San Diego author Christine Paik explores Korean history in her debut children’s book
As she was writing her very first children’s book, Christine Paik was certain about one thing: the illustrations had to be done by her mother, Jung Lin Park. No exceptions.
Who else could capture the intricate details and emotional nuances in “The Girl in the Gold Dress,” a family-inspired intergenerational story?
“It was a make or break thing for me,” explained Paik. “Having my mom do the illustrating was part of the whole purpose of the book.”
The story is about Hannah, a 10-year-old girl who is embarrassed about doing a Korean dance performance at the talent show, especially because her friends are doing more conventional things like playing guitar and singing songs from “Frozen.”
Why had she let her mom convince her to perform a traditional fan dance wearing a hanbok dress? It was too different. Too Korean.
So Hannah’s mother shares a magical family legend — one that includes fleeing from North Korea during the Korean War — and as Hannah understands the history and journey of her golden hanbok, she learns to embrace and be proud of her heritage.
Along with the themes of history and tradition, the book is filled with vibrant artwork capturing everything from a bustling marketplace to more somber, muted illustrations of families leaving a war-torn North Korea.
“It’s important not just to think about ourselves,” Park explained of her illustrations. “I wanted children to realize we are not living alone. We are living on our ancestors’ lives, and also for the lives of our future children.”
There’s a quote by author Beverly Cleary that always connected and stayed with Paik: If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.
“Growing up, the highlight of my week was when my mom took us to the library. It was the best time. I was a voracious reader and would just grab everything,” she said. “I wasn’t really conscious of it at the time, but not a single book or story that I read had characters who looked like me or had an experience growing up like I did.”
Paik had always talked about writing a book with her mom, but both women were busy with their families, careers and other day-to-day responsibilities.
Paik has two children, Sydney, 14, and Isaiah, 12, with her husband, Gene Paik. She worked in TV news before becoming the Chief Communications Officer for Poway Unified School District. Meanwhile Park was a small business owner and regular church volunteer.
But then coronavirus forced everyone to slow down.
“Everything shut down, my kids’ activities stopped, and I found myself with my evenings free,” Paik said. “And my mom had just retired, so her daily life was just being stuck at home. It was a ‘now or never’ kind of moment. I knew we had to do it now.”
The inspiration for “The Girl in the Gold Dress” comes from Paik’s mother-in-law, Shin Ja Kang, who sold dress fabrics to support her family during the war. It’s also about the real-life experience of buying Paik’s daughter, Sydney, a hanbok at the same market in Seoul where her mother-in-law sold fabrics.
“That moment she was trying it on, I was so struck with the significance and full circle moment connecting Sydney with her history and ancestors,” Paik said. “That’s what I wanted to capture in my book.”
Though the story is about the Paik ancestors, Park had many discussions with her daughter about the book’s vision and style. She also tapped into her own memories of growing up in Seoul to bring detail and authenticity to the illustrations.
“When Christine asked me to do the book, I was very excited,” said Park. “Yet, I wasn’t sure that a war story was something for children. ... It’s a very hard subject for a younger generation. But I saw the rough draft, and I was touched and so I said, ‘OK, I think I can help my daughter, and we can work together.’”
Park left Seoul in 1975 and settled in Barstow, raising her family throughout Southern California, most recently settling in Oceanside to be near her daughter in 4S Ranch. Though this project was meant to be a bonding experience for mother and daughter, an unexpected bonus was that Sydney also became a part of the process.
As Park, 67, thought about art for the book, she often asked her granddaughter to model her gold hanbok and share ideas.
“My mom would call us at, like, 10 p.m. and ask my daughter to put on the dress and spin so she could capture the movement,” said Paik, 44. “I think Sydney liked being part of the process. She’s a voracious reader, too, and I’d run ideas and phrases by her to see if they sounded OK.”
At the time, it seemed like the multigenerational bonding would be the biggest gift of creating the book.
But then came the rise in hate crimes and violence against the Asian and Pacific Islander community and Paik knew she needed to get this book out in the world. She wanted to add to the growing landscape of diverse stories and voices.
“I strongly believe that the key to battling ignorance and hatred is to start education at a young age, teach them about the beauty of other cultures,” Paik said. “Children who are exposed to multicultural stories tend to grow up be adults who understand cultures different from their own.”
“The Girl in the Gold Dress” was released on May 3, at the start of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s published by Imagilore, a small, Los Angeles-based company run by Paik’s friend that’s “focused on empowering under-represented voices to become ever-present stories.”
Thanks to Paik’s work in education, she also translated those skills to create learning resources for parents, educators and readers to encourage further dialogue.
On Paik’s website — christinepaik.com — readers will find discussion questions, writing prompts, word searches and coloring pages based on Korean history, themes and vocabulary.
“It’s important to show that being Asian-American is not something to be feared or hated, but something to be celebrated,” Paik said.
“Hopefully, many children will read this book and learn about different cultures,” added Park. “I hope they read it and celebrate other cultures so we can all make this world peaceful.”
“The Girl in the Gold Dress” by Christine Paik with illustrations by Jung Lin Park (Imagilore, 2021; 34 pages)
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