Sunday, 28 December 2008

All Grown Up

KoreAm Magazine
August, 2006

All Grown Up
First-time author Jenny Han deals with the sometimes painful, often confusing journey from childhood to adulthood

By Ann Tornkvist

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Jenny Han mentions the word "scared" many times. Yet her eyes sparkle when she talks about Shug, the heroine in her first book, who, in so many ways, is based on Han's preadolescent self. The well-received debut novel, also with the name Shug, deals with the sometimes painful, often confusing journey from childhood to adulthood. Your body changes. Your friends change. Boys are no longer "gross," but become desirable, hard-to-understand creatures. In the book, Shug shrewdly observes that the prettiest girl and the most handsome boy should just get it over with and start dating. "They owe it to us," Shug says, before comparing them to Ken and Barbie.

Han, 25, lived vividly through this period herself, filling more than 20 diaries with notes about the strange phenomenon of growing up. The first among her friends to get her period, Han remembers thinking, "Oh no, I'm so not ready for this."

But now, more than 10 years later, Han is very ready for author-hood. On a chilly day a couple of months before the book's May release, Han is happy and at ease. A New York transplant from her childhood home in Virginia, Han carries a copy of the novel into a café in Brooklyn's CarrollGardens. As she chats on the phone to her mentor, Sarah Weeks (her former teacher at the New School University where she earned her master's of fine arts degree), she pushes a copy of the book across the table.


Being published is a feat in itself. The division for young adult readers at Han's publishing company, Simon & Schuster, receives more than a thousand manuscripts annually; only about 100 are published per year. But with Weeks putting Han in touch with Pippin Properties, a literary agency that specializes in children's titles, Han has had an uncharacteristically smooth ride thus far for a first-time author, with 30,000 copies of Shug, an unusually large number for an unknown writer, in bookstores.

Inside the café, there is constant noise as children select cakes and the espresso machine dutifully spits out coffee for their mothers. A miniature toy train, circling a track that skirts the ceiling's faux-fresco of cherubs, lets out a mournful rhythmic puffing. Han hangs up the phone. Her grass-green Juicy Couture sweater and large bag drenched in printed flowers make the cafe's beige and cappuccino walls pale.

Han's animated speech speeds up as she describes the book's plot. "When you reach junior high, the rules start to change," she says. "You don't have to invite everyone to your parties." Her protagonist, 12-year-old Annemarie — a.k.a. Shug — is a girl who doesn't want to grow up, and is coping with the loss of familiar rules as her friends embrace the baby steps they're making into their teens. When writing the book, Han pored over her own diaries and transplanted some specific phrases into Shug.

"We, as adults, don't take young people's issues seriously. 'Oh, it's just puppy love.' But it's important to recognize that, at that time, it is the most real thing," says Han. Add hormones, rejection by female friends, a burgeoning crush on a male friend and, in Shug's case, an alcoholic mother and an absent workaholic father, and "ordinary life" is transformed into one with potentially insurmountable hurdles.

For Han, growing up with her younger sister, Susan, in Chesterfield, Va., was "a pretty normal suburban existence." That included crushes on boys, like the one that inspired Shug's crush. "Certain boys that I knew at that age," says Han with a smile that manages to be both nervous and bemused at the same time.

Other characters in Shug resonate with the people of Han's past. "Some of my friends will read something and say, 'That's me!' And I'll say, 'No, it's not you.' In reality, I feel like every character I write about is me," says Han.

Shug rejects growing up because she already feels like an adult at home, where she takes care of her alcoholic mother. In Han's case, she put being a child to one side whenever her parents, working-class immigrants from South Korea, needed a translator during PTA meetings or help filling out forms in English. And being a child of immigrants, Han says she felt uncertainty and trepidation about pursuing a career as a writer. Working in the world of writing was something she always knew she wanted, and on a whim, she took a children's writing course during her undergraduate days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"It just never occurred to me to become a writer. It always seemed to me like one of those dream jobs, like 'I want to be a model,' or 'I want to be an astronaut,'" she says, cocking her head comically to one side.

Now Han joins many of her NewSchool peers in having books published this year. And like how it was when she got her period, Han is the first. Former classmate Emmy Widener feels Han's writing stands out because its structure is not strictly narrative. "Her writing is more character-driven," says Widener. "I guess you could describe it as reflective. A lot of people write in an A-B-C, 'this-happened-that-happened' way. Jenny comes to it from the back."

"Shug is only the beginning of Jenny's writing career," Weeks writes in an e-mail. "She has much to say."

Before choosing a publisher, Han trekked around midtown Manhattan to meet with editors at various publishing houses. And despite the chilly weather around Christmas last year, Han did it wearing a skirt and knee-high stockings. Sure, she felt cold, but she did not feel a need to power-dress — Han was, after all, there to discuss a book for teenagers.

The editor at Simon & Schuster, Emily Meehan, was impressed by Han's ability to effect an appropriate tone for the story. "I'd describe her voice as charmingly innocent and sweet, and very evocative of the age she is trying to portray," says Meehan. "Jenny fills that gap between literary and commercial." The company has high hopes for the debuting author.

With her new book comes a Web site, where colorful hot-air balloons (www.jennyhanwrites.com) invite visitors to enter the different sections. A click on the blue "Bio" balloon leads to a portrait of Han with her long black hair swept up in a ponytail. She wears a canary-yellow top as her fingers punch the keys of a metal typewriter. From the red nail polish to the black-framed glasses, Han slips easily into the role of youthful librarian as she promotes Shug.

As a child, the school bus would drop Han off outside the library each day, where she would spend hours sitting in large burgundy couches reading. Now a list of book recommendations are posted on her Web site. One is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. "Please, please read it," writes Han. "It will make you cry it's so good, and then you will want to be my best friend because I told you about it."


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