Helena Ku Rhee is a writer of books for kids and the young at heart. Her most recent picture book, THE PAPER KINGDOM, was published by Penguin Random House and was a #1 Indie Bestseller. It was included on many year-end Best Books lists, including Kirkus, NPR (and a staff pick), Parents Magazine, the Los Angeles Public Library, BookPage and Amazon, among others. Helena is also the author of the picture books THE TURTLE SHIP (2018), SORA’S SEASHELLS (forthcoming 2022), and ROSA’S SONG (forthcoming 2022). Her writing has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.
Helena is currently based in Los Angeles (her hometown), but she has also lived in various parts of the U.S., Asia and Europe. She loves to travel far and wide across this beautiful planet, counting among her favorite journeys a camping trip in the Sahara, a swim with elephants in Thailand and a horseback-riding tour of Easter Island. She draws story ideas from her travels as well as her childhood.
Photo credit: Christopher Seid Photography
Photo credit: Eugene Rhee
Longer (Chatty) Bio
Helena Ku Rhee writes books for children and the young at heart. Her books are described here. Her writing can also be found in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon. Helena grew up in Los Angeles, and moved across the country and around the world in her late teens and twenties. She eventually landed back in the City of Angels and loves it more than she ever thought she would (she believes that L.A. — a place of great heart and soul — is extremely misunderstood and maligned by people who don’t know it very well).
As a college student at Yale, she majored in English (and enjoyed reading novels all day), and then attended U.C. Berkeley for law school (no surprise, since so many English majors end up in law school). Afterwards, she worked at a firm in San Francisco with scary-brilliant people, but quickly realized she wanted to work in a creative industry where she could befriend a goofball or two.
And that’s how she landed back in her hometown, to work in the movie industry and to live closer to family. Working for a storytelling organization has been the perfect alignment of her creative interests with her professional training. During her first few years back in L.A., Helena attended U.S.C. as a part-time evening student and received her MFA in creative writing through a joint program between U.S.C. and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Currently, Helena works at a movie studio by day and as a writer by night and weekends. Her hobbies include traveling to remote places that terrify her mother, practicing minimalism (very unsuccessfully), and admiring small, stout animals such as bulldogs, wombats and warthogs.
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“First, always, I have to reach and keep hold of the child in me.”–Maurice Sendak
“When I was a kid, I used to dream all day of being a writer. Now that I’m a writer, I get to dream all day of being a kid.” –Stephen Mooser, Author and Co-Founder of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou
Ohhh I love this question! I work with my local indie bookstore in Los Angeles–Children’s Book World–to get signed and personalized copies into the hands of readers. You can order here (and please do indicate the recipient’s first name if you’d like a personalized copy). Thanks for buying my books!
For a comprehensive answer, go to my post about writing and publishing here.
The best training is to read, read, read. If you’re a bookworm, you already have a head start on everyone else who wants to publish their projects. Also, read not just the classics, but read what’s being published today. Plot, pacing and characterization are much snappier in books being published today than, say, fifty years ago, thanks to competing media like YouTube channels, TV shows and movies. So if you want to be published the traditional way (with an agent and traditional publisher like Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Lee & Low, Candlewick, Chronicle, etc.), you have to keep abreast of the marketplace. That said, don’t focus too much on the market, trends, what others are up to, etc. You want to keep laser focused on your projects and not let the noise distract you too much.
And one more thing: rejection is all part of the process. I promise, it’ll make you stronger. The key is to let the rejection fuel you, rather than letting it break you. During the years when agents and publishers rejected my work, it would sting for a while, but then I became even more determined to make my next project better. And even when you’re a published author, rejection is still part of the game. You never know whether your next manuscript will sell or not, so rejection is something all writers in every phase of their career must get used to (unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or…you get the picture).
Yes! A thousand times YES. I’ve always loved books and stories. I have a gazillion ideas, but the hard part is writing those ideas in a way that will make people want to read. I majored in English in college, but the funny thing is, I explored other “more practical majors” such as econ (yikes!) because I thought reading novels all day seemed too decadent a way to spend a college career. But you always turn back to what you love, and I’ve always loved books and stories.
My ideas come from everywhere: while having a conversation, watching the news, traveling, walking our dog — see the photo below…isn’t he TOO CUTE???
Anyway, if you pay attention to the world around you (even the most mundane details), a story idea may pop up. I also find it helpful to explore other art forms — visit a museum, go to a play, listen to music. That’ll help the creative juices flow. It’s also great to have a creative buddy or critique partner who will ask tough, intelligent questions about your characters, plot, etc. A fellow artist/writer is your best bet, or at least someone with a very strong artistic sensibility (you don’t want to buddy up with someone who thinks books are dull or who finds reading your work to be a tedious chore). My husband produces and writes for the movie industry, and is actually the first reader and editor of all my writing projects. He’s very helpful with plotting/pacing because his taste is much more commercial than mine. It’s awesome to have my early drafts analyzed by someone who loves stories as much as I do. And of course, it’s great to have a dog who will think you are perfect no matter how terrible your first draft.
