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[Herald Interview] Magical goblin twins set out on whimsical adventure

Author of ‘If I Had Your Face’ hopes to transcend outdated tropes, bridge cultures in her children’s book

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Sept. 7, 2023 - 18:50

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Frances Cha poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald in Yongsan, central Seoul. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald) Frances Cha poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald in Yongsan, central Seoul. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald)

In Seoul, a 601-year-old goblin twin finds itself embarking on an unexpected Halloween adventure in New York City.

The enchanting tale is brought to life in the children’s book “Goblin Twins,” written by Frances Cha and illustrated by the New York Times bestseller Jaime Kim.

The book just hit the shelves Tuesday, and is published worldwide in English by Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

Best known for her critically acclaimed debut novel, “If I Had Your Face,” Cha has crafted a heartwarming story that transports readers on a journey inspired by "dokkaebi," legendary creatures from Korean mythology and folklore.

"The Goblin Twins," written by Frances Cha, illustrated by Jaime Kim (Crown Books for Young Readers)

Doki and Kebi, the two enchanting goblin twin brothers, possess distinct personalities: Doki is always reading a book, while Kebi loves to scare people and explore.

Despite their differences, the duo is inseparable. And when it comes time for them to relocate, the brothers decide to make New York City their new home.

Cha said among the many things that inspired her were personal stories. She also lived in Korea and moved to the US (she now divides her time between the two countries), and has a brother with a personality that is opposite to hers.

“Doki and Kebi are actually based on me and my brother. I’m the bookish one and Kebi, the trickster, is my brother,” Cha said cheerfully in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“My children also have very different personalities -- they both like reading though. I loved this idea of siblings having very different personalities but they have to make sacrifices for each other. And it’s not really a sacrifice when you love them so much, it’s well worth it.”

Pages from Pages from "The Goblin Twins" (Crown Books for Young Readers)

Writing for children marked quite a significant turn for Cha from her intense adult fiction to lighthearted children’s tales.

In a previous interview with The Korea Herald for her debut novel, the journalist-turned-writer who worked as a travel and culture editor for CNN in Seoul, said she tends to do a lot of research when writing a novel.

Initially, she was working on a novel for adults about dokkaebi, but the children’s book finished itself first.

“I had a lot of brainstorming and research before I started writing even more than my debut novel,” said Cha. “Oddly enough, it’s actually harder to write a short book than a longer one. And as a parent, I like very short books because I’m the one reading to my children at the end of the day.”

And because she is the one reading the book aloud, she imbues a layer of humor hidden just for the parents.

“I love it when the humor is kind of split. So there's a funny level for parents and then for the kids,” said Cha. “There are jokes where the kids don’t necessarily understand why their grownups are laughing. It’s like an inside joke for parents, but the kids also find it hilarious for different reasons.”

The writer appeared cheerful in this new literary realm, but she emphasized her need for both worlds.

“I love being in this world (of children’s books),” said Cha. “My adult book explores some extremely dark themes. They came out of a place where, I would say, the darkness in my life. But I need both. I need to go from one to the other and feed that other energy.”

Frances Cha poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald in Yongsan, central Seoul. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald) Frances Cha poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald in Yongsan, central Seoul. (Hwang Dong-hee/The Korea Herald)

While it may be seen as just a children’s book for entertainment, Cha had deeper intentions in mind when writing it.

She explained that outdated gender roles and beauty standards in children’s books from the past prompted her to write the story.

"I was rereading my old favorite children's books to my own kids. And I was very surprised to see that my beloved books had things that I didn’t want my kids to internalize before they go out into the world.”

She continued, “All the good characters have golden hair and blue eyes, and the evil characters have black hair and black eyes. And of course, being Asian children, that’s really such a common trope that I found in older books.”

Living in Sleepy Hollow, New York, where her children are practically the only Koreans, and among very few Asians, in their elementary school, Cha wanted to bridge two cultures and introduce some aspects of Korean culture and history.

“I’m always looking for books to take to the birthday parties and trying to introduce a little bit of Korean culture,” Cha said.

“But a lot of (Korean books) are kind of sad. So I wanted to write a very funny story. And of course, being a writer, I thought ‘I’ll just write it myself.’”

A sequel titled "Goblin Twins Too Hard to Scare” (tentative title) is already in the works and will be ready for a 2024 release. Additionally, Cha is writing another children's book that draws from her family's treasure trove of stories.