I have been writing for just about as long as I can remember. I could already read and write when I went to kindergarten. And you know how, in kindergarten, you have choice time, or free time? Whenever we had choice time or free time, I would always choose to write a story. My kindergarten teacher worried about that, and actually I remember also her once asking me, "Linda Sue, would you please choose to do something else today?" because she was worried about this. I have been writing as long as I can remember.
I have to say that I think I probably took the library for granted, because my father had been taking me since before I could walk, probably. For him, as an immigrant from a country that had been through a couple of very devastating wars, where libraries were not a real high priority, the libraries in this country were a miracle. He just couldn't believe it. He was 19 years old when he went into his first public library ever, and if you think about it, it's a very bizarre concept: "I can walk in and take whatever I want?"
"Yeah, yeah, sure. Just bring 'em back."
You know, you can't do that with anything else, and it's really kind of an alien idea.
All of my favorite books were, for me, exotic stories. I would include in that something like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was a Midwestern, suburban girl. I lived in a small town near cornfields, and Brooklyn was exotic to me. It was this big city, which I had never lived in, and Francie Nolan lived in this tenement, which was a very different setting for me. And, yet, she loved the library, and she loved to read. So, finding something in common with people who lived in very different circumstances was by far the most rewarding thing for me.
And I think that's what books can do for young people. They're a bridge. They're a way to get to know people who are very different and to say, "But wait. In a lot of ways, they are like me."
It wasn't until I was grown and had children of my own that I realized, "Oh, there's probably just a treasure trove of stories in my own family that I've never looked into."
Some young people may come to that much sooner than I did, and they may well be interested in, "Grandma," or, "Grandpa, tell me about when you were young." "How was it different in whatever country you lived in?" And if that's the case, wonderful. Write them down. Oftentimes, it's grandma and grandpa, or even your parents who can't write in English, or can't speak in English, and can't share those stories in the way that you can. You can help, even if it's only writing down a story or two of your grandparents that you then just show to the rest of your family.
Reasons for writing
My daughter kept a swap journal, which I think is a wonderful idea. She would write something, – a letter, a poem, a little story – and this was when she was in third or fourth grade. She would give the journal to her friend when she'd finished, and her friend would write something back, either a letter back, another poem, or something completely different; they didn't have to follow up on what the person before had written, and then she'd give it back to my daughter. Each time, they'd keep the journal for three or four days. They kept that journal going for the entire school year.
So, somebody else was reading what my daughter had written, and I think that, for many people, that's another reason to write. It is an act of communication. You want someone else to read what you've written.
I ask the young people to try to take writing and put it in the same compartment in their head where sports and music lives, to say, "Oh, yeah. Of course. In order to improve at writing, I'm going to have to repeat, or write the same thing again, and try to improve it each time." I ask them to try to take it for granted that writing belongs in that same kind of category so that they don't say, "Oh, no. I have to rewrite this," but, rather, they say, "Oh, well, duh. Of course have to rewrite it. It's not gonna be good the first time." So, I ask them to try to think about writing in a little bit different way.
I actually got two books that came directly from my experience as a teacher of English as a Second Language. When I first would meet a new classroom of students, they were often newly arrived in the United States. My class would be one of the first ones they would take, English as a Second Language, and they were often really nervous. As an icebreaker, I used to ask them about animal noises in their language. So, in English, what does a dog say? "Bow-wow," or, "Arf, arf." But dogs all over the world don't say that. I learned, for example, that in Korea a dog says, "Mung-mung." When I take it into schools, I'll say, in this country, "Does a dog say, 'mung-mung'?"
The kids will all go, "No!"
I'll say, "What about this? [Barking] Mung-mung! Mung-mung!"
In Russia, a dog says, "Gahv-gahv." I learned that there are these wonderful animal noises all over the world that people make. So, I have a book called Mung-Mung!, which is a guessing game book of animal noises around the world.
Remember the stories
What I've always said was my dream is to be a fly on the wall, or maybe dead and floating around wherever dead people go, and to hear a young person, or any reader, say, "Oh, I've just read this fantastic book. It's by – it's by – oh, I can't remember who it's by, but it's about " and then they go and talk about my book. I think the stories, again – stories, in general – are much more important than any one person as an individual. I don't mind if people forget my name – as long as they remember my stories.
"Our part of Korea is like a dragon with many humps," Sang-hee's father said. "The humps are the mountains, the first hump facing the sea, the last hump facing the king's palace. Our mountain is the first hump. Our fire is the first fire."
"Every evening at sunset, Sang-hee's father climbed to the top of the mountain, carrying a pair of tongs and a little brass pot filled with live coals, coals to start a fire. A fire so big, it could be seen from the next mountain, where another fire-keeper saw it and lit his fire, a fire big enough to be seen from the next mountain, where a third fire-keeper saw it and lit his fire and on and on. A fire on every hump of the dragon's back, all the way to the last one, the hump that could be seen from the palace walls. When the king saw the fire on the last mountain, he knew that all was well in the land."