A Q&A with Juna and Appa Author Jane Park

Today on the blog, we’re sharing a Q&A conducted with Jane Park, the author of Juna and Appa.

Lee & Low: Your first picture book, Juna’s Jar, was inspired by you and your husband’s shared childhood experiences of collecting and playing with large empty kimchi jars. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind Juna’s latest adventures in Juna and Appa?

Jane Park: Both stories were inspired by elements of my childhood, but at the heart, they are stories about relationships changing and how Juna deals with strong emotions by using her imagination. In Juna’s Jar, Juna copes with sadness when her best friend moves away and in Juna and Appa, Juna tries to stay connected with her dad despite outside pressures. In both books, I wanted to address some hard moments in kids’ lives in ways that wouldn’t feel too heavy-handed or painful but in a relatable story with magic and cool animals. Children will love discovering the amazing, beautifully illustrated animal dads!

We all have a moment when we look at our parents and realize that they aren’t all-powerful and all-knowing. It’s a confusing but universal experience for kids. But I think it hits children of color differently because it may often involve a systemic power dynamic. Juna and Appa actually came from a difficult moment when my own kids saw an older child mockingly say to me, “I don’t understand ching chong.”  When Juna sees a customer treat her father as “less than,” it is unfortunately a common experience for kids of color and it’s often not talked about or acknowledged, but that leaves children to make sense of the incident themselves.

I hope this book will be a ‘mirror’ for the kids who need the message that when this happens, to not turn away from the people who love you, but to turn toward them. Their love might look different but it’s real, true, and enduring.

Lee & Low: In your author’s note, you mention wanting to provide a mirror for kids growing up in family shops and a window for others who also see their parents as heroes. Can you talk a bit more about growing up in a family-owned shop and what you’ve carried into your life from that experience?

Jane Park: Mom-and-pop shops are a big part of Korean American history — of many immigrant communities’ histories in North America. However, I hadn’t seen our experience represented in picture books and wanted to show a different, more human side than typically represented in other media.

I spent countless hours of my childhood at my parents’ shop as did the majority of my Korean friends. I got used to having to find ways to entertain myself and I was always making things with the available supplies. I especially loved the fabric scraps from pant hems! My friend’s family owned the convenience store a few shops down and we’d often go off on adventures together — whether it was just lying on our backs looking at clouds in the parking lot or exploring the creek at a nearby park. I think the freedom to explore, to create, and especially to be ‘bored’ shaped me into who I am today.

Lee & Low: Can you talk about the ending and why it doesn’t feel like a typical “happy ending?”

Jane Park: When people read early drafts of the story, many had strong and differing feelings about the ending. Some insisted that the lost jacket should be found, while others never questioned it. So I expect that it will mean different things to various readers, as it should.

While the expected ending might be for Juna to find the jacket and wrap up the story in a pretty bow, for me, that would undermine what this story is about. And I think that only having “happy” endings in picture books does a disservice to our children. Do we want children to believe that things can always be resolved in 32 pages if you just try hard enough or if you’re special enough? We all know that we can try and be as good as we can be, and things still don’t work out. Many old fairytales and folktales have pretty grim endings —when was it decided that every children’s story needs a “happily ever after?” Sometimes we need the fantasy and have things end neatly. But sometimes we just need some comfort from knowing that others go through things like this, too, and that we’re not alone.

Lee & Low: Juna has a wonderful imagination and meets many animal appas over the course of her adventures. Why did you decide to focus on father figures in the animal kingdom and how did you choose which animals to feature?

Jane Park: I wanted to choose somewhat lesser known, fascinating animal dads. I considered penguin and seahorse dads, but I think they’re pretty well-known and I wanted to use this opportunity to bring to attention less celebrated animals. The water bug was debated for a minute but some kids really love insects! And again, it’s an opportunity to get to know the feared or unknown.

I love hearing that some kids wondered whether the animals are actually real. Do some frogs actually keep their young in their mouths?! And then they can do follow-up research after reading the book. Kids will love watching videos on the Darwin’s frog!

Lee & Low: You’ve worked with illustrator Felicia Hoshino on both Juna books. Tell us a bit about how your collaboration process works.

Jane Park: During the process of creating Juna and Appa with Felicia I had a shift in thinking about Asian male representation. At first I thought to counter the stereotypes of Asian men, that appa should be big and hunky and sent photos of a favorite Korean actor to Felicia for inspiration.

In Felicia’s character sketches, Option A looked just like the Korean actor but then option “C” looked just right — like Juna’s appa. Around the same time, a friend was talking about BTS and about how in Korea “looking like a girl” is a compliment, not an insult, and that it means you’re really attractive. And it made me think that that’s where the shift should be —  not necessarily embracing western ideals of masculinity but redefining masculinity. There definitely needs to be a much better, broader range of Asian male representation, but kids don’t just feel safe with their dads if they’re big or strong, but if they provide care and love. I hoped Juna’s appa would feel familiar, like many dads I knew and Felicia’s Option C was perfect.

Lee & Low: Juna’s Jar won the Lee & Low New Voices Award. Can you share a bit about the submission process, what it was like to win, and any tips you have for others looking to get their stories published either through awards or agents?

Jane Park: My biggest piece of advice is to submit your work. Don’t talk yourself out of it and self-reject. I sat on Juna’s Jar for years because I felt too afraid to have it rejected. I sent the manuscript only to Lee & Low because their foundational mission is to publish diverse voices and I believed that I wouldn’t get interest from any other publisher. In 2010, other publishers were less likely to think that a book where the main characters are kids of color — not white or animals — would be universally appealing. 

I think awards and open calls are wonderful opportunities to get your work considered for publication. It can be a really discouraging and grueling process to get an agent interested in your work and then hope to get matched up with the right editor. Currently all my books out now were published as a result of contests and open calls. If a publisher has an open call and your work seems to align with what they are looking for, send it in! If it gets interest, it could help find an agent. My agent turned an initial offer from an open call into a two-book deal!

Lee & Low: What are you working on next?

Jane Park: I have a picture book coming out in 2024 that celebrates moms. It wasn’t a deliberate choice to do this because I wrote about dads and it’s definitely not the next book I wrote after Juna and Appa. But I’m so thrilled that they’ll both be out there in the world.

Next year I have a non-fiction picture book, Hidden Creature Features, coming out which is a companion to Hidden Animal Colors. I think Juna and Hector and other animal-loving kids would love these gorgeous photo-illustrated animal books!

JANE PARK (formerly Bahk) won Lee & Low’s New Voices Award for Juna’s Jar, which was also recognized with the Asian/Pacific American Library Association Award for Literature and as a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Literacy Association. Juna and Appa was inspired by her memories of growing up in her family’s dry-cleaning shop. Park lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can visit her online at janeparkbooks.com.