Dallas author talks representation, the whirlwind, and the Midwest of South Korea

"I really wanted to write a book about a bisexual Korean American teen because it’s the type of representation I desperately needed as a teen"


Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Lee, your first young-adult novel, I’ll Be the One (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins), will be published this month. Please tell us about your new book and its inspiration.


Lyla Lee: I’ll Be the One is about a bisexual Korean American teen who enters a K-pop competition in order to become one of the world’s first plus-sized K-pop stars. I was inspired to write this book by my own experiences as well as the experiences of my family and friends. Although I myself don’t have any experiences in the K-pop industry (the closest I got to that life was middle school a cappella/pop choir), I have friends and family who were/are in the industry and won competitions similar to the one in my book.


On a personal level, I really wanted to write a book about a bisexual Korean American teen because it’s the type of representation I desperately needed as a teen (and later as an adult) reader who often felt hurt by either the lack or misrepresentation of bisexual Asian characters in YA.


Finally, many Asian cultures’ standards of weight are very different from American ones. Even though I would have never been considered plus-sized in the US, I was routinely fat shamed while growing up. My friends, family, and I were also exposed to a really toxic culture in both Asia and America where diet teas, fad diets, and media portrayals of women made us feel bad about our bodies. So I really wanted to write a book about a plus-sized Korean American teen who is happy with herself and gets what she works for in life without having to change what she looks like.


Earlier this year you announced that I’ll Be the One will be developed as a movie at HBO Max. Congratulations! Please tell us the latest and what the film-rights process and subsequent development has been like for you.


Thank you! It was all a bit of a whirlwind. When I wrote I’ll Be the One, I was writing a book that was purely for Teen Me. Getting a book deal for it was enough of a dream come true, and I was floored to hear that there was a bidding war between five top companies in Hollywood to obtain the rights for my book. It was also mind-blowing to find out that Nahnatchka Khan (creator of the ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and director of Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe), a personal hero of mine, is attached to produce and possibly direct. As far as I know, the script is being written at this time, as we sold the project with my novel.


There’s a fun playlist for I’ll Be the One on your website. For those of us unfamiliar with the international phenomenon that is K-Pop, please make the introductions. Do you have particular favorites that aren’t in the playlist and do you get to help choose the music for the movie?  


K-pop as we know it is Korean pop music that is stylized and popularized throughout the world, thanks to technological developments like YouTube and social media. Currently, it’s best represented by BTS, who are one of my favorite groups. Some of my favorite K-pop songs that aren’t included in the playlist are Sunmi’s “Gashina,” BTS’s “Fake Love,” and Blackpink’s “Kill This Love.” I unfortunately don’t get to help choose the music, although I hope they draw inspiration from the songs I mention in my book.


Before there was Skye Shin and her K-Pop ambitions, there was seven-year-old Mindy Kim, who has two new books of her adventures publishing this year. Recommended for ages six to nine, the series is described as “Fresh Off the Boat meets Junie B. Jones.” (Junie was my younger son’s first favorite for years.) Please tell us about Mindy.


Mindy Kim is about a Korean American second grader who moves from California to Florida and finds out that she is the only Asian American kid at her new school. In the first book, Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business, she starts a snack-trading business with the seaweed snacks her dad packs her for lunch in an effort to make new friends. The second book, Mindy Kim and the Lunar New Year Parade, is about Mindy’s efforts to celebrate her Korean culture with her friends and family in her new town. Mindy Kim and the Birthday Puppy, my personal favorite Mindy book, comes out on June 9. It has lots of cute dogs and fun canine-related shenanigans (such as Mindy trying to train her puppy), so I hope it finds a home with dog lovers everywhere. Finally, a fourth book, Mindy Kim, Class President, is coming out in the fall.


I read that you were inspired by an English teacher to write your own stories in the fourth grade, and you wrote your first novel at fourteen. What was it about this particular teacher that inspired you? Please tell us about those early stories.   


