napped.
How does your everyday life feed your work?
My oldest is elementary school-age, so it’s fun to see how kids interact, what issues they struggle with, or what they love doing. I’m always inspired by my daughters and love seeing the world through their eyes. I also enjoy having moments of quiet and rest every now and then. It helps me to reset and fill my creative well.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
During my senior year of college, I studied Chinese art history. I was working on a research paper on the trade relations between the Song Dynasty in China and the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea. It wasn’t too long after I started that I discovered that there were very few books on Korean art or history. When I asked my professor why this was, he said that Korea had been overlooked, and most of the focus had been on Chinese or Japanese art. This didn’t seem right because I remembered all the art and beauty I saw daily while growing up in Korea. My professor suggested I apply for a Master’s program in Korean art history in Korea and the come back to the States for a PhD. Then I could be a Korean art history professor in the States. I thought this was a brilliant idea and I quickly applied to the Master’s program at Ewha Woman’s University. When I read the description online, I was under the impression that I would be able to write papers and the Master’s thesis in English. Once I got there though, I realized that writing in English was not an option. Even though I had grown up in Korea, I never attended Korean school. I could speak conversational Korean, but could not write, which was a big problem. Instead of going back to the States, I chose to stay. It was Korean language boot camp for me, and the first year was extremely difficult. But in the end, I wrote my Master’s thesis in Korean and earned my Master’s. I chose not to continue with a PhD program, but I am so excited to be able to combine both my passion of Korean art history and writing, by creating books for kids!
What surprises you about the creative life?
I think the most surprising thing about the creative life is that inspiration can come from anywhere! I could be just dropping off my kids to extracurricular activities when I might hear or see something that sparks new ideas. I usually use the voice recorder on my phone, or carry around a notebook to capture those fleeting moments.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
I hope that when Korean or Asian kids read the Lia Park series, they feel seen. I also hope that all kids reading the series have a fun adventure! When writing the Lia Park series, I weaved in Korean art, history, landmarks, food, and language so that it could be an easily accessible entry point into Korean culture. I hope the books encourage the reader’s curiosity and imagination.
Carousels or rollercoasters?
I used to LOVE rollercoasters and would want to only go on them when at amusement parks. Now, I am way too scared to get on them and don’t enjoy my head getting banged from side to side. Maybe someday when my kids want to go on them, I will. These days I much prefer carousels.
Goryeo celadon or Joseon porcelain?
This is an easy one. Goryeo Celadon! I like Joseon porcelain, in particular the Moon jar from the second half of the 18th century. I’m drawn to the beauty found in simplicity. But Goryeo Celadons have my heart! I find them so elegant, alluring, and love the greenish color. The Goryeo inlaid celadon pieces are probably my favorite, so much so that during my graduate school days I enjoyed going to museums just to sketch them.
Boston or Austin?
This is such a tough one! I have amazing memories of my college days at Wellesley and spending time in Boston. Boston is such a wonderful college town, and I loved every minute of it, even when it would snow in May. We’ve been in Austin for about two years now and I absolutely love it. Though it took a while to get used to giant flying bugs, rattlesnakes potentially hiding out in the backyard, the heat, and allergies. Now, we love it so much. Everyone has been so welcoming, and it just feels like home for us right now.
Favorite mentor texts?
There are so many good ones, but my favorites are the Robert Langdon series by Dan Brown and the Aru Shah series by Roshani Chokshi. I really enjoyed studying how Dan Brown blended in art history and history and how Roshani Chokshi added in Indian mythology.