Five questions for Linda Sue Park

The One Thing You’d Save (Clarion, 9–13 years) written by Linda Sue Park begins with a teacher’s question: “Imagine that your home is on fire. You’re allowed to save one thing. Your family and pets are safe, so don’t worry about them. Your Most Important Thing. Any size. A grand piano? Fine.” Over the course of the verse novel illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng, which “borrows from” the sijo form of traditional Korean poetry, readers get to know a class of students — from an unspecified grade, and without seeing any of their faces — who reveal much about themselves through varied and creative answers to the question.

1. Which came first in your creative process — the desire to write a story using the sijo form, or the question of what to save in a fire?

Linda Sue Park: This question makes me wish that my creative process was a linear one. Instead, it’s more like a cross between a storm cloud and an octopus. I’ve wanted to write another sijo collection ever since Tap Dancing on the Roof came out in 2007, but couldn’t settle on a theme. And of course I’ve known of that parlor-game question for ages. Floating around with those two factors was a vital piece of my writing process: When I begin developing the characters in my stories, one of the things I spend a lot of time on is their stuff — the actual material objects that are important to them. I try to picture what their rooms or personal spaces look like. I wondered if it would be possible to write a story about kids through their stuff — and that’s when it occurred to me that I could structure it using the question of what they might save in a fire.

2. The characters’ voices are so distinctive and specific, and in such little space. How did you narrow down their stories to convey the “essentials”?

LSP: The adherence to a verse form is, for me, one of the most liberating ways to write. Sticking to the syllabic count in sijo doesn’t feel like a “limitation” — it feels more like a support. First I write the stanzas however they come to me, with the priority on the character’s voice and their relationship to the object they’ve chosen. That initial draft is almost always too long and wordy. Then I start cutting, revising, and finally tweaking to fit the syllable count and rhythm of the individual lines. That forces me to consider which words or phrases convey the character’s voice most effectively. Another important point: writing lots of poems so I can choose only the best ones for publication. There are thirty-four poems in the book. I wrote more than a hundred in total.

3. The art beautifully sets the scene, but without showing any of the main characters. Was that something you expected?

LSP: Yes, because of the way the book came to me. I asked the editor if it would be possible to illustrate the book without showing the characters, only the objects. Nobody made any promises, but Robert Sae-Heng’s illustrations are exactly what I was hoping for, only better. I later learned that he was at first really thrown by the request; after all, illustrators are almost always asked the opposite — to emphasize the characters! Eventually he embraced the challenge. He says he had a lot of fun with it, spending time thinking about how to convey the students’ personalities through the objects. I think his thoughtfulness comes through beautifully in the finished art.

4. Do you know what you would save?

LSP: I confess that my answer changes depending on my mood. But the object that occurs to me the most often is a round bronze medal in a polished wooden box that first came into my life in 2002...

5. You end your author’s note: “Using old forms in new ways is how poetry continually renews itself, and the world.” During National Poetry Month, how do you suggest readers engage with the form?

LSP: Of course, the easiest answer is for readers to try writing sijo themselves. There are tips at the end of Tap Dancing, and here’s a good website with examples and presentations for students. But I think wise educators have shown repeatedly that one of the keys to engaging students with any topic is the element of choice. How do they want to work with poetry? There are so many ways, and writing it themselves is just one of them. Memorizing and reciting song lyrics. Found and blackout poetry. Using poetry as a springboard into other modes of expression. I know that teachers and students themselves are going to come up with wonderful ways to engage with The One Thing You’d Save, and I can’t wait to see how they do it.

From the April 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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