My Korean American Story: CJ Rooney – Owner of Aerilyn Books
The process of creating a book, regardless of the target audience, is deeply involved and requires a plethora of patience and many hours of revisions. I cannot tell you how many different goldfish I painted before finding one that my children really engaged with, or how long it took me to compile a list of animals to include in the book, in the first place. Not to mention the seemingly impossible task of actually marketing a bilingual baby book, that isn’t in Spanish, to bookstore owners and distributors.
I knew early on that I wanted to be an artist, but it took some time to decide which direction I would take with it. One thing that never changed was that I wanted to illustrate children’s books. Having had drawn and doodled every day of my life, I pursued an education in the creative field and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design – successfully taking my creativity from my personal life and turning it into a career. Becoming an art professional was a significant accomplishment and a result of a lot of hard work but it has also allowed me to build my company’s identity from the logo and website to the book illustrations and print design.
Art is just a part of who I am. Growing up biracial in the Midwest, I’ve always felt strongly connected to my Korean heritage. Some of my favorite childhood memories are centered around Korean food, culture and language – and, of course, family. I fondly remember afternoons spent sitting in front of a box fan, carefully holding on to freshly made mandu with my sister until they were cool enough to eat. We devoured them as quickly as our mom could make them! We always looked forward to treats of bulgogi, kimbap, yogurt drinks, and rice candies. We ate plenty of American foods, too, but I especially enjoyed our Korean meals.
Our mom taught us some Korean, to which I immediately took interest – from words and phrases, like 뽀뽀 (kiss), 사랑합니다 (I love you), and 배고파요 (I’m hungry), to basic concepts, like counting. The door was opened to bilingualism and I eagerly ran through it! I wanted to learn more and searched for children’s books in Korean at our local bookstores and libraries but couldn’t find any.
Though my Korean learning slowed a bit, I was not discouraged. As with all my interests, I was passionate and determined. I continued to ask my mom to teach me to read and write the Korean alphabet, and, as I got older, I turned to reference materials and dictionaries for learning vocabulary. I became really interested in K-pop in high school and, though I was also learning Spanish, continued to push to learn as much Korean as I could on my own.
Now, as a mom, I have yet another passion: to pass on my love for the Korean language and culture to my three children. I want to share with them flavorful Korean foods, music, television shows, and books. We attend Asian festivals every summer, make Korea-inspired crafts, and spend Saturday mornings learning Korean vocabulary together.
But even today, after thirty years, quality Korean children’s books are difficult to find in most American bookstores – especially bilingual ones. I joined a few Facebook groups for moms trying to find bilingual Korean-English learning materials for their kids and discovered that many of them buy books from overseas and mail them to each other and some even make their own puzzles and toys or use label makers to add English or Korean to their kids’ books! I was frustrated! Not just for myself, but for all the other parents out there struggling to find these books for their kids! And then a spark went off in my head… and just like that, I decided I was going to make and publish Korean-English children’s books.
I spent months researching the publishing industry, writing, illustrating, designing… and when I had my first book ready, I showed it to my kids… and they loved it! They carry it with them everywhere! My youngest adores the bright illustrations and engages in the simple sentence structures when we read together. My two older children, past the stage of board books, have developed more of an interest in the language, because of it – learning more words and phrases and even taking an interest in K-pop. They show more pride and interest in this part of them than they ever have before, and to me that is huge!
So I started my own publishing company and named it after my daughter: Aerilyn Books. I launched the release of my first baby book, Colors | 색상, in 2018 – the first in my Bilingual Learning series. The response was greater than I could have ever imagined! I had no distributor, no warehouse, no advertising – everything was by word-of-mouth – and I sold over 50 copies in the first few days! Korean-American, mixed-race, and even non-Korean parents from all over the continent (and even in Europe!) have been purchasing the book and asking about future titles. And the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive!
A short while later, I signed on with a distributor and my Korean-English baby books are now available nationwide, as well as in Canada. I am releasing the second book in the Bilingual Learning series, Numbers | 숫자, this summer and am beyond excited to share it with families across the U.S.!
I’m not sure where my story continues from here, but I am certainly looking forward to every second of it!
Thank you for reading my story. If you want to find out more about my books, visit my website (aerilynbooks.com) and connect with me on Facebook and Instagram, where I post FREE illustrated bilingual content for kids.
CJ Rooney is a full-time content creator with a B.S. degree in Graphic Design. Additionally, CJ volunteers for local churches and organizations in need of design services. She lives in Hoffman Estates, Illinois with her husband and three children.