A reluctant convert to the young adult genre, John Son resisted writing Finding My Hat, his debut novel, for almost 18 months. Son says his friend Amy Griffin, an editor at Scholastic's Orchard Books imprint, was working on a new line of titles called First Person Fiction, which focused on the immigrant experience. She'd seen one of his stories in Zoetrope magazine in 1999 and thought he'd be right for a First Person Fiction book.
Son, however, wasn't sure he agreed. "I never intended to write for a young adult audience and didn't know if I really had something important to say about the immigrant experience," he explains.
Griffin had planted the seed of an idea, however, and Son found himself reading more and more YA books. He read Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson, and Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, and lost any remaining skepticism about the genre. "These books blew me away. They weren't like the YA books I read when I was a young adult. I identified with these characters a lot more," he told BookPage during a recent telephone interview.
But it was a New York Review of Books reprint of Darcy O'Brien's 1977 novel A Way of Life Like Any Other that convinced Son to start writing. "I just love the entire tone of the book," he explains. "That was the ideal I wanted to approach." Son's book, like O'Brien's, is a humorous, straightforward take on coming-of-age with plenty of comic potential. In Finding My Hat, narrator Jin-Han grows from a toddler to a teenager, traveling with his family from Chicago to Memphis to Houston as his father searches for a better way to support the family. The voice of the book is convincing all along the age-spectrum: Jin-Han's confusion on his first day of nursery school rings just as true as his endearing gullibility on class-picture day in elementary school, and the excitement and embarrassment he experiences when he falls for his high-school lab partner.
Son says that, as his writing progressed, he found his views were changing. "I realized I like writing for this age group. I fell in love with it, because writing for this audience seems more pure; there are fewer stylistic elements in the writing you have to just clearly paint the picture." This experience with purer writing has changed Son's approach to the craft overall. "I have changed my adult fiction writing, too. I try to be less show-off-y, or flashy. YA audiences can sniff out fake-ness very quickly, so I felt my writing had to be emotionally honest." Those who are curious about novelistic honesty (as represented by the eternal question: How much of this fiction is in fact true?) may sate their curiosity by reading the book's epilogue, in which Son details when and how Finding My Hat mirrors the events of his own life. For example, Jin-Han's parents own a wig store, with kooky results, and Son's did, as well. Jin-Han feels joy when he discovers books and rapidly becomes a bibliophile; Son is an avowed bookworm, too.
The author and his character also share a major turning point in their lives: Son's mother died when he was 29, and in Finding My Hat, Jin-Han's mother dies when he is 15. Son notes, "One of the big things about the book was that it was for my mom. I wanted to get that [experience] in there." In addition to offering him a way to explore his feelings about his mother's death, Son says that writing Finding My Hat prompted him to further consider his own feelings about his identity. He made his first-ever visit to Korea when he was halfway through his novel, and says, "I saw relatives I hadn't met before. Half of the people look like my dad, half like my mom. It was a very genetic experience." The Korean excursion reinforced Son's feelings about where his happiness lies. "It was great to be in touch with my culture, but I couldn't wait to get back home," he says. "Going to Korea made me feel more American than I realized I was."
Linda Castellitto is the consulting creative director at BookSense.com.