Today’s teens might be interested in sex, drugs and vampires, but Linda Sue Park is willing to give that fickle audience a bit more credit.
“I just have a lot of confidence in young readers being able to handle things that maybe some adults don’t think they can handle,” says Park. The latest work by the Newbery Award-winning author, A Long Walk to Water, is a good example, telling a vividly authentic tale of hardship, hope and survival in war-ravaged Sudan from the parallel points of views of children from two different generations who share similar challenges.
A Long Walk to Water alternates the story of 11-year-old Nya, growing up in Sudan circa 2008, with the story of Salva, also 11, who hails from a prominent, upper-class Sudanese family. As the Second Sudanese Civil War erupts in the mid-1980s, Salva is forced to run as bombs hit his village. The finely woven novel is a fictionalized account based on the life of Salva Dut—who lives in Rochester, New York, not far from Park.
“I was interested in telling the story; it’s actually quite a difficult story,” says Park, 50, the daughter of Korean immigrants. “I was dealing with two very wide time spans . . . which were very important to the overall story I wanted to tell,” she says. “The idea of the dual narrative came to me immediately. It just seemed that this would be the best way.”
While everything in Salva’s story is true, Park admits to toning down some of the graphic details witnessed along his journey out of Sudan. Some events were simply too horrific to believe, she says, noting that she crafted the novel carefully, “trying to pick and choose what was important.”
Nya is a fictional character, although “she is representative of many of the children who live in the Sudan; everything that happened to Nya is true.”
Park learned of Dut several years ago when her husband, a journalist, began writing about Dut’s non-profit Water for Sudan project, which drills wells to bring clean drinking water to residents in southern Sudan’s remote villages. “After reading all of the stories that my husband did, I have always been so excited about what Salva did,” says Park. Her husband traveled to Sudan with Dut in 2008 to witness the project’s work. In just a few years, the project has drilled more than 70 wells. “For the first time ever, the young people are not going to have to walk every day,” says Park. But she is quick to add that it’s not just about water. It’s about making the resources possible to also build schools and bring education to a deprived area. “Even [the residents] know the way to a better life for their children is education,” she says.
The back-breaking work of walking eight hours a day, in 100-degree weather, simply to find water for their family is not something today’s American teens can readily relate to. But that’s exactly why Park wanted to write this story.
“It’s just a matter of awareness,” she says. “We’re living in a world that is more and more global every minute. It’s so important for young people to know their stories—the stories of their community, the stories of their country and the stories of the whole world. I think that’s what goes into making an enlightened human being.”
FROM HAIKU TO NOVELS
While Park’s children’s books have been critically acclaimed, she never intended to write for that specific audience. She is a writer at heart; she began writing poems and stories at age 4, and reading was always a favorite pastime—and still is. “My writing is always driven by my reading. I’m a wildly eclectic reader” and a regular library patron, she adds.
Park penned her first published work—a haiku—when she was only 9.
“In the green forest
A sparkling, bright blue pond hides.
And animals drink.”
She was paid $1 for the poem—and her father still has the framed check.
With a degree in English, Park went on to work in food journalism as well as public relations and advertising. But after marrying and having kids, Park began writing for children.
“I thought I was reading picture books . . . for my kids . . . but I rediscovered what I had known as a kid—the writing that is being done in the best children’s books is the best writing in the country because the editorial process that good children’s books go through is far more rigorous than adult books go through,” she says. “The books that you read when you’re young . . . there’s rarely a book you can read in adulthood that can compare . . . in terms of impact,” Park says. “You never love a book the way you love a book as a child.”
Park’s first book, Seesaw Girl, was published in 1999, followed by The Kite Fighters in 2000. A Single Shard (2001), which follows an orphan’s trying journey through a potter’s village in 12th-century Korea, received the 2002 Newbery Medal and scores of other awards. Sure, awards can serve as a validation of one’s work, but Park adds, “There’s just no down side. It ensures that your book is going to remain in print for generations. What does an author want more than that? That’s what you work so hard for . . . there’s nothing else in the world that compares.”
Despite all the accolades, Park says the most important thing is crafting the story itself. “I think stories are forever,” she says, adding, “[But] the way we get stories has changed. This might be an ostrich-in-the-sand kind of thing, but I still see my job as producing the best story I possibly can.”
Author photo by Sonya Sones.