This teacher was also an aspiring writer, so she would gather my classmates and me around in a circle and tell us stories whenever we had a spare moment in class. These stories were unique because they were not only improvised but were also about the people in our class, since she tried her best to incorporate all of us as characters in her stories. Seeing the magic of her storytelling and the way everyone in my class was captivated by her tales really made me fall in love with stories in a way that made me want to write my own.


I actually started writing books in fourth grade, although I didn’t finish an entire novel until four years later. The first book I wrote was a Magic Tree House-inspired story about a brother and a sister who find a magic portal to a different planet in their basement. Fourth grade me drew pictures for this book and was so proud of it that I showed it to everyone I knew, even the school-bus driver!


You grew up in a small town in South Korea. After you left South Korea, you lived in California, Florida, and Texas; now, you write and teach in Dallas. Please tell us about your first home. How did your writing and reading help you with those moves? Did that same English teacher inspire your teaching?


Since I moved around so much in the United States, while my relatives back in Korea still remained in my old hometown, I still consider that town in South Korea my “hometown.” I try to visit my family there every year. It’s in what I like to call “the Midwest” of Korea because it’s pretty similar to the American Midwest in that it’s more slow paced and rural than more urban parts of the country, like Seoul.


Writing and reading was vital to my childhood because no matter how many times I moved around as a kid, books were my constant companions. I was fortunate to have mostly good teachers throughout my life, and they all inspired me to be the teacher I am today.


You schedule school presentations for grades one through three for your Mindy Kim series. Please tell us what to expect from one of your presentations. Will you also do presentations with I’ll Be the One for older readers? What’s your favorite thing about visiting schools? Is there a particular visit that is especially memorable?


I did school visits as part of my Mindy Kim tour back in January. I was hoping to do more but, unfortunately, won’t in the near future because of the COVID-19 situation. For Mindy Kim, I tell kids a bit about my experiences living in Florida (my stories about Disney World and Florida alligators always get them pretty excited, ha ha), encourage them to write their own stories, and also talk about the importance of friendship and acceptance of others who are different and/or new.


My favorite thing about visiting schools was talking to the kids themselves. I always try to interact with as many kids as I can. A particular visit I find memorable is when I visited a school in Houston. A donor bought a Mindy Kim book for all the kids at my presentation, and I got to meet each and every one of them as I gave them a hug (if they wanted one) and a signed copy of the book. Their smiling faces and unbridled excitement upon receiving my book made me so happy.


Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. How has the Lone Star State shaped your writing and career? Which Texas writers do you admire?  


I’ve spent the most time in Texas, since I lived here seven years as a kid and then moved back shortly after college. Most of the teachers who greatly influenced my life were in Texas, such as my high-school junior-year English teacher, who not only wrote my college recommendation letter (which helped me get a full ride to my dream college) but also was really supportive of my writing during one of the lowest points in my life. Texas is also the closest thing I have to a home in the United States.


Texan writers I admire are Cynthia Leitich Smith, Rick Riordan (who is originally from Texas, even though he no longer lives here), and Libba Bray. I grew up reading their books as a kid.


Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?  


We recently sold four more Mindy Kim books, which will come out next year from Simon & Schuster. I also have another young-adult novel that’s coming out next fall from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins.


What books are on your nightstand?


Currently, I’m reading If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha and The Henna Wars by my friend, Adiba Jaigirdar, as part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.


Lyla Lee is the author of the Mindy Kim series as well as the upcoming YA novel, I’ll Be The One (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins). Although she was born in a small town in South Korea, she’s since then lived in various parts of the United States, including California, Florida, and Texas. Inspired by her English teacher, she started writing her own stories in fourth grade and finished her first novel at the age of fourteen.


After working various jobs in Hollywood and studying psychology and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, she now lives in Dallas, Texas. When she is not writing, she is teaching kids, petting cute dogs, and searching for the perfect bowl of shaved ice.