Saturday, July 5, 2014

Children's Novels about Korea by Linda Sue Park

Last spring, when I was informed that my school's English department had hundreds of dollars' worth of extra funding to purchase classroom materials, I decided to spend my share of the money on books. I was hoping to use some of the books as educational tools in my classroom, or at least to lend them to students for extracurricular reading.

Now, I realize that that was a foolish hope, since few of my students are at a high enough level of English to read entire novels, even children's novels, and even if they all could or wanted to, they simply don't have time. They have to study all day and can't read for pleasure, unless it's short-form webcomics or books in Korean that they can get through quickly, between periods.

So, all those wonderful books I bought are being read by nobody except me. 아쉽다! That is, ashipda, or "too bad"... because two that I finished recently would be of great interest to my students, I think. They are both written by Linda Sue Park, a Korean-American author whose work mostly focuses on Korean history and culture.

The first book of hers that I read is called When My Name Was Keoko. It is about a young girl whose family endures the harsh treatment of Koreans by the Japanese because of the occupation during World War II. Actually, the family's story is told from two perspectives, by the girl, Sun-hee (whose Korean name is changed to the Japanese "Keoko" per official mandates at the time), and her brother, Tae-yul, who enlists for the army because he wants to fly planes.

I really enjoyed the novel because it was a personal look at a period in history I know very little about. Of course, I've heard so much about how the occupation was a time of cruel treatment toward the Korean people and irreparable damage to Korean culture -- in fact, centuries of on-and-off oppression have left many Koreans with a bitter vendetta against Japan. But when the facts are told through the eyes of two young children, they become manifested in a way that a history book cannot capture. The book was gripping, dramatic, and inspiring, and I'm sure my students would like it, too.
The second book is called A Single Shard. This book won the Newbery Medal for children's literature in 2002. I had no idea! It appears to have been the book that really made Park's career.

This novel follows the adventures of an oprhan boy named Tree-Ear (I'm guessing that's 목이/木耳?) who dreams of becoming a master potter and learns at the feet of an irritable man who specializes in famous Korean celadon. This is also historical fiction, as it is set in 12th century Korea, which looked nothing at all like Korea today. I mean, this was during the Goryeo dynasty. The capital of Korea was Songdo/Kaesong (in modern-day North Korea), not Seoul. There were no roads, let alone cars, and the society depicted is really just many small mud-hut villages separated by seemingly impassable mountain ranges. How Korea has changed!

I feel pretty neutral about this book; it wasn't bad, but not nearly as interesting as Keoko, because it moves at a slower pace and is further removed from me historically. Still, it was elegant in its simplicity and unique as a carefully-crafted window into an overlooked period and culture.

However, there was one tiny anacrhonism in it that really bugged me: Korea's national dish, kimchi, didn't have red pepper flakes in it until the late 16th century (thanks, incidentally, to the first wave of Japanese invasions...). But when Tree-Ear discovers kimchi in his meal, it has those characteristic red flakes. I don't know why it bothered me so much that there should be such a trivial error, but I guess I'm just... attached to kimchi, after eating it almost once a day for two years!

- - -
So, I got these books, and many others that could be classified as Asian-American lit, just so that my students could read them and see a bit more representation than they're used to form American media. Unfortunately, they'll only gather dust on the library shelves if I don't actively incorporate it into my class somehow.

Actually, when I was talking to some English teachers today, they mentioned that they knew about When My Name is Keoko, so I guess in the past decade, Park's novels have been introduced to English education circles in Korea. I'm very happy about that!

On another note, some of the other books I bought are Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, which really is for children, so I found it too simple for my liking, and a few graphic novels, such as Gene Luen Yang's Level Up and American Born Chinese, as well as Derk Kirk Kim's Same Difference. These I certainly also bought for my own benefit -- i.e., I wanted to read them myself -- but I also thought that because they are graphic novels, my students would find them easier to read. Well, one of my third-years tried American Born Chinese, but the slang in it was beyond him. Oh well, at least he enjoyed the pictures.

What are your favorite English-language books that feature minority and/or foreign cultures?

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