Jenna Yoon Is on the Hunt for Lia Park and the Missing Jewel

The Austin author hopes to bring more diversity to YA fantasy with her debut novel

Photo by Zeke Barbaro

Jenna Yoon stopped writing when she was in third grade. Any hopes she'd had of becoming an author were crushed after her teacher wrongfully accused her of plagiarizing an original story she had worked on. It was decades later that she was able to create again, but now she's not only writing again, this summer the Austin author has had her first novel, a magical young adult adventure, published by Simon & Schuster's Aladdin imprint.

Lia Park and the Missing Jewel is the first in a planned series about Lia, a Korean American 12-year-old who goes on a journey to retrieve an ancient family jewel to save her parents from an evil spirit. The story combines parts of Korean mythology with magic, spies, and familial values, focusing on Lia's adventures in Korea.

Yoon, who herself traveled between the United States and Korea for most of her school and college life, said she wanted to capture parts of her heritage and her own struggle balancing both parts of her identity. Growing up in America, she said, "I didn't see myself in books, and honestly, I don't think I ever questioned it. As a child, I just thought, 'Well, there's a lot more white people' – until I moved to Korea when I was in eighth grade. … There was a bit of a culture shock but then also I started to realize, 'Hey, everyone here is Korean!'"

After moving back to the U.S. for her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, Yoon noticed a severe lack of Korean history and awareness, and so returned to South Korea to study Korean art history at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. She said she moved with the intent of becoming a professor, but her plans changed shortly after she finished her master's. She came back to the States and studied early education before becoming a teacher. However, she was still reluctant to believe she could write a book. "I thought, first of all, all the authors were white. So if I wanted to write a book, it wouldn't sell with my Asian face and I would probably need to use a pen name."

Jenna Yoon, author of Lia Park and the Missing Jewel (Photo by Scott R. Kline)
“It’s important to know your language, to know your culture, to be able to be proud of it and connect with it one day when you’re ready.” – Jenna Yoon

It wasn't until she had her first daughter, and then a miscarriage, that she began writing again. "These moments often make you think about things, and for me, writing became sort of a healing process," Yoon said. She became pregnant again, and this is when she really started work on what would become Lia Park's first adventure. Unlike many women who rest and relax throughout their pregnancies, Yoon took the opportunity to really make those months count. Setting a strict deadline, she promised, and succeeded, in finishing her novel by the time she had her second child. "My motivation was that even though I didn't see myself growing up in books, I don't want that for my daughters," Yoon said. "I want my kids to be able to see themselves as heroes in their own stories, and I want them to grow up in a better world than I did, a more inclusive and diverse world."

Lia Park, Yoon said, is based on herself and who she believes her daughter will grow up to become. She wanted to engage her culture in The Missing Jewel so kids who read it, including her daughter, would be able to appreciate Korean history and mythology. "It's important to know your language, to know your culture, to be able to be proud of it and connect with it one day when you're ready."

When she received her first copy of the book, Yoon said she felt a bit frightened at the prospect of so many people reading her work. But she said her daughter's pride is what motivated her the most. "It felt surreal when [my daughter] started first grade and she went to school and some older girls, maybe in third or fourth grade, told her, 'We know your mom, your mom wrote this book and we love this book and we love you too!' So they're now her new best friends and when she comes home she tells me about it. I can see there's a lot of pride in her eyes."

Yoon said she hopes her writing will bring more diversity into the world for her daughter, where everyone can read about and have a fun adventure with Lia Park. Unlike her own experiences as a child, she doesn't want anything to make her daughter lose the ability to have big aspirations. "I want her to feel that nothing is stopping her from becoming whatever she wants to become. There won't be any barriers because she's Asian," Yoon said. "I want my daughter to dream big."

Lia Park and the Missing Jewel

by Jenna Yoon
Aladdin, 352 pp., $17.99

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