Nikhat Parveen, Delhi
Lyla Lee is the bestselling author of young adult novels like I’ll Be the One and Flip the Script. She also writes the Mindy Kim series for younger readers and the Gigi Shin books for the middle school crowd. Her books have been translated into multiple languages around the world. Since she was born in South Korea, she has lived in various cities throughout the United States. 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.
We are thrilled to have the opportunity to delve deeper into your creative journey and the cultural connections showcased in her books. To help our readers gain a comprehensive understanding of Author Lyla Lee’s work and experiences, we have prepared an interview with her:
Your books have been immensely popular worldwide, captivating young readers with the world of K-pop and K-dramas. What inspired you to blend Korean culture into your storytelling?
I wanted to write about Korean culture because my culture is a large part of who I am. Since I immigrated from South Korea to the US at a young age, my culture and family back home have always been important to me and my identity, which I never wanted to lose even though I no longer live in Korea. Additionally, I write about K-pop and K-dramas because those two things are what I enjoy doing in my free time (and have enjoyed all my life!). When I’m not writing, I’m listening to K-pop (and sometimes even learning how to dance in that style) or watching K-dramas, haha.
India has shown great interest in Korean culture. How do you think your books have contributed to fostering cross-cultural understanding among readers?
I think it’s really great that India and other countries have developed an interest in Korean culture. I myself have really enjoyed Bollywood movies and music from a young age (I had many close Indian friends as a kid and we frequently shared each other’s cultures) so it makes me happy when I think about the global, cross-cultural exchange. I like to think my books have contributed to fostering this cross-cultural understanding by being part of the larger Hallyu movement. Books are just another form of media that people can learn about different cultures, like movies, shows, and music.
The Mindy Kim series has garnered a lot of love from both kids and parents. What motivated you to create this series, and how do you balance writing for a younger audience?
I was first inspired to write the Mindy Kim series because when I was growing up, there weren’t that many (if at all) book series in the US where Asian kids like me were the main characters. From the Magic Tree House books to Junie B. Jones, the books I read as a kid all featured white protagonists with only brief mentions (if at all) of people from Asia. I wanted to write a fun, cute series about a Korean American girl going about her life and having fun adventures/experiences as she grows up, something Kid Me would have very much wanted to read. Luckily, there are many more diverse books out there for children, Mindy Kim being one of them. I’m very proud and grateful to be part of this change for the new, current generation of kid readers.
Your upcoming Gigi Shin books are highly anticipated. Can you give us a glimpse of what readers can expect from this new series?
Yes! We actually just revealed the cover for it a couple of months back. It’s about a diverse friend group of girls from different economic and cultural backgrounds who come together to raise money for a prestigious summer art camp that will help make their dreams come true. It’s based on my own experiences of working as a tutor (both as a kid and as an adult). Gigi Shin is Not a Nerd is my first book for middle schoolers so I had a lot of fun with it since it certainly brought me back to my own experiences of being that age. I also based the characters on my real-life friends growing up, haha. I hope readers will enjoy reading Gigi’s story and learning about her and her friends.
Many of your readers are aspiring writers themselves. What advice would you give to young writers who wish to create stories that celebrate their cultural heritage?
I think the number one piece of advice I have to a writer who is writing about their own culture is to not feel so much pressure to get everything right. Sure, fact-checking and doing research is important but culture really differs on a family level, meaning one family might celebrate/do things one way while another family may do it a completely different way. This is something I learned while writing the Mindy Kim series, haha. It’s not your job as the writer to represent the entire culture in and of itself. It’s just your job to represent your own lived experience of it.
As an author, how do you balance staying true to your creative vision while also meeting the expectations of your readers?
Honestly, I find it best to not think about readers’ expectations at all while I write. I do read reviews of my books and gauge people’s reactions after my books come out, but only from an observer’s POV. I consider it as food for thought as I start thinking of my next projects, just so I can avoid making the same mistakes in the future. But when I’m actually writing, I’m in my own world. I think it also helps that I have great creative teams behind all my books. My editors have provided me invaluable feedback throughout the years and I listen to their feedback first and then slowly fine-tune the story based on other feedback during the revising/editing stage. I do this because I’ve learned that if I worry myself too much about the outside world/other people’s opinions when I write, I’ll get too anxious to even finish writing the book in the first place, haha.
The Mindy Kim series features a relatable and strong young protagonist. How important is representation in children’s literature, and how does it impact young readers?
