Helena Ku Rhee is the indie best-selling author of the critically-acclaimed THE PAPER KINGDOM, an illustrated children’s book published by Penguin Random House. Illustrated by frequent New Yorker contributor Pascal Campion, THE PAPER KINGDOM was hailed as “enchanting and powerful” (Booklist, starred review) and “heartwarming…a must-read” (Kirkus, starred review). It was included on many illustrious year-end Best Books of 2020 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 illustrated children’s books THE TURTLE SHIP (Lee & Low, 2018), SORA’S SEASHELLS (Candlewick, forthcoming 2022), and ROSA’S SONG (Random House Studio, 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), and 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.
Christopher Seid Photography
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
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.
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).
I usually camp out on our sofa in the den or in my upstairs home office. It’s got 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.
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 turning down this, that and the other, 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.
Oh boy, how many hours do you have? Actually, do you have a week??
As a child, I absolutely loved any book about curious, adventurous kids – Ramona Quimby, Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy come to mind. I developed a deep, painful love for dogs after reading Where the Red Fern Grows. I also loved The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. And though Roald Dahl is now considered a troubling figure because of his personal beliefs, I did enjoy his books very much (particularly James and the Giant Peach). Looking back, I wish there’d been more diversity in the books I read as a child, but that’s just the way it was. Nowadays, there’s a lot more representation in books, which is a very good thing — but we still have a long way to go, and so I consider it one of my missions to help open up literature to more voices and perspectives.
Anyway, picture books have been a lifelong passion, and I started writing my own at age seven. When done well, they’re a wonderful marriage between text and art. I absolutely love picture books by Amy Krause Rosenthal (such as Duck, Rabbit) and by Doreen Cronin (Diary of a Worm and Click Clack Moo are brilliant). Christian Robinson’s books are amazing, and I have great admiration for the work of rising star Oge Mora. There are SO many good ones — if you’d like a curated list from me, please subscribe here and then email me a request to receive my list of recent favorites (with reasons why).
As for middle grade books, Linda Sue Park is masterful — a true storyteller with a poet’s ear! (She generously maintains Kibooka, a list of Korean American authors who work in traditional publishing, including yours truly.) As for young adult novels, omg I love Matt de la Pena. And John Green. And E. Lockhart, Stephanie Perkins, David & Nicola Yoon. I recently discovered Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns…brilliant.
In the adult realm, so many, from Stephen King (when I want to be afraid of my own house), Paul Theroux (when I want to travel far and wide with a cranky guide) and Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Gilbert (Signature of All Things – WOW), Ted Chiang, Geoff Dyer, Sigrid Nunez (OMG, The Friend is so heartbreakingly lovely) and Chang Rae Lee (when I want to marvel at gorgeous writing and brilliant thinking). 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 — I cried at the end). 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.
I love everything from super goofy humor (Coming to America, Bridesmaids) to epic dramas(Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca) and recent releases like La La Land and Get Out. My favorite Pixar animation is The Incredibles (the first one). Don’t you love the moment when Dash finds out he can use his legs to make his mother/raft a speedboat??It was so thrilling. OMG the DMV-with-sloths scene in Zootopia — hahaha!
In the movie Paris Je T’aime, I love the chapter directed by Alexander Payne – it’s at once hilarious and lovely. I love Sideways by Alexander Payne as well. And Mad Max: Fury Road – WOW. And boy, Kathryn Bigelow is amazing. The movies Contact with Jodie Foster and Arrival with Amy Adams fill me with hope and wonder. I think I was the only person in the theater who was bawling after watching The Road with Viggo Mortensen…it’s a stunning movie I never want to watch again because it makes me so sad. The 400 Hundred Blows by Truffaut, The Lives of Others, Blade Runner, The Pianist, The Professional (Leon), The Devil Wears Prada…and though Woody Allen has been criticized for his personal life, I did very much enjoy many of his movies — Midnight in Paris, Annie Hall, Match Point, etc.
I think My Octopus Teacher should be required viewing for every human on this precious planet, especially since the earth and its creatures are in such peril. (Along these lines, Dr. Jane Goodall’s Masterclass on conservation is exceptional.)
I could spend the entire next week listing all the movies I love. Many are based on books (The Road, Arrival, etc.). And as a kid, I loved the TV series The Twilight Zone. I would watch entire marathon weekends until my mom would yell at me to turn off the TV. Then I would grab a book and go outside.
Our world is full of fabulous destinations. We’re so blessed to be earthlings. 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, 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.!
Feel free to send along questions by visiting the Contact tab and I will respond when I can!