News and Interviews

Angela Ahn on Exploring Identity and Culture Through Food in Her Debut Middle Grade Novel

Angela Ahn

In Angela Ahn's Krista Kim-Bap (Second Story Press), Krista and Jason have been best friends since they were in diapers. Their differences never seemed like a big deal - but when their teacher asks them to work on projects about their heritage, Krista is suddenly painfully aware she's the only Korean kid in school, and that even her best and oldest friend is looking to her to represent her culture... all alone. Add to that the task of asking her rather intimidating grandma to teach her about Korean cooking, and Krista's got a lot to deal with. 

In Krista, Ahn has created a relatable, realistic, and totally charming character. The chapter book follows Krista's adventures and has been earning wide-spread praise for how authentic the 11-year old's struggle for identity and belonging feels. School Library Journal praised Ahn's literary debut, saying "Exploring questions of friendship, beauty, culture, and race, this title hits on many topics that will ring true with readers just entering the middle school years. Ahn writes Krista's voice with the right touch of innocence and realism."

We're excited to welcome Angela to Open Book today as part of our Lucky Seven series. She tells us about some staring anchovies (and how food influenced her decision to write Krista Kim-Bap), how long she kept her writing a secret, and all about her next book (we can't wait!). 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Angela Ahn:

There were a few pivotal moments that compelled me to sit down and write Krista Kim-Bap. The first moment involved my daughter (about 6 years old at the time) and her willingness to eat dried anchovies dressed in a sticky and sweet soy sauce. You could still see their eyes! The second involved my teenage nephew (he is only half-Korean) and the joy on his face when he was consuming a fiery hot bowl of Korean tofu soup. Those moments made me wonder how deeply food, culture and self-concept are rooted. The third moment occurred at our local public library. I was browsing the shelves and I was disappointed with the offerings for children. So many books with talking animals and stories lauding princess themes. So many American books. I just craved for something else. I thought, I’m going to write a book with a Korean-Canadian girl and darn it, she’s going to love kimchi! That’s how my novel started.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


At the heart of the story is this question: How does Krista manage friends, family and self-concept being a Canadian born, ethnically Korean girl? She has universal problems (old friends, new friends, self-esteem issues, fitting-in) but they are made slightly more complicated because of an ethnic identity she is trying to balance. She can’t just be Korean. She can’t just be Canadian. She is both. I always knew that Krista’s struggle with identity would be an important part of the book.


Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


Yes, it changed quite a bit. In the first draft, I wrote Krista as eight years old. It took me far too long to realized that I couldn’t write the voice of an eight year old well at all. I kept slipping into tween voice. I foolishly submitted this version to a few publishers. But to my surprise, I got some feedback! I was expecting a standard rejection letter, and I did get a few of those! I realized the character was too young for how I was writing and what I wanted to say. The first draft I wrote in about 3 months. The subsequent edits took over a year. When the kids were on summer holidays, I didn’t look it once. At times I edited every single day. I didn’t have any deadline other than my own, so sometimes it was hard to work on something, especially when you didn’t know if anybody else would ever read it.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I wrote the entire story on an 11” laptop sitting at my kitchen countertop. Not an ideal set up. Nobody knew I was writing. I kept it a secret until I actually had a book deal in my hands. I still don’t have a desk! But now I’ve bought 17” laptop so at least I have a decent sized screen to look at. I’ve now taken over a corner of the dining room table. The computer salesman asked me, “Why don’t you just buy a desktop computer?” I replied, “Well, I would need an actual desk for that wouldn’t I?” I am now dropping daily hints to my husband about getting a bigger house so I can have an office, but have you heard about Vancouver real estate prices? So clearly, I don’t need much to write. I simply need to feel inspired.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I walk away from my manuscript for as many days as I need. I do other things. I leave big holes in the manuscript with a yellow highlight. Those are parts I’ll get back to later. I work on parts of the story where the dialogue or the action is coming easily to me and the parts where I’m stuck, I try not to dwell too much. I am always strangely confident that I will work out the story, somehow!


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


My definition of a great book is one that leaves an emotional impact on its reader. There have been very few books that have given me the chills. When I close it and I’m done, I’m depressed because I didn’t want it to end. I read one recently like that, Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. Oh my. That one left me speechless. My heart hurt. I had tears in my eyes. My hands were trembling near the end. For me, great books make you feel.


What are you working on now?


I just sold my second book to Tradewind Books. Its working title is L.B., Trixie and Me and it is another middle-grade offering. It’s about a Korean-Canadian boy and his family. His sister is quirky, smart and annoying. His parents are pushy and oblivious. There’s a summer road trip to Alberta, a stuffed T-Rex, lost ambition and newly realized talents. That’s the very pared down version. I’m still working on a revision, so things may change. 


Angela Ahn is a former high school English and Social Studies teacher. She also taught English as a Second Language for two years in Hong Kong. She went back to school to earn a Master's of Library and Information Studies from UBC. Angela worked in all types of libraries, but only discovered the joy of children’s literature when she had her own children. She has been at home with her family for the last 10 years in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Buy the Book

Krista Kim-Bap

All Krista wants is to figure out the three F’s: food, family, and friends…

Krista and Jason have been best friends since preschool. It never mattered that he was a boy with reddish-brown hair and she was the “Korean girl” at school. Now in fifth grade, everyone in their class is preparing their Heritage Month projects. Jason has always loved Krista’s Korean family, and particularly her mom’s cooking, but Krista is conflicted about being her school’s “Korean Ambassador”. She’s also worried about asking her intimidating grandma to teach the class how to make their traditional kim-bap. Combine that with her new friends pulling her away from Jason, and Krista has a lot to deal with this year!