This month, we welcome Carol Kim, author of KING SEJONG INVENTS AN ALPHABET (Albert Whitman, 2021), as our interviewee. Carol has also written many other books including a series of DOGGIE DAYCARE books and a twinset of MAX AXIOM AND THE SOCIETY OF SUPER SCIENTISTS.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I grew up in Orange County in southern California and went to college in the Los Angeles area. Back when I was a kid, there were very few Asian Americans living in Orange County, and just a handful of Korean American families. It is completely different now! After I moved away (I went to live in Washington, DC for about ten years after graduating from college), I would visit my family a few times a year. I began noticing more and more Asians, and especially Koreans, everywhere! It was such a drastic change.
I did not identify strongly with my Korean heritage as a child–mostly because, like most kids, I just wanted to fit in. I would even say I tried to reject my Asian identity at times. I think it’s important to note that while I was teased for being Asian, I did not really suffer any bullying or discrimination from my peers. I definitely experienced “otherness,” but not more than a lot of other kids.
It wasn’t until I had been living in Washington, DC for a few years that I began to embrace my Korean background. I think this can happen to many people–I no longer felt compelled to try to fit in, and I began meeting other Asian Americans who inspired me to explore and embrace my identity.
When I started exploring ideas for my children’s books, I kept coming up with stories that explored Korean cultural themes. This kind of surprised me–but I think it boils down to one of the main reasons I wanted to write for kids. I loved the feeling that came from reading books where a character would really resonate with me somehow–that feeling of connection and being seen and understood. But I rarely ran into that feeling because of characters in books who looked like me. I felt I had the background and experience to give that feeling of recognition to Korean American kids today.
Did you always want to be an author, or did that come later?
I think I always wanted to be an author. I even have some handwritten stories I had written when I was very young, maybe 7 or 8 years old. That was before I worried so much about what other people thought about my work (that is such a wonderful time in childhood, isn’t it?).
I walked away from my dream of being an author for decades. But I finally came back to it, because it never went away. I just had to find the courage to do something about it–which took me awhile! But I’m happy I finally did it.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Oh dear, if someone were to follow me around for 24 hours, they might possibly keel over from boredom!
I do have some important daily practices. I start my day with a cup of tea. Then I sit down and meditate for about 10-15 minutes. I started meditating regularly about five years ago, and now it’s my one non-negotiable activity–no skipping! It really helps me start my day from a calm and grounded place.
I try to exercise in the morning–but it only takes me about 15 to 20 minutes. I realized that I could talk myself out of an hour-long workout on days when I felt like I had too much to do. But you can always find 15 minutes! I figure a quick workout every day is better than a more rigorous workout that I may only do once or twice a week.
After all this excitement, it’s time to make coffee and get serious about work!
I try to focus on client work (I also work as a freelance writer) for the first few hours of my day. After that, things can get very scattered! But almost all of my work is done on the computer, so you will most likely find me there all day until dinnertime.
While this routine may sound colossally dull, I am never bored! I do such varied writing work, I am always learning something new, or doing a range of writing projects. On any given day I might be writing website copy, posting on social media, writing blog posts, editing content, or writing a book. My biggest challenge is focusing, because of the wide variety of projects I have on my plate.
I have also recently started exploring TikTok–talk about getting outside your comfort zone! But it can be pretty amusing figuring out what seems to resonate with my audience, and seeing what other people are doing. I am shocked at how it has helped me be more comfortable in front of a camera and not caring so much how ridiculous I look sometimes!
After dinner with my husband, I usually end up doing more writing for another two to three hours. Or I use this time to read. Again, my palate is pretty varied–I read children’s books, nonfiction, contemporary fiction, both for my edification and for pleasure.
How does your everyday life feed your work?
I feel I am surrounded by inspiration and ideas all the time. One type of writing I do is helping people write their family histories. Learning about the lives of other people, and the stories they tell, is a great source of story ideas. Also, although my kids are out of the house in college now, I still hear from them pretty regularly. They are both a source of new ideas and motivation to keep exploring how I can live my best life. I want to set a good example for them about following their dreams and not letting fear keep them from taking risks and discovering what they are capable of achieving.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
I am very proud of my debut trade picture book which was published in October of this year (2021)! This book represents so much to me–my decision to push myself out of my comfort zone and to finally do something about my dream of writing for children that I suppressed for so long.
But there were many important steps along the journey to this point. I am the kind of person who never liked having to ask for help–I always tried to do everything by myself. For a long time, I didn’t tell people I was trying to write children’s stories. My vision was that one day I would get something published, and I could announce to the world, “Ta da! Look what I did!”
Yeah, that was not a good strategy.
When I finally admitted to myself that I needed help, and realized fear was keeping me from doing so, I started reaching out. Joining the Austin chapter of SCBWI was a huge step for me. I inquired about volunteering to help, and that led me to meeting many wonderful people (such as Samantha Clark, our stellar RA).
I sought out a mentorship, and applied for the inaugural PBChat mentorship in 2019. Being selected as a mentee with author Katey Howes was another huge accomplishment for me. The next year I was selected as the Austin SCBWI Cynthia Leitich Smith mentorship winner with Liz Garton Scanlon–another amazing win for me.
There are many, many other milestones on my journey that I am proud of, and extremely grateful for. But then this post will become as long as a chapter book! So I’ll stop here.
What surprises you about the creative life?
One fear that I always had (and still struggle with) is that I will use up all of my good ideas and the well will run dry. I almost want to hoard my ideas, and save them for when I feel I am really “ready” to dive into them.
But I have come to realize that creativity is not a finite entity. In fact, the more you delve into doing creative work, the more ideas just come flowing out of you. I have since discovered that if I ever feel stuck around anything creative, I can just sit down, relax and clear my mind, and ideas and solutions come to me. It’s amazing! In fact, now I am worried that I have too many ideas, and I will never be able to get to them all!
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
I hope they will first learn something new and interesting. Second, I hope they are inspired to see the world as full of possibility. I hope my books help them believe they can make a difference in the world, in whatever way they feel pulled. It can be in both large and small ways, because all of it matters.
Would you rather swim with sharks, or run through a rainforest?
This is a no-brainer for me! Although I grew up just a couple of miles from the beach, I am not a fan of ocean swimming. Those waves can be scary! However, I do think it would be cool to see sharks in the ocean ( I’ve written a book about sharks, and they are fascinating creatures)–as long as there was no risk of me becoming a snack! (For the record, the risk is quite low).
But one of my favorite places in the world are rainforests. I’ve been to Costa Rica twice and I loved exploring the rainforests there. There are so many beautiful birds (I’ve seen quetzels close up!), fascinating insects, plants, frogs, and yes, even snakes! Plus, sloths are some of the most adorable creatures on the planet.
What’s your favorite dog breed?
Oh that’s easy–a Havanese/Bichon-Poodle mix. If you are thinking that is a weirdly specific breed to mention, you’d be right! Of course, that’s what kind of dog we have, and she is the best. Daisy is super sweet, she doesn’t bark, she doesn’t shed, she doesn’t destroy anything, and she’s the cutest thing ever.
If you could live in any century, which would you choose?
I have zero interest in living in any other century than the one we are currently in. I have to admit it’s because I live in Texas and there is no way I want to live during a time when there was no air conditioning!