From Teaching to Writing
TeachingBooks asks each author or illustrator to reflect on their journey from teaching to writing. Enjoy the following from Jessica Kim.
I’ve often been asked if my former career as a teacher influenced the writing of Stand Up, Yumi Chung! and the answer is “of course!” My time in the classroom as a public-school teacher, teaching grades three to five, has given me incredible insight into the mind of a tween. In a sense, you could say I’ve been sitting in the front row, watching stories of what it means to come of age play out over and over, with a revolving cast of colorful characters for nearly a decade.
Anyone who has ever taught upper-elementary or middle school knows intimately what a tumultuous time it is in the life of a young person. During this season, these kids are facing so many changes on every front: in their bodies, in their friend groups, in their interests, in their studies. And just trying to keep up and adjust to all these changes makes for the perfect backdrop for a middle grade story that explores identity. Fortunately for me, I’ve had so many memorable students over the years from whom I could draw on to give me those distinctive flesh-and-bones details that really make a character come to life. The snippets of conversations, the outfits, the outbursts of emotions, the friend-dramas and love triangles, all of it became great material to inspire me.
In particular, especially in recent years, I’ve noticed a shift that many of our students are facing in terms of their self-confidence. While middle school has always been a time kids are suddenly more conscious of how they fit into greater society, I feel like there’s been an increased pressure towards perfectionism. With the rise and prevalence of social media, which literally counts the number of likes garnered, it’s easy for our students to feel like they need to present a filtered, more flattering version of themselves. As a consequence, some students might shy away from pursuing new things or refrain from taking risks because of fear of failure.
I really wanted to write a story that addresses those specific burdens.
In Stand Up, Yumi Chung! my main character is eleven-year-old Yumi, a shy and slightly awkward girl who is having trouble making friends at her fancy private school. So much so that she usually spends her lunch by herself in the bathroom stall, eating by herself. To escape, she watches her favorite comedian on YouTube and writes jokes in her Super-Secret comedy notebook, even though she’d never actually perform stand-up comedy in real life, or so she thinks! It isn’t until she accidentally steals someone’s identity at a comedy summer camp taught by her YouTube idol that Yumi feels like she might actually be able to be her authentic self, without worrying about what other people think of her. My hope is that young readers will be riveted and challenged as they follow along Yumi’s journey to find her voice.
I also wanted to explore themes of friendship in my novel. As all educators know, friendships can be the cause of grief, misunderstanding, but also great joy and belonging for our students.
I also wanted to explore themes of friendship in my novel. As all educators know, friendships can be the cause of grief, misunderstanding, but also great joy and belonging for our students. In my book, we see a huge transformation in Yumi after she finally makes friends at the comedy camp. Not only do they share the same interests, they also provide Yumi with the much-needed sense of belonging that ultimately pushes her to dream bigger and overcome the self-doubt that pulls her back. Yumi also learns how to communicate in times of conflict. Where she might have just ghosted anyone who she had tension with in the beginning of the story, she grows to see that she must work through tough conversations to hold on to the relationships that really matter to her.
Another way my experience in the classroom shaped the writing of my story was in its inclusivity. You will see that I have a very diverse cast of characters who come from many different cultures in Stand Up, Yumi Chung! As someone who taught in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, it was very important for me to reflect the diversity of the real world into our stories in an authentic and organic manner. Specifically, I was interested in showing what it’s like to be a second generation American. We have over eighteen million kids in our country who have at least one immigrant parent but our realities are rarely seen or expressed in books. I wanted to explore what it’s like toggling daily between two worlds and what happens when the values of those two cultures clash.
I was interested in showing what it’s like to be a second generation American.
At the beginning of the story, Yumi has a tough time understanding her Korean immigrant parents. She wishes they were more supportive of her interest in comedy like her friends’ families. She also wishes they weren’t so hard on her about her academics. As Yumi’s family falls on tough times and struggles to hold onto their failing Korean barbecue restaurant, Yumi learns a lot about why her parents are the way they are and how it’s been colored by their immigrant experience. By hearing about her parents’ point of view, she sees just how fiercely they love her, even though it doesn’t look quite the same way it does on TV. In a sense, Yumi comes to accept both parts of her identity.
There are two teachers that Yumi turns to for advice and support in my book: Mrs. Pak, the teacher at her test-prep tutoring center, and Jasmine Jasper, her comedy camp counselor. Both of these adults work to tease out the potential they see inside of Yumi, challenging her to reach beyond what she thinks is possible.
In much the same way, I’ve had many important teachers who have nurtured me to grow my self-confidence and dream bigger. I’ll never forget how it felt when Mrs. Johnson read my story about the ice-skating mittens to the whole class in third grade, or when my AP European History teacher, Mr. Volk photo-copied my response to the Document Based Question for the class to read as an example of excellence, or when my freshman composition professor in college asked me why I didn’t consider becoming a writer. All of these educators were monumental in my journey as a writer and I’m so thankful and honored that they took the time and effort to show me how far I could go as myself.
Books and Resources
TeachingBooks personalizes connections to books and authors. Enjoy the following on Jessica Kim and the books she’s created.
Listen to Jessica Kim talking with TeachingBooks about the backstory for writing Stand Up, Yumi Chung! You can click the player below or experience the recording on TeachingBooks, where you can read along as you listen, and also translate the text to another language.
- Listen to Jessica Kim talk about her name.
- Explore TeachingBooks’ collection of activities and resources for Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
- Enjoy some activities Jessica Kim made to go with Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
- Discover Jessica Kim’s page and books on TeachingBooks.
- Jessica Kim on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Explore all of the For Teachers, By Teachers blog posts.
Special thanks to Jessica Kim and Penguin Random House for their support of this post. All text and images are courtesy of Jessica Kim and Penguin Books for Young Readers, and may not be used without expressed written consent.
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