SOOK NYUL CHOI
Revised by Kay E. Vandergrift
in 1996 by Amy Dresnack, Janet Gonzalez, and Mariah Araujo
with Kay E. Vandergrift
in Young Adult Literature
Biography of Sook
Choi, who was born in Pyongyang, Korea, came to the United
States to attend college. After receiving her bachelor's degree
from Manhattanville College, Sook Nyul Choi taught in the New
York City Public Schools while raising two daughters. After retiring
from her teaching career, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts
where she currently works as a full-time writer.
Sook Nyul Choi enjoys writing mainly because she hopes to
share the history and culture of Korea with others. Choi hopes
that "through her books, Americans can gain insight into
this very different and interesting culture" (Telgen, D.,
Something About the Author).
Choi, Sook Nyul. Year of Impossible Goodbyes. Boston,
MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Korean language edition published by Jigyung Publishing
Company, Seoul, Korea, 1992. French language edition published
by Gallimard Jeunesse, Paris, France, 1994. Italian language
edition published by Edizioni E. Elle, Trieste, Italy, 1995.
Japanese language edition published by Merk Mal Company, Tokyo,
Choi, Sook Nyul. Echoes of the White Giraffe. Boston,
MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Choi, Sook Nyul. Gathering of Pearls. Boston, MA: Houghton
Choi, Sook Nyul. The Best Older Sister. Illus. by Cornelius
Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. New York: Delacorte, 1997.
Choi, Sook Nyul. Halmoni and the Picnic. Illus. by Karen
M. Dugan. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Choi, Sook Nyul. Yummi and Halmoni's Trip. Illus. by Karen
Dugan. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Year of the Impossible
- Judy Lopez Book Award by the National Women's
Book Association, 1992.
- Selected for "Best Books for Young Adults"
list by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)
- Selected for "Best Books for the Teen
Age 1992" list by the New York Public Library for young
people, ages 12-18.
- Notable Book by the American Library Association
- Selected for "Bulletin Blue Ribbon for
1991" by the Bulletin of the Center for children's Books
- A "Hungry Mind Review" Book of
- State Book Awards Master Reading Lists: States
of Alabama, Kansas, Maine, Utah, Vermont, Illinois, Georgia,
- School Library Journal List of "One Hundred Books Too Good to Miss",
Echoes of the White Giraffe:
- State Book Award Master Reading List: Tennessee
Halmoni and the Picnic:
- Silver Burdett Gin Textbook Series
- Skippig Stones Honor Award, 1994
- Reading Rainbow, featured on the "Reading
Rainbow" television series
- Important Books for the 1990s, Whole Language
Gathering of Pearls:
- 1995 Books for the Teen Age Award
When asked by students attending her lecture which of her
books is her favorite she replied:
"All of my books are very important to me. They are like
fingers on a hand. I don't like one more than another."
"Reading has always been a source of joy and discovery for me. Through
writing, I try to share my feelings, ideas, and visions with my readers as I
would share them with my close friends. Ever since I was young, I wanted to
be a writer. In grammar school and high school I wrote short stories, poetry,
and newspaper articles in Korean. After immigrating to the United States and
teaching in American schools for twenty years, I began to write agin, but this
time in English. I felt that it was through writing that I could best share
my thoughts and experiences."
Year of Impossible Goodbyes and Echoes of the White
Giraffe provide a first-hand account of living in a turbulent
period of Korean history.
As portrayed in her book Year of Impossible Goodbyes, Korea
was under Japanese domination beginning in 1910 with the result
of the Japanese annexation of Korea. The annexation was a direct
result of Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905
in which Japan took control of Korea from Russia. Under Japanese
rule Koreans suffered economic hardship, were prohibited from
speaking in their native tongue, and as many as 7,000 Koreans
were killed by the Japanese (Encyclopedia Americana, 1993,
"Based upon the principles of the Atlantic Charter of
August, 1941, the United States, Britain, and China proclaimed
on December 1, 1941 that in due course Korea shall become free
and independent" (Encyclopedia Americana, 1993, p.
522). The U.S.S.R. adhered to this statement in its August 8,
1945 declaration of war with Japan.
Failing to implement a prior agreement with the U.S.S.R. over
an intended four-power trusteeship over all Korea, the United
states proposed on August 13, 1945 that the surrender of Japanese
troops be accepted by Americans south of , and by Russians north
of, the 38th parallel of north latitude. The Soviets immediately
accepted the proposal, and the 38th parallel became the dividing
line of the U.S. and the Soviet occupation zones after the arrival
of U.S. troops on September 8, 1945. All Japanese were soon repatriated
(Encyclopedia America, 1993, p. 552).
Following the division of Korea, massive numbers of North
Korean refugees fled to the South. While receiving American assistance,
the South Koreans began to rebuild their country. However, at
the same time, the Soviets began to build up the North Korean
Army in the hopes of taking over the South. On Sunday, June 25,
1950 Communist North Koreans attacked the South in the hopes of
controlling the entire country under Communist rule.
On July 27, 1953 the American U.N. commander signed an armistice agreement
with the North's Democratic People's Republic government. Korea stayed two separate
countries divided at the 38th parallel. The agreement ceased hostilities, provided
for the screening for the return of prisoners, and established a demilitarized
zone of 1.25 miles on each side of the new demarcation line. However, no permanent
treaty was ever put into effect.