The short answer is no, I don’t have a writing schedule. I used to feel very guilty about not being able to write everyday, but I’ve come to realize that I’m okay with writing in productive bursts, rather than steady, regular hours each day. Since I work at a movie studio during the day, I usually write during the evenings and weekends. I’ve had to trim out a lot of social activities because I want to devote as much of my free time as I can to writing projects. At first, I felt really bad about missing out on social outings and invitations to cool-sounding events, but then I realized that I felt even worse when I didn’t have time to write. In fact, I get really cranky and antsy when I can’t write for a while. You can often find me grumbling in the corner when social events run too long. In other words, I’m an introvert and I’m passionately in love with being at home, so the life of a writer suits me perfectly.
I’ve always fantasized about being the type of person who can write at cute cafés or under an umbrella at the beach. But noise (even music without lyrics) doesn’t work well for me. So when I write, I usually camp out on our sofa in the den or my upstairs home office. Both spots have big windows, so I like looking at the sky every once in a while to watch the birds swoop by. Sometimes, a group of small, green parrots flies by – boy, are they noisy! Their chatter makes me laugh. They like to gossip while they fly. And that’s exactly what I’d do if I were a bird.
I get these questions very, very frequently (sometimes even multiple times a day!). And the short answer is, unfortunately, no. But I completely empathize with how frustrating the road to (traditional) publication can be, so I wrote a comprehensive blog post to answer these questions in depth (along with many other frequently asked questions, such as how I got an agent) — check out this post.
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Oh boy, how many hours do you have? Actually, do you have a week?? This is a really difficult question for any writer to answer, because books are our ongoing lifelong obsession, and there are always new ones to add to the list. I know I’ll inadvertently leave out some of my favorites, as well as books written by friends, so rather than naming specific books, I’ll answer in a rather general way.
I read books for all age levels and across all genres. A well-executed picture book is a true artform that can transcend all ages, and a good horror/thriller will definitely have me holding my breath for hours.
A little more specifically, in the picture book realm, I love anything that makes me laugh or cry. If a book can provide both an effective emotional and educational journey, WOW. When I was a kid (as well as even now), I ran away from didactic, “lesson-driven” or “message-driven” books (ick — no, thank you).
As for middle grade, I think there must be a nine-year-old boy who resides in my brain, because I gravitate towards zany humor (hello, R.L. Stine & Jeff Kinney). I also love Linda Sue Park’s economy of language. She generously maintains Kibooka, a list of Korean American authors who work in traditional publishing, including yours truly.
In the YA realm, there are SO many good books. Omg, I love Matt de la Pena, John Green, E. Lockhart, Stephanie Perkins, David & Nicola Yoon. Okay, I’ll mention one specific title: Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns…WOW…a brilliant twist on folktales.
As for the adult realm, I’ll go ahead and get specific: Stephen King (when I want to be afraid of my own house — specifically, I prefer his short story collections like Full Dark, No Stars because hanging out in the dark worlds of his novel-length works can get TOO scary), Paul Theroux (when I want to travel far and wide with a hilarious-cranky guide), Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Gilbert (Signature of All Things – WOW), Ted Chiang (Stories of Your Life), Geoff Dyer, Sigrid Nunez (OMG, The Friend is so heartbreakingly lovely) and Chang Rae Lee. Harlan Coben and Haruki Murakami are both so entertaining, and I also love good thrillers (Lisa Jewell’s Then She was Gone is a fast-moving thriller with a lot of heart). M.G. Lord was a writing professor of mine and is a masterful writer and hilarious speaker. Judith Freeman and Janet Fitch are also amazingly skilled writers and teachers. And there are the classics—I will always love Marguerite Duras, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Jean Paul Sartre, Paul Bowles, Arthur Miller and on and on… Did I put you to sleep? Because I could spend a week on this topic. When I’m near an author I admire, I have to remind myself to breathe.
We’re so blessed to be earthlings, so let’s do our best to take care of this planet and its amazing biodiversity. Our world is full of fabulous destinations. I’ll always remember my camping trip through the Sahara Desert, how the night sky was dusted with stars and the dunes were carved by the wind.I would love to go back to Tanzania — the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater are so WOW.I loved meeting baby elephant Boon in Thailand. I am obsessed with Bora Bora in French Polynesia because of its stunning sealife (been there three times and counting!). My favorite European city is Paris. I lived there for two years, and it will always ignite my imagination. And if I could have a pied-à-terre somewhere in the world, it’d probably be in Provence, the South of France. Likely in Aix or St. Rémy, where life seems to have a musical quality to it, a perfect little song.
For more thoughts about travel, please visit my travel-related blog posts here.
I donate my books to many charities and causes that I believe in. Unfortunately, I’m not able to donate to everyone. I’m given a limited amount of my books from the publisher for promotional purposes (usually about a dozen or so). After that, I have to purchase them, just like everyone else. So please support the arts by purchasing works by writers, artists, musicians, etc.!