I have chosen three books to discuss for this analysis; The Name Jar, New Cat, and Nim and the War Effort. The first two are written and illustrated by Yangsook Choi and she has illustrated
Nim and the War Effort.
The Name Jar, written and illustrated by Choi, is a story about a girl,
Unhei (pronounced Yoon-Hey), who is leaving all that she knows in Korea and is moving to the United States. Before she leaves, her grandmother gives her a red
satin pouch with her “name inside”. On the school bus, the kids inquire
about her name and as kids will be kids, they make fun of the pronunciation.
When asked in class about her name, Unhei tells
the teacher that she hasn’t “picked one yet”. She is very worried
about fitting in. Her mother tells her that a “name master” in Korea
had chosen her name. Mr. Kim, the Korean grocer, explains that her name means
“grace” in Korean.
Her mother and grandmother encourage her to be
proud of who she is. Faced with a choice of choosing a new American name from a name jar provided by her classmates,
or keeping her Korean name, Unhei decides to keep her name and in doing so, her heritage.
New Cat, is also written and illustrated by Yangsook. The setting
is a New York tofu factory. Mr. Kim has just moved from Korea to America and acquired a silver
cat from an animal shelter because he needed a new friend. The cat’s job
is to keep mice out of the factory which she takes seriously. One night a fire
breaks out in the factory and all would have been destroyed accept New Cat knocked over a bucket of tofu which slowed the
fire’s progress until the firefighters could get it under control.
Both these books incorporate Korean culture in
text and illustration. Choi feels that her Korean
background influences her stories. She says, “in the children’s
book market, my Korean culture and background are very unique and different” (Hong 2002). Mr.
Kim (New Cat), is a recent immigrant from Korea as is Unhei (The Name Jar). Since the settings are contemporary, the characters
are dressed in modern American clothing. In The
Name Jar, many Korean customs are integrated into the story. Unhei’s
Korean grandmother is dressed in a hanbok which is traditional Korean dress. The explanation of the name stamp, the Korean
grocery store, the fact that every part of a Korean name has a special meaning, and mentioning favorite foods such as kimchi
(cabbage), are part of this story. The reader glimpses a Korean calendar and
a letter written in Korean prominently displayed in Unhei’s house. "Choi's beautiful art enhances her depth of
characters and adds warmness to the problem faced by so many children; that of fitting in and being accepted" (Reichard).
Choi gives an explanation of tofu and how it is
sold in Korea at the end of New Cat.
She describes growing up in Korea hearing the cry of the tofu vendor and she says tofu is her very favorite food. Her illustrations are boldly drawn with humorous effect as when Mr. Kim arrives in his office to see New
Cat sitting at the desk behind the nameplate reading “President”. Another
illustration shows the cat sitting in a cage at the animal shelter with one paw raised, slyly mimicking “the Asian statues
of white cats that bring good luck by inviting in customers and friends” (Horn Book).
and the War Effort, the setting is San Francisco’s Chinatown during World War II. Milly Lee, the author, based this story on her own
childhood growing up during the war. Even children helped with the war effort
and Nim’s contribution was collecting newspapers for the school paper drive. Conflict
arises when a classmate cheats and takes newspapers designated for Nim while ridiculing her saying the contest will be won
by an American and "not some Chinese smarty-pants". She finds a way to win the school contest while winning respect
from her Chinese grandfather for her patriotism.
This story brings the reader into the drama of
having an Asian heritage during the war with Japan. Text and illustration come together to paint a
picture of warm family affection and respect. Choi, whose own background is Korean,
has done her homework by creating scenes of San Francisco Chinatown, in 1943. The clothing, automobiles, buildings,
store fronts displaying Chinese lettering, the police uniforms and vehicles, painted in sepia tones lend a back-in-time quality
and authenticity to this story. Scenes of Nim attending Chinese school, proudly
presenting her calligraphy lesson for grandfather’s approval, and sitting in the Ancestral Hall of her home with pictures
of her ancestors prominently displayed, allow readers to view life from a Chinese American perspective. There are scenes of grandfather practicing Tai Chi, and of Nim setting the table with bowls and chopsticks,
while using newspaper as a table covering. One of the most poignant scenes is
when grandfather gives a very special pin to Nim. This pin has two flags, American
and Chinese, signifying that someone who wore this pin was not the enemy. "Nim's sweet seriousness and ingenuity are
captured in the text and in the luminous, grave illustrations" (New York Times).
All three books give readers a chance to view
snippets of life through the eyes of characters coming from non-traditional cultural backgrounds. Yangsook’s visual style is bold and enhances each text adding cultural and realistic touches. Her style and tone is recognizable in all three books.
Her illustrations vary perspective and she does an excellent job of capturing expressions on the faces of her characters. In all three books, love and family respect are apparent whether it is love between
family members or that of man and pet. The background cultures of the characters
are honored realistically with contempory or historical settings and illustrations add thought provoking images to the informative