I think the best way to answer this question is to tell you more about my own childhood experience. When I was growing up in the US during the 2000s-2010s, there wasn’t that much representation in children’s literature or other forms of media. In fact, when there was representation, it was often negative and based solely on harmful stereotypes. As a result, I didn’t think people would want to read books by and about Asian people. In fact, when I first started writing my own books in elementary school, I made the characters white because all the books, shows, and movies around me were about white people. As an adult now, I find it really heartbreaking to remember that Kid Me really thought that stories about Asian people like me weren’t important. Thankfully, things are different now, so hopefully kids growing up in the 2020s will have this experience.
Your books offer readers glimpses of Korean traditions and customs. Do you believe that literature can be a powerful tool to celebrate cultural diversity and break down barriers?
Yes! When writers write books, they write about the world (or a fictional world) from their own perspective. Even if they’re not writing about themselves or characters that resemble themselves, it’s impossible for writers to write a completely impersonal book that’s not even the slightest bit colored by their own experiences. This is true even for nonfiction because the very areas and topics that the writer chooses to research/focus on are influenced by the writer’s own POV. As a result, books provide valuable “windows” to other people’s “worlds.” It’s why I enjoy reading books written by people from different cultures and perspectives. I learn so much just by reading.
Your young adult novels, “I’ll Be the One” and “Flip the Script,” have garnered widespread acclaim. Could you share the inspiration behind these empowering stories, and what message do you hope young readers take away from them?
Both books are books I wish I had myself as a teen. As I do now, I loved K-pop and K-dramas in middle school and in high school. But I was also struggling through a lot of different things that made me feel like I wasn’t enough or like I wasn’t deserving of love for who I was. Fortunately, I’m in a better place now in many different aspects of life, but getting here was a struggle. So I wrote the two books not only because I wanted to write fun books about K-pop and K-dramas, but also because I wanted to help readers–especially young ones–love themselves for who they are.
The Mindy Kim series and the Gigi Shin books cater to different age groups. How do you approach writing for younger readers versus middle school audiences, and what unique elements do you incorporate into each series?
I’m actually fortunate enough to have experience teaching these different age groups for several years as a former educator. So whenever I write, I think about various individuals I previously taught from that age group. I also studied child/developmental psychology while I was in college so that certainly helps as well. One specific element I incorporated is the differences in focus. When kids are younger, like Mindy’s age, they are the most enmeshed in their family and their family is basically their entire world. So Mindy’s stories tend to be more family-focused. On the other hand, around middle school age, kids start to look outward for approval and identity, focusing on friends and social circles, instead of just their families. So Gigi’s perspective is more preoccupied with what her friends from school think of her, etc., rather than just her family. She is also a lot more independent than Mindy.
Your works often explore themes of identity, self-acceptance, and pursuing one’s dreams. How important is it for you to incorporate these messages into your stories, and how do they resonate with your readers?
These messages are actually my primary reason for writing books for teens and other young readers. Since I am now an adult of almost thirty years old, I definitely feel a sense of responsibility as I write books for younger readers. As I write, I think about what messages I would have liked to hear as a child/teen myself and how I want kids/teens to feel after reading my books. Not all writers think this way, but perhaps because I was also an educator as well as a writer, this is how I personally approach the stories I want to write.
Could you share any insights into your creative process? Do you have any writing rituals or techniques that help you bring your ideas to life?
So I start every writing day with a walk. Getting some sun and fresh air at the beginning of my day helps me focus throughout the day. In terms of actual writing, I’m a pretty strict outliner, since I write on average 3 books per year and it’s really important for me to know exactly how a story is going to go (even if I do change things later), kind of like having a map to follow when you’re navigating a new area. As a result, I never really have writer’s block because I know exactly what I’m working on on a certain day. I then write a very messy and preferably quick first draft, then go back through the book with Track Changes to essentially tear everything apart for the better and rewrite some sentences until I’m satisfied with them. It’s only then, during this revising stage, that I’m preoccupied with making things make sense and sound good. I find that if I try to do everything in one round, I become stuck with the pressure of trying to “do everything right the first time.”
Lastly, what exciting projects or stories do you have in store for your readers in the future, and what can we look forward to from Lyla Lee?
Next year, I have two more Mindy Kim books and the first Gigi Shin book, Gigi Shin is Not a Nerd, coming out from Simon & Schuster. Then, in 2025, I have another YA contemporary coming out from Harper Collins called The Cuffing Game, which is basically a K-drama take on Pride and Prejudice (i.e.: what would happen if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were forced to make a reality TV dating show together). Finally, later that same year, I have an adult rom-com book coming out from Forever called Love in Focus.
Picture Credits: Plano Magazine
Once again, on behalf of our entire team at Hallyuism, we would like to thank Lyla Lee for taking out her valuable time for this interview, and we are deeply honored. Wishing her the very best in all her future endeavours and book releases. We hope you all loved reading this interview as much as we loved conducting it. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
You can explore the books’ catalogue and updates on future releases of Lyla Lee’s works here: