Jessica Kim Gets Funny and Talks Family in "Stand Up, Yumi Chung!"

The debut author spoke with SLJ about the risks and rewards of creativity, taking a chance on yourself, and the significance of father figures in her middle grade novel.

The heroine of Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (Kokila, Mar. 2020; Gr 3-6) is juggling a lot, and not in a fun way. Yumi's Korean immigrant parents want her to focus on her studies and enroll her in hagwon, test-prep summer camp. But when she finds a kids' comedy camp nearby, hosted by her favorite YouTuber, Yumi takes a chance on pursuing her passion—and risks disappointing her parents and losing herself in lies. Debut author Jessica Kim discusses the exciting uncertainty of being a writer, finding the story your characters are telling you, and the nuanced dynamics of immigrant family life.   

Photo by Nicholas Andrews

 

You taught third, fourth, and fifth grades for 10 years, which explains why the dialogue and tween dynamics are so perfect. How did you channel the voices and antics of this lively cast?  

To tell you the truth, middle grade was my last stop on my journey to publication. At first, I wanted to write picture books but promptly discovered that the tight format did not suit my storytelling style. Then I wrote an entire YA novel, but the feedback I got when I queried it was that it sounded young. Which led me to finally consider the tweens. In retrospect, it's silly that I didn't just start there. Not only did I teach middle school and upper elementary for a long time, I also have a 10-year-old kid of my own—not to mention I've always been told that I'm immature for laughing at fart jokes! It's like my whole life was primed for this audience and I was the last person to figure it out. 

It's not surprising then that when I switched gears and started writing Stand Up, Yumi Chung! the story flowed out of me in a way other stories hadn't. The characters were immediately familiar to me: their issues and concerns, the way they talk and react. I felt like I already knew them and they were telling their stories to me. All I had to do was write it down.

Can you expand on your love of stand-up comedy?  Are there really camps and YouTube channels for hopeful young comedians? And do you have a stand-up routine of your own? 

Stand-up comedy has always been unendingly fascinating to me, in part because of the die-hard commitment comics have to their craft. If you know anything about the lifestyle of a comedian, you know that it's not an easy one. The money is iffy, the hours are odd, the prestige is not really there, the crowds can be hostile; it's basically an Asian immigrant parent's worst nightmare. But for whatever reason, those who do it can't live without it, and that inherent conflict intrigued me. What if the stand-up comedy lover was a dutiful Asian American girl? What would her parents think? The set-up was rife with conflict, and I had to get in there to play with that story.

In my research, I found that many comedy clubs do offer summer camps or after-school programs like the one portrayed in my book. The course offerings vary greatly by institution, but there's usually at least some sort of improv and stand-up class available. I haven't come across any YouTube channels that have comedy tutorials for kids yet, but it'd be cool to see! As far as my own comedy, I haven't done any stand-up yet, but I'd like to try one day. 

As teachers, we all have one or more Yumi Chungs in our classrooms. They may not be an aspiring comic, but they might be deferring personal interests in favor of parental expectations, or are just very busy with family responsibilities. Was there real-life inspiration for Yumi?

Yes, Yumi's story is actually a thinly veiled autobiography of me wanting to try my hand at writing but being held back by my fear of failure (strongly reinforced by my risk-averse Asian upbringing). For years, I'd wanted to write a book but was too chicken to try. Mostly because I'd never seen anyone in my community do such a thing. It made perfect sense; the rejection rates were high, the hours long, the pay comparatively low. But in my heart of hearts, I really loved writing and couldn't stop. I often wondered what it'd be like if I could just be someone else and shed all my self-consciousness.

When I started taking writing classes and showing up to critique group meetings, I'd put on a brave face and slip into my writing alter ego: the more confident, creative Jessica, who was totally unconcerned with what other people thought. But of course I did care! In fact, I didn't really tell people in my life about my writing for a while, because I couldn't bear the thought of someone asking me, "So when is your book coming out?" and having to reply, "Maybe never!"—and then having to flee into the woods to hide from the shame that my big dreams might never come true.

So yes, I drew a lot from my own experiences when writing Yumi's story. Fear of failure seems to be something a lot of people relate to. I hope they can find reassurance and comfort in this story. 

What did your journey from elementary teacher to writer look like? 

I took what I thought was a break from teaching when my family relocated from Los Angeles to New York City for my husband's three-year fellowship training. I was a new mom of a toddler with another on the way, navigating a foreign city far from home. I started a personal blog to keep my loved ones updated on all the exciting things I was discovering and experiencing. Nothing fancy, just pictures of my day and musings about my new surroundings. I quickly fell in love with it. It's funny, before starting the blog, I actually hadn't had much interest in writing. I wrote for my high school newspaper and for papers in college, but nothing beyond that. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I found myself staying up late writing stories, tinkering with words, and editing sentences. Something about it lit a spark deep within me. Pretty soon, I started to grow a readership beyond my friends and family, and for the first time, people started telling me to write a book. 

After my husband completed his training and we returned home to California, I realized that I no longer had a desire to return to the classroom as I expected. Instead, I wanted to pursue my writing, for publication this time. It was a big move and I was very scared that nothing would come of it, but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't at least try. So I enrolled in some writing classes and joined the local writing community and began my new life as a writer. And here I am years later with a book coming out! I'm so glad I gave myself permission to follow a different path than the one I had planned for myself. 

Yumi’s assumptions about her parents are upended; she realizes her father had dreams that he deferred in order to give his daughter opportunities. It is such a powerful moment, and one of many emotional scenes in your book. Did you find writing such scenes cathartic, or emotionally draining? Which were your favorite and/or most difficult scenes to write and why?

Yumi's father is inspired by two very important father figures in my life: my late father and my father-in-law. My own father immigrated to the United States as a young man in his 20s, with big dreams and not enough time to fulfill them. Though he graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in pharmacy, he came here to run a produce store seven days a week in a small town outside of Los Angeles until his untimely death at 37. It was never said aloud in our family, but it was understood that my sisters and I were expected to achieve and thrive in this country so that the sacrifices my parents made to be here would not be in vain. Many children of immigrants carry this same burden. We want to make our parents proud because we know they never got a fair shot at their own dreams. So when we pursue something off the beaten path, something more risky or creative, we feel guilty for disappointing our parents who have invested everything in us. 

My father-in-law came to America with nothing more than his own grit and 20 dollars to his name. He worked as a commercial painter most of his life and spent all that he earned on his children's education. Later, when I finally told him that I was writing a book, my father-in-law wrote me a very moving letter about how proud he was of me. In that moment I realized that he might have had dreams of becoming a writer himself if life had gone a different way. I hadn't noticed it before, but he always spent so much time writing poetry and articles for his alumni website and magazine. Even the captions on his photos were beautifully worded. I wondered about his own deferred dreams, which gave me inspiration for the character of Yumi's father.

Writing the scenes of Yumi with her father was very cathartic for me. My favorite and most difficult scene to write was the one where Yumi finds her father smoking in the alley behind the restaurant. I don't have very many memories of my dad since he passed away when I was seven, but I do remember he used to go outside and smoke when he was feeling stressed and needed a moment to himself. I'm so thankful I was able to include that memory in this book. That scene was so powerful because it gives Yumi and her dad a chance to let down their guards and share their vulnerabilities with one another in a way I wish I could have done with my own parents. Not only was Yumi able to explain what comedy means to her, she was also able to see her father's sacrifice and great love for her.  

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! is a superb windows/mirror text. While there is much specific to the Korean immigrant experience, there is also much that speaks universally to young readers: complex sibling dynamics, parental pressures, and friendship drama. What was your reading life like as a child—did you find mirror books? Have you noticed a change as you moved from being a young reader to writing for them?

As a young reader, almost every book I read was a window, not a mirror. The closest character to my lived experience was Claudia Kishi from the “Babysitters Club” series, and she wasn't even Korean. It would have meant the world to me to read a book with casual mentions of familiar foods and words my parents say. At times, being a second-generation American feels like being a ghost: invisible, not represented anywhere in media, like you don't even exist. I'm relieved to see it changing these days, and I'm so glad my book can be a mirror to those kids who haven't seen themselves in a book yet. 

What’s next for you? 

I'm working on a second middle grade novel now and I hope to tell you more about it soon!

 

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