My parents often apologize to me for my childhood because they imagine it must have been a tough time—especially since, for them, that period was one of hardship. But the childhood they believe I had differs vastly from the one that exists in my memory.
We were immigrants from South Korea, and when I was around two, we moved into an apartment building near downtown Los Angeles, full of other newcomers, working-class families, and some very persistent cockroaches. At that time, my parents worked as night janitors and took me to work with them every night for three years since they couldn’t afford childcare. I remember watching my parents sweep and vacuum, and I also recall falling asleep in empty offices when fatigue wore me down. But instead of a miserable time, going to work at night offered plenty of fun, and I wrote about how drudgery was transformed into magic in my children’s book The Paper Kingdom, Illustrated by Pascal Campion.
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The childhood I remember requires no apologies, because much like accompanying my parents to their work, it was inexplicably and unexpectedly magical. Our old building, which my parents describe as “run-down” and “chaotic,” was the setting for so many wonderous adventures. You could walk down any hallway and hear languages from around the world, and smell the fragrance of different cuisines wafting through windows. And best of all, kids ran amok in the central courtyard and strolled in and out of each other’s apartment units because nobody locked their doors during the day. You could invite yourself into one friend’s apartment and enjoy some nachos, and then hop over to another friend’s unit to watch Sesame Street. I befriended kids who looked nothing like me but who shared my love of stories, the ice cream truck, and a game of tag.
It’s not that I’m trying to romanticize the past; Instead, this is how I actually remember my childhood. But what I also remember about our building was that it was a place of transition. Friends often moved away suddenly, without any warning. In my childhood imagination, I pictured them upgrading to two-story homes in the suburbs with huge backyards, or perhaps even to a wood fairy’s tree house in Yosemite National Park, a five-hour drive from LA
Looking back, however, I now realize that many of those friends moved away due to unfortunate changes in their family’s financial, marital, or even immigration status. It never occurred to me back then that their fate could possibly take a turn for the worse, or that bleak circumstances propelled their moving away. The beauty of a child’s imagination is that it seeks out what is spectacular, what is worthy of notice and recollection. And maybe that’s what makes kids so resilient, so optimism.
The transformative power of imagination is what I wanted to capture in my latest picture book, Rosa’s Song, also illustrated by Pascal Campion—a story about an intense friendship that undergoes a sudden change. We all know the pain and emptiness that ensue when a good friend moves away. And I remember feeling bereft for weeks, sometimes months, when a friend disappeared without saying goodbye or leaving any contact information.
Fortunately, new friendships eventually edged out the sadness, and what lingered were warm memories of happy times. Those memories are what remain in my mind today and serve as the fuel for my stories. I gave my character Jae in Rosa’s Song the experience of losing a friend, but also finding solace in good memories and new friendships. I hope that while experiencing my books, kids and grown-ups alike will become more interested in their fellow humans, no matter what their background or where they journeyed from or where they must go next. I also hope that, despite whatever hardships people may face in their daily lives, they’ll hold on to what is, what is worthy of the spectacular and recollection—just like Jae does in Rosa’s Song, and just like I do when thinking back to my childhood.
Meet the author
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Helena Ku Rhee is an author of books for kids and the young at heart. In addition to children’s books, she has also written articles for national publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Salon. Her recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece about the thirtieth anniversary of the LA riots was featured on NBC News. Helena is currently based in Los Angeles, but has also lived in various parts of the US, Asia, and Europe. Visit her online at helenakrhee.com, and join her on Instagram (@helenakurhee) or Twitter (@HelenaRhee).
About Rosa’s Song
In this diverse picture book, a young immigrant from South Korea finds community and friendship in an apartment house filled with other newly arrived kids.
When Jae looks out the window of his new home, he wishes he could still see his old village, his old house, and his old friends. But his new apartment feels empty and nothing outside is familiar. Jae just arrived from South Korea and doesn’t even speak the new language.
Yet, making friends is the same wherever you go and he soon meets a girl with a colorful bird perched on her shoulder. Rosa knows just how Jae feels and the two become fast friends. Not only does Rosa show Jae his new neighborhood but she shows him how his imagination can bring back memories of his old home. Then Rosa leaves unexpectedly one night but leaves her parrot for Jae. He thinks about the song that Rosa would sing: “When I fly away, my heart stays here.” And when Jae meets two other newly arrived kids, he teaches them Rosa’s song and becomes their guide to this new world.
From the creators of the highly acclaimed The Paper Kingdomcomes a new book about the importance of the community and demonstrates how a simple act of kindness can be passed along to others.
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 06/14/2022
Age Range: 4 – 8 Years
Filed under: Guest Post