The Last Rhee Witch, by Jenna Lee-Yun
Korean-American author Jenna Lee-Yun released The Last Rhee Witch in May 2024. (NonDoc)

(Editor’s note: NonDoc’s Author Umbrella interviews up-and-coming writers, particularly authors of color, authors of disability and LGBTQ+ authors. The interviews have been transcribed and lightly edited for length and clarity.)

This installment of the Author Umbrella series features an interview with Korean-American author Jenna Lee-Yun. Lee-Yun recently spoke to NonDoc about her middle grade supernatural debut, The Last Rhee Witch, which was published by Disney and is now in bookstores nationwide.

A quick preview from the publisher:

You couldn’t hold onto everything and everyone. You had to choose. And Ronnie only had two hands.

Since her mother died when she was five years old, it’s always just been Ronnie Miller and her dad. Two Korean Americans who, thanks to Ronnie’s dad’s adoption by white parents, have never felt all that Korean. But Ronnie is okay with that—as long as she has her dad and her best friend Jack, Ronnie is 99% certain she can get through anything.

But as much as she wants everything to stay the same, the world—and her dad—has other plans. Now, Ronnie and Jack are headed away to sleepaway camp for the first time ever. Camp Foster promises all of the outdoorsy activities that Ronnie has so far managed to avoid: ropes courses, scavenger hunts, kayaking on the lake. Ugh. But she can do this. As long as she has Jack.

As it turns out, an old manor in the woods is the kind of place that’s crawling with secrets. Secrets like a mysterious gwisin haunting the grounds, a blood-red scarf wrapped too tightly around her ghostly neck. And a witch-hunting dokkaebi intent on finding and silencing the last Rhee witch. And the strange habit all the counselors have of rhyming when they speak . . . just like Ronnie has begun to do lately.

For a girl who wants everything to stay the same, nothing is scarier than all the changes Camp Foster brings. New friends. New foes. Souls with unfinished business. And, possibly worst of all, revelations that disprove everything Ronnie knew to be true.

Jenna Lee-Yun combines magic, mystery, suspense, and humor into a ghostly action-packed contemporary fantasy.

What inspired you to write The Last Rhee Witch?

When I first started writing The Last Rhee Witch, I knew I wanted to write a story that was fun and magical, because those are the kinds of books I enjoy reading. Aside from that, I was inspired to write a Korean-American protagonist who struggles with identity due to not feeling Korean enough, which is something I’ve been through and continue to work through. I also know that a lot of folks in the diaspora community can relate to that specific difficulty, but I think not feeling enough in one way or another is a universal struggle, and it’s one that preteens, in particular, deal with every day. So I hope that readers will be able to connect to Ronnie, the main character, in this way and feel seen and validated.

You made an unboxing video with your adorable daughter. Have your children had an opportunity to read this book? And how have they reacted to mom becoming a Disney author?

I love that video so much! Not just because it’s my kid, but because it was unscripted and I swear she had never watched an author do an unboxing. At most, she may have heard me wail about how terrible and unemotional my unboxing would appear if I were to make one myself. I’m so glad she agreed to make that video in my place!

I have two kids, and while both are readers, they have not read The Last Rhee Witch in full. They have, however, offered advice and feedback when I needed help while writing it! They have been incredibly supportive and encouraging throughout the entire publishing journey and are very expressive in showing me that they are proud of their mom.

So much of The Last Rhee Witch is about the eternal bond between mother and daughter. Did you draw from your own experiences in creating The Last Rhee Witch?

To be honest, I didn’t grow up having a close relationship with my mother, and much of that is due to the fact that we immigrated to the U.S. when I was 5 years old and both of my parents had to work a lot to provide for our family. Another barrier to the relationship was language. I started school and learned English quickly and lost Korean gradually in the process.

But I do think that my relationship with my mother informed the relationship you see in the book, but it’s in the way Ronnie and her mother were not able to have the type of relationship that either of them might have hoped to have. This is contrasted by Ronnie’s relationship with her father, which is so sweet despite some bumps. It’s the kind of parent-child relationship I strive to have with my own children and one I see in my kids’ relationship with their father.

Few people know that you’re also a psychologist, and are in essence SUPERWOMAN. What led you to writing, and how do you juggle it all?

The Last Rhee Witch was the first book I ever wrote back during graduate school. I knew nothing of publishing or the writing craft at the time and had no intentions of publishing it. I wrote it, set it aside, and began my doctoral program, during which I read mostly academic texts/papers and wrote only for school. But after finishing school and beginning full-time work, I got back into reading, and it was the joy of reading that led me to writing novels with the goal of publication, which was around 2016.

As for juggling it all? I wrote a little bit about this in the acknowledgments section of The Last Rhee Witch. I actually don’t do it all — at all. My husband is a true partner, and he does so much for the family. Without him, I would not be able to do half of the things I do.

My favorite aspect of The Last Rhee Witch is the spooky atmospheric writing. What elements do you think young horror readers will most enjoy?

There’s something about ghosts and goblins at a summer camp that’s deliciously eerie. When I think about sleep-away camp, it typically brings up nostalgic memories drenched in the heat of the summer sun. But throw in a dark and misty forest, a haunted manor, a creepy ghost, and chilling monsters and you get this record-scratch effect that makes you stop and reconsider everything in a darker, foreboding light.

I love the mix and clash of light and dark, fun and fear, friends and foes, and loss and hope. And I hope that’s what young readers will enjoy as well.