Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I first heard about King Sejong and how he invented the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) from my father. In 2013, the year after my mother passed away, my father announced to me and my brother that he wanted to visit Korea. This was rather surprising because my father 1.) does not enjoy traveling and 2.) he had never been back to Korea after moving to the US in the 1950s.
While discussing the trip, my father told me he could only read and write Hangeul at about a 3rd grade level. I was so puzzled by this, and it was then he told me about the history of Hangeul. Although King Sejong invented it in 1443, it took 600 years for it to be adopted as Korea’s official alphabet--in 1946. At that point, my father was 18 years old!
Up until that time, my father had lived in Korea under the Japanese occupation. So his education was conducted in Japanese. He didn’t grow up using Hangeul. When he told me about King Sejong and Hangeul, I wasn’t seriously trying to write for children at the time. But I remember immediately thinking, “This would make a great children’s book!”
Not only is the story of Hangeul fascinating, it is a story that directly affects my family. I love that there is this direct connection between my father and King Sejong.
How do you tackle research on a person and subject matter from the 15th century?
Admittedly this can be a huge challenge! One of the great things about writing about a king is that someone recorded everything King Sejong did, said, or wrote. So there are a lot of written records about him. I personally don’t read, write, or speak Korean (the irony, I know!) so I could not rely on sources written in Korean. But fortunately for me, many people wrote about and studied King Sejong, so there are many books and scholarly articles about him and Hangeul.
I live in Austin, home to the University of Texas, which was a huge help. I was able to use their library which had many fantastic resources. Museums and universities in Korea were also a source of information, and many resources were online and in English.
I am pretty sure if King Sejong were not such a major historical figure, it would have been quite a challenge to find enough good sources to write a purely nonfiction book about him. If I had run into trouble, I could have tried writing an informational fiction book, which allows you to take more liberties.
How long did it take you to write this book?
There are a couple of ways I could answer this question. During our trip to Korea, I was on the lookout for information about King Sejong. I found one wonderful book at a museum that they were actually giving out for free! It was part of a program to expand cultural awareness of Korea, and the book was all about King Sejong. I did a little more research after we returned home. And then I sat on my research for years.
When I finally decided to seriously try to write and publish a children’s book, one of the things I did was take a course on picture book writing with the Children’s Book Academy (which I recommend!). In the course, we were encouraged to write story pitches, and get feedback on them. I had a draft of another book I was working on at the time. But when I pitched the story of King Sejong and Hangeul, many people told me: ”that’s the story you should write!” I knew they were correct--but it meant digging into more research and trying to draft a story in just a few weeks.
But I did it! I was also able to get feedback from my mentor at that time, Katey Howes. I also got a paid critique. At the end of the course, we had an opportunity to pitch our stories to a group of editors and agents. Two editors were interested in the story, and asked for the full manuscript. So then I really had to buckle down and get it polished. Altogether it took me about three months to write the manuscript and get it ready for submission.
You included a story from King Sejong’s childhood that many children today would probably find unimaginable and funny. How important was it for you to link a childhood story in a book primarily about his adult years and accomplishments?
I think if you can include scenes from your main character’s childhood, it makes for a stronger children’s book. Young readers can relate to the character better, because they often forget that grown-ups were once kids just like them! I think it can also help kids imagine how they could grow up to be like the main adult character. In the case of King Sejong, I also wanted to show how he was a lover of books during his own childhood. This trait stayed with him throughout his life, and may have contributed to his deep desire to make reading available to everyone.
The illustrations are beautiful and really depict the character’s emotions throughout the book. Tell us about working with illustrator Cindy Kang? Did you provide any images you discovered during your research?
As is often the case with many publishers, I didn't have any involvement in the illustrator selection process. So I was thrilled when they told me they had found Cindy Kang, and that she had agreed to illustrate the book. I felt Cindy’s illustration style fit well with my vision for the book. Plus, Cindy is also Korean, which I believed would be very helpful for ensuring the accuracy of the illustrations.
My editor did consult with me on some illustration decisions, such as the cover, which I appreciated. I think with some publishers, the authors don’t really see the illustrations until the final stages. But my editor shared drafts of Cindy’s work with me, and I was always so pleased with how she chose to depict the different scenes. I didn’t really need to help with any of the research for the illustrations--which I was actually kind of relieved about!
What do you hope children learn or take away from King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I think it would be hard for kids to imagine what it would be like to not have access to reading at all. And not only them, but their entire family, and even all of their neighbors. Reading is such a gift and I hope this story helps them reflect on how wonderful it is that books can be such a big part of their lives. I also hope children can be inspired by King Sejong and how compassionate he was. As a king, he had so much power, and he chose to use that power for the good of all.
What are you working on next?
In addition to KING SEJONG, I have been very busy this year writing books for the educational market. I love writing educational books, and a lot of opportunities came my way, and I kept saying “yes!” As a result, I wrote about 10 books in the last twelve months--which kept me pretty busy!
I’m finishing up the last of these books. After that I am eager to start working on some story ideas that have been brewing in my mind for quite awhile. At the top of my list are a couple of nonfiction picture books--so stay tuned!
Carol Kim believes books and words have a magical ability to change the world for the better, and she writes for children with the hope of spreading some of that magic. She is the author of the picture book biography, King Sejong Invents an Alphabet as well as 20 fiction and nonfiction books for the educational market. Carol relishes unearthing real-life stories and little-known facts to share with young readers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Carol Kim please visit her social media links below!
MakeaLivinginKidlit.com (for those interested in writing kidlit and making a career of it)Twitter: CKimWrite4Kids
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