Welcome to my new guest post segment, Stories That Built Me. Each of these posts will be done by a guest (authors, booksellers, bloggers, and more?) who will talk about how different stories shaped them.
This final post is from Kat Cho, whose book Gumiho comes out next year, and I cannot wait for it! Kat is honestly the best.
When I sat down to write this, I thought I should talk about the children’s books that shaped me because I’m a kidlit author about to debut with a young adult fantasy. However, as I really explored young-Kat and the stories I devoured, I realized that the turning points in how I saw storytelling weren’t through children’s books. But since Rachel said I could talk about whatever I wanted as “stories” I’m going to run with that freedom, wheee [runs through field of flowers with no sense of purpose or direction!]
Okay, I’m back and the three stories/storytellers that shaped me were Gundam Wing, Nora Roberts, and my grandmother.
Gundam Wing was the first time I watched a story where all the characters were complicated and grey. It was the first time I there was no true “villain” character because every character truly believed they were acting for the greater good. The first half of the season (because it was literally cut into two halves with those boring recap episodes in the middle) was all about setting up the war and establishing the main protagonists, the Gundam pilots (also, had a huge crush on Trowa Barton and I’m not sorry!). Then the second half turned it on its head and showed why the “evil” side was acting the way they were. Lots of long monologues from the characters previously painted as villains. They explained why they thought the war was happening and why they had to fight for their side. It showed things from their perspective and somehow made them protagonists, too. This showed me that true conflict can still come about when there’s not the archetypal “evil” character like I was used to with my fairy tales and Disney cartoons. It also introduced me of the complicated and mature world of anime in a new way (before I’d really been more hooked onto Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service). It was a good way for me to realize that all mediums of art were capable of tackling more complicated subject matter–a mindset that has served me well as I delve into my career as a kidlit author. So, in my debut Young Adult fantasy, GUMIHO, I’ve tried to provide all of my characters with core wants and motivations. I want them to think they’re doing what’s right for them in the moment. So that even if their actions hurt others, they’re not just a two-dimensional evil character. They’re someone who, if the story were written from their perspective, could potentially be the protagonist. Because they truly think they’re doing what they must.
Nora Roberts was the one who taught me that not all core relationships in stories need to be romantic. I know, you’re probably thinking that I’m confused as Nora Roberts is mainly a romance author. However, when I started reading her books as a fresh-faced thirteen-year-old (blame my aunt for giving me one of her books when I was bored in a hair salon) I wasn’t very well-versed in romantic relationships. So, the relationships that I understood best were the family and friendship ones. And those were so well fleshed out and so alive on the page that I became obsessed with them. How the people we love–whether it be romantic or platonic–can shape how we see the world. So, even though my debut story is about a girl (or more specifically an immortal fox demon girl) who falls in love with a boy, it’s really about a girl who doesn’t know who she is and is trying to find connections and relationships. And it’s about a girl who has only ever had one person to depend on, so when she finds out there are other people who could love her, she has to rethink how she sees the world.
My Grandmother is not a storyteller by trade. She was actually a biologist and came to America without knowing a word of english to eventually go on to get her masters and PhD. She is a woman who valued education and hard work. And for part of my life, I tried to emulate that by going the pre-med track, working in clinical research, and getting my Master in Public Health. But more recently, she’s started to open up to me and talk about her childhood. What it was like being a young girl in Korea during the war. What it was like coming to America as a newlywed because her husband wanted to train as a physician here. What it was like living in a time that I used to think was just history. And hearing about how her family escaped Seoul to Busan during the Korean War because the North was invading. How she ran from school to her apartment when bomb sirens were going off because her little sister was home alone. How she was often mistaken for an assistant or secretary instead of as a professor during a time when women weren’t seen as equals (let’s be honest, that time still exists now). It showed me that the things that inspire us were lived experiences. That these things that built our society were also things that built the people we love. Learning about where my family came from through my grandmother’s stories has been so important for me. I think it’s important to preserve these stories and memories and pass them on. And I’ve seen how literature and kidlit in particular has the power to do this. It’s why I decided it’s important for me to include a piece of who I am and where I came from in every story I tell. It’s why I think that the term “ownvoices,” though complicated at times, is important to understand and embrace in a way that positively boosts authentic stories. And it’s why my debut is based on Korean Mythology that I used to only read about in books and think of as things from a long ago time. I don’t think that anymore. I know that these stories shaped my heritage. And I want to pass that on.
Kat Cho used to hide books under the bathroom sink and then sneak in there to read after bedtime. Her parents pretended not to know. This helped when she decided to write a dinosaur time-travel novel at the tender age of nine. Sadly, that book was not published. Kat’s YA contemporary fantasy debut GUMIHO comes out with Putnam Books for Young Readers in 2019.
Set in modern-day Seoul and based on Korean mythology. A girl who must kill to survive falls in love with a boy after she rescues him from a goblin, changing the course of her immortal life.