The Plot: Junie Kim is a middle schooler who endures bullying and racist incidents because of her Korean heritage. Through an oral history project she learns of her grandparents’ brutal experiences during the Korean War, which gives her a newfound perspective on her present day struggles at school.
My Take: We need diverse books, but we do not need poorly written books. Ellen Oh’s overt messaging that ‘racism is bad and diversity is good’ hamstrings the buried power of fiction and storytelling that requires a more detached touch from the author. My problem is not with this message, but rather in the heavy-handed way that it is conveyed. Early in the book, a series of racist, white characters bully the protagonist, but we are given little insight into their behavior or motivation, leaving the reader only with the bland idea that these people are ‘bad.’
The strongest parts of the story occur in 1950’s South Korea on the outbreak of civil war. Even these points, however, are hobbled by Oh’s insistence on compiling traumatic war crimes that lose their power as they multiply. After a massacre and a few horrific killings, the reader begins to feel that these events serve only to generate some excitement, rather than to imbue the story with meaning.
A good editor could have focused this story in such a way as to show the reader how racism damages us all. Instead we have a book with a loaded message that tries to jolt the reader with violent events. I would recommend readers skip Oh’s novel and reach for a book by Linda Sue Park for a more sensitive approach to Korean culture. I would also recommend Ellen Yang’s Front Desk as a stronger portrayal of racism against Asians.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Ellen Oh is the co-founder of the organization We Need Diverse Books.
The Plot: Lily, her mom, and older sister are moving to live with their Korean grandmother Halmoni in a small town. Halmoni has always been eccentric, but lately her strangeness has developed into seeing hallucinations and not recognizing familiar faces – all signs of possible dementia. Whatever the cause, Lily has also begun seeing mystical things, specifically a tiger that visits her and demands to hear lost stories from Korea. As Halmoni’s state of mind continues to slip, Lily finds herself engaging with the tiger to rediscover the stories in an effort to save her grandmother.
My Take: After watching the Youth Media Awards, I was eager to read this year’s Newberry Medal winner. After finishing it, I can understand why the committee chose this book. Keller has deftly created a story about the intergenerational strength of women in the face of challenges from immigration, grief, and a country victimized by war. The core theme is a family dealing with the consequences of being second generation immigrants and sorting out what traditions they want to preserve from their home country. Lily is an interesting character because she is the inheritor of her grandmother’s legacy and love of Korean culture – an inheritance from which her mom and older sister have turned away. This tension between the 4 females is what drives the story forward. I highly recommend this novel to those looking for a read about resilient women and the power of storytelling.
One Interesting Note About The Author: To write When You Trap A Tiger, Keller drew from the experiences of her own childhood when she listened to her halmoni tell her stories about ghosts and tigers at bedtime.
Tree Ear is a boy who lives in a small village on the west coast of Korea in the middle of the 12th century. He spends most of his time scavenging for scraps around local trash heaps and sleeps under a bridge at night. His friend is Crane Man, an old man with a disabled leg who has taken care of Tree Ear since he was brought to the village years before by a monk.
Tree Ear’s life changes when he begs a local potter named Min to take him on as an assistant to pay off a debt. His days are then spent in hard manual labor cutting down trees or digging out blocks of clay along the river bank. Tree Ear one day hopes to learn how to make pottery on a wheel, but Min gruffly refuses to teach him.
When Min decides to show his pottery to the royal emissary in the capital, however, he must rely on Tree Ear to make this perilous journey.
I loved this book and could tell why it won the 2002 Newberry Honor Award. The different setting truly lent to its appeal. I found the characters fully human. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a good juvenile historical fiction book.