The many talents of Graci Kim: diplomat, toy maker, children's author

Bestselling children’s fantasy author Graci Kim is full of surprises. She talks to Janet McAllister.

Graci Kim loves it when children get in touch with her about her books.
Graci Kim loves it when children get in touch with her about her books. Photo: Billy Wong

Of all Graci Kim’s fabulous real-life adventures, this might be the best: she (briefly) ran away with the circus at 16. She had been given front-row tickets for her birthday.

“We watched beautiful Colombian men daredevil-dance on a tightrope. Then in the interval, the very, very good-looking one came down and talked to me in Spanish, and I fell in love with him. I still to this day don’t know what he said!”

The results: an enjoyable stint of circus ushering; longer-lasting ‘obsessions’ with salsa and Spanish; and a University of Auckland arts degree including Latin American studies – a swerve from her initial enrolment in law. This was thanks to her university revelation, “realising you can pursue something you have a real passion for and carve a path out for yourself that wasn’t packaged for you already”.

Following her own passion, carving her own path, has been the Aucklander’s life philosophy ever since – as a Cuban-band member, diplomat in Beijing, and maker of plushie-dreams-come-true. Graci’s company, My Thingymabob, turned kids’ drawings into toys, endearingly faithful to the sketches: “That was so much fun! Our minds can create entire worlds.”

And now her “let’s make it happen!” drive has propelled her onto the New York Times bestseller list for tweens, with The Last Fallen Star. Her appealing, lively debut features secret magic, witch clans, feisty heroines, serious dilemmas, karaoke and people saying “amazeballs”. It – and the two books that follow in Graci’s Gifted Clans trilogy – is inspired by the Korean mythology of her childhood: her halmeoni (grandmother) would tell her and her two sisters folktales, cuddled up in bed.

Sometimes you feel you’re displaced, like you don’t belong anywhere.

Graci Kim, arts alumna Children's fantasy author

Graci’s trilogy is set in Los Angeles, home to a large Korean community. As diaspora, says Graci, “sometimes you feel you’re displaced, like you don’t belong anywhere” and she wants to write books for the child she was. She loved The Baby-Sitters Club novel series, featuring Japanese-American Claudia: “The only Asian character I had ever read in a book that wasn’t a National Geographic.”

At the same time as being invisible in books, Graci says she and her family were racially harassed while she was growing up in Auckland. For children, “it’s easy to target someone different,” says Graci.

Her dad’s response was to “kill people with love”, so Graci invited one of her biggest bullies to her party and, after that, the same kid stood up for her when other children were mean. She thinks it would be useful to teach kids to intervene, even in just a low-key way, when they see overt racism.

“The hardest thing is when you feel like you’re alone. If everybody played that small part of clearly stating ‘that’s not appropriate’, that would help.”

Graci’s second book, The Last Fallen Moon, has been published in the US, complete with tie-in online quiz. The secret to success? It’s clear Graci works hard and smart, and, where others might see setbacks, she sees lessons.

“My first writing effort failed – everyone told me the book was crap.”

But inviting criticism was the whole point: learning her craft meant learning to apply relevant feedback. Cue training montage – redrafting, mentoring, emailing agents, pitching – before one particular editor, at Disney-Hyperion no less, gave her 16 pages of daunting feedback. Graci worked through it …

And?

“It was wild! I was literally getting my belly scanned – we were just finding out we were having a baby – and I got the call to say the book was being published!”

Skye, Graci’s baby with husband Neil, is now aged two.

My first writing effort failed – everyone told me the book was crap.

Graci Kim, author of the Gifted Clans trilogy BA(Hons) Spanish, University of Auckland

Graci has had a side hustle creating children's soft toys from their drawings.
Graci has had a side hustle creating children's soft toys from their drawings.

Disney is publishing all three Gifted Clans books, and has also optioned them for a potential live-action TV series. The only professional cloud on Graci’s horizon is Covid – which cancelled planned in-person US celebrations two years running.

“That sucked,” says Graci. “It’s so disappointing. I haven’t met my agent and editor; I feel I’m living some kind of dream I might wake from.”

But fortunately, “the writing is the part I love the most. And when kids get in touch, that’s the best part of the job.”

After an hour in Graci’s effervescent, engaging company – not long enough – it’s clear that’s true.

And that this whole fabulous real-life adventure has many exciting twists ahead.
 

Two of the books in Graci Kim's Gifted Clans trilogy.
Two of the books in Graci Kim's Gifted Clans trilogy.

This story is from the University of Auckland's alumni and friends publication Ingenio, Spring 2022 issue. 

To republish in part or full, contact ingenio@auckland.ac.nz