Picture Books for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Part I (Korea)

photos by Erin G, Laura Anne Wilson (boy), Laura Anne Wilson (girl).

Since May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, thought I’d share some of the picture books I’ve read and enjoyed recently. When I think of this genre,
several award-winning Asian American author/illustrators immediately come to mind — Ed Young, Allen Say (whom I profiled here), Grace Lin, and Yangsook Choi. Their books are consistently excellent and widely available.

But when it comes to finding books by other authors (especially those who aren’t also illustrators), it takes a little extra detective work. Even though more multicultural books are being published these days, many of them don’t receive the critical attention they deserve. I do get excited when I check the indie publishers who specialize in multicultural titles and see some interesting books on their lists, but am disappointed because my public library doesn’t own most of the titles, and my local bookstore doesn’t stock them. 

Me and the only Asian PB I remember from childhood.
(Don’t even get me started on political correctness!)

The good news? I’ve been noticing more books about the Korean American experience. When I was in grade school, there was nothing about Korean history or culture, fiction or nonfiction. I had to wait until I was old enough to read the encyclopedia. But single titles? Nada. In Hawai’i, I was surrounded by so many ethnicities and absorbed lots of firsthand “knowledge,” but I couldn’t read about any of it. It was like my identity wasn’t even valid. I grew up believing important things were found in books, but Koreans, other Asians, and Hawaiians simply weren’t featured in them.

As an adult, I was happy when the first Korean American picture books started to appear — titles like, Halmoni and the Picnic by Sook Nyul Choi (1993) and The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (2001). But I only recently discovered Janet Wong’s The Trip Back Home (2000), and finally read the sequels to Helen Recorvits’ My Name is Yoon, a longtime favorite which I included in this previous book list.

I celebrate and cherish the picture books I’m featuring today. The child in me says, “At last . . . but I wish there were more!” The adult in me says, “There absolutely should be more. I’ll keep looking!”

WHAT WILL YOU BE, SARA MEE? by Kate Aver Avraham, pictures by Anne Sibley O’Brien (Charlesbridge, 2010). A heartwarming story of Sara Mee’s tol (first-birthday celebration) — full of good food, presents, family, friends, and the highly anticipated game of toljabee, where Sara Mee’s future vocation will be predicted. The events of the day are enthusiastically described by Sara Mee’s big brother, Chong. As preparations commence and the guests arrive, speculation grows — will she be a soldier, artist, writer, cook, musician or seamstress? Finally, various objects are placed in front of her: a toy bow-and-arrow set, paintbrush, bag of gold coins, book, spoon, and some yarn. What does she reach for? Nicely paced and satisfying, with richly hued illos, a glossary and Author’s Note. Also includes mouthwatering mention of pulgogi, kimchi, and rice cakes! ☺

BEHIND THE MASK by Yangsook Choi (FSG, 2006). Halloween is just two days away, and Kimin doesn’t know what he wants to be. His mother suggests he might find a costume among his grandfather’s belongings, but Kimin hesitates. He remembers the last time he’d seen his grandfather in Korea; he’d been frightened one night by his grandfather’s gruesome appearance! After searching through the boxes his mother left in his room, Kimin finds pictures of masked dancers, as well as masks and costumes. Now it made sense! His grandfather had been wearing a mask that night. Kimin decides to be his grandfather on Halloween and impresses the other kids with his costume and dancing. But there is another surprise when something falls out of Kimin’s mask — the spirit of his grandfather! A different kind of intergenerational Halloween story. An Author’s Note provides more info about Talchum, a traditional Korean folk dance.

THE TRIP BACK HOME by Janet Wong, pictures by Bo Jia (Harcourt, 2000). In simple, lyrical prose, a little girl describes a trip she and her mother take to visit her family in Korea. They first shop for gifts to bring with them — a pair of work gloves for Haraboji (grandfather), an apron with pockets like flowers for Halmoni (grandmother), and an alphabet book(!) for Imo (aunt). The newly acquainted relatives spend many halcyon autumn days together, and the girl’s descriptions of how they passed the time — feeding the pigs, shopping at the outdoor market, cooking, eating, playing cards and reading, are luminous and heartwarming. Children will find the “everyday” routine of the gentle, rural life in Korea interesting, recognizing that time spent with loved ones, no matter where they live, overflows with riches. Bo Jia’s realistic watercolor illos are exquisite. I love the market spread showing “clouds of rice cakes and rivers of small soup fish and hills of hot chili peppers!” Wong, who is half Korean, was inspired by a similar trip she took with her mother when she was four.

K IS FOR KOREA by Hyechong Cheung & Prodeepta Das (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2008). A lovely photographic alphabet introducing Korea, from Arirang to Zing. Each entry, touching on areas such as language, geography, history, flora, fauna, the arts, and architecture, includes a short descriptive paragraph. Especially enjoyed learning about Buchaechum (a traditional fan dance), the Namdaemun (Seoul landmark), and Samulnori (percussion music for four instruments). I didn’t realize white is the nation’s favorite color! Love the colorful photos of smiling children and rice cakes!

YOON AND THE CHRISTMAS MITTEN by Helen Recorvits, pictures by Gabi Swiatkowska (FSG, 2006). In this second book about Yoon, who “came here from Korea, a country far away,” she tries to convince her parents to celebrate Christmas after hearing stories in school about Mr. Santa Claus. She is charmed and fascinated by the man in the red suit, the red and white striped North Pole, Christmas trees with lights, and Rudolph with his red nose, but is told, “we are not a Christmas family.” Yoon’s family is Korean and Christmas is not their custom. She would have to wait till New Year’s to wear her special red dress and celebrate the holiday with friends. When she attracts birds to her outside “Christmas bushes” so Santa will be able to find her, her parents are dismayed.

But Yoon is determined. Knowing her parents won’t allow her to hang a Christmas stocking, she pins a red mitten to the corner of her blanket, so Santa can leave her a present. She pleads with her father one last time: “Are we not both Korean and American?” Will Yoon get her Christmas wish? This story is beautifully told, and Swiatkowska’s luminous oil impressionistic-like paintings give this and the other Yoon books a dreamy, classic feel. Your heart will go out to her, guaranteed.

YOON AND THE JADE BRACELET by Helen Recorvits, pictures by Gabi Swiatkowska (FSG, 2008). The third book about Yoon finds her wishing for a jump rope for her birthday. Instead, she receives a storybook about a silly girl tricked by a tiger and a lovely jade bracelet passed down from her grandmother. At school the next day, she is approached by an older girl, who invites her to play jump rope. Wanting desperately to make friends, Yoon happily accepts, but reluctantly agrees to let the girl borrow her bracelet for the afternoon. When the girl refuses to return the bracelet, telling the teacher it is hers, Yoon must find a way to get it back. How will she use her “Shining Wisdom” to outwit the girl “tiger?” Like the other Yoon stories, this believable storyline reinforces the importance of self reliance, with a convincing portrayal of an outsider trying to fit in. Highly recommend all three Yoon books.


Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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