Geographic Map of
Korea and Related Information
The main character in the books to be reviewed on the following
pages, Sookan, traveled a route, from Pyongyang to Seoul to Pusan
and back to Seoul, when escaping the communists. After intense
studying and a few years of peace following the 1953 armistice
agreement, Sookan continued her journey. The last part of her
journey takes her across the ocean to the United States.
Feminism in Korean
Sookan, unlike her female Korean counterparts, was a freethinking,
modern young woman. Sookan's disposition seemed to be more similar
to those exhibited by American women of that era. In Korea, boy/girl
relationships were forbidden in public unless a couple was formally
engaged to be married. However, Sookan formed a relationship with
a young man from her church. While it was a secret and innocent
friendship, just the fact that she had this friendship and was
keeping a secret from her family was considered taboo. Everything
a person did reflected on the family. An individual could not
live her own life separate from her family. The family's wishes
always took presidence over the individual's. For Korean females
the family's wishes usually meant marrying a man that the family
had chosen for her. Sookan felt that there should be more to her
life than that.
Because of her desire to live her life to the fullest, Sookan
decided to leave home and come to America to attend college. Both
leaving home and receiving a higher education was not expected
of young Korean women. Sookan's siblings had a difficult time
accepting this; luckily, Sookan's mother, although a very traditional
woman, understood Sookan's need for independence.
This concept of an independent and evolving woman is presented in Echoes
of the White Giraffe and Gathering of Pearls. Through these novels
the reader can contrast the difference in Sookan's attitude with that of traditional
Korean thinking. While Sookan does have a different outlook, it is still very
tradition when compared with the American way of life that Sookan encounters
in Gathering of Pearls. While Sookan is not forced to choose one way
of life over another, she is forced to evaluate both cultures and her own beliefs.
Sookan emerges as a strong, dynamic woman by the end of the three novels.
Year of Impossible
"A glimpse into a young girl's mind and into a nation's
heart--a tale of bearing witness to the plight of a people. .
. should be read by adults--both for its poignancy and for its
capacity to illuminate." ~New York Times Book review
Sook Nyul Choi portrays the war-ravaged world of a young girl
beautifully in her first novel, Year of Impossible Goodbyes.
The setting is North Korea during World War II, when Korea was
occupied by the Japanese. This novel does not take the reader
to the frontlines, instead it gives the reader a behind the scenes
look at what war does to the lives of the children. The voice
in the book is that of Sookan, the young female protagonist. By
doing this Choi gives her readers a child's view of this world;
yet, the child's voice is one full of wisdom and strength as are
Year of Impossible Goodbyes is not a lengthy novel
for all the events that take place in it. Sookan, who is ten at
the beginning of the book, is seen as a girl full of dreams and
hopes - dreams and hopes that revolve around the end of the war;
the safety of her friends, the sock girls; the departure of the
cruel Japanese overseers; and the return of her father and older
brothers. But even with all of these problems shadowing her life,
she has a refreshing idealism and can take much pleasure from
watching her grandfather meditate under a beautiful tree.
Readers will marvel at all of the hardships Sookan has to
endure as she lives through Korea going from Japanese rule to
Russian Communist rule. Just when her life seems to be getting
better something else happens in her small country that has her
wondering where are the Americans who will free them. Alas, the
Americans are in Southern Korea. As Sookan seeks the freedom of
the South with her family, readers will be amazed once again by
her strength and wisdom and her ability to meet adversity head-on.
Throughout the book, Sookan says goodbye to many people and things. While
it is hard to do, almost impossible, Sookan realizes that she must move on and
carries these people and memories in her heart throughout the book. However,
one thing that Sookan never had to say goodbye to was her childhood because
it seems as if she never had one, at least not the happy, worry-free one that
many people associate with childhood. By the end of the book, I too was reluctant
to say good-bye. Sookan is such a dynamic and engaging character that I wanted
to continue to read about her life, especially since Korea still had many problems
to overcome. I knew that the problems of Korea would once again become the problems
of Sookan and her family. Sook Nyul Choi knew this also and wrote Echoes
of a White Giraffe and Gathering of Pearls to continue the remarkable
story of Sookan.
Echoes of the
"[A] haunting sequel. . . [Choi] has once again suceeded
in putting a very human face on a tragic episode of world history.
This inspirational work possesses a confidence and quiet triumph
with universal reverberation."
In Echoes of the White Giraffe, Sookan, the heroine
of Year of Impossible Goodbyes, is now fifteen years old
and living in Pusan, South Korea with her mother and younger brother.
As a result of the Communist takeover, Sookan's family was forced
to flee from their home in Seoul to Pusan, a city further south.
With the Korean War in progress, Seoul has been destroyed, and
once again, Sookan has been separated from her father and older
Sookan and her fellow refugees face many hardships. A friend
of Sookan's lost both of her parents to the war and later, Sookan
returns to Seoul to discover that her father has also been killed.
Despite the difficulties, Sookan is able to retain her optimism.
She comes to appreciate the beautiful flowers which grow near
her refugee home in Pusan as well as the daily morning greetings
of a fellow refugee from a nearby mountaintop overlooking the
city of Pusan. Sookan also finds romance with a young man. Readers
will get to experience the joys and bittersweet emotions associated
with a young girl's first love.
While reading Echoes of the White Giraffe, the reader will become acquainted
with the Korean way of life. Many Korean rituals, such as the courtship ritual,
are dramatically different from the American ways of dating and romance, even
in the 1950s. After reading this story, the reader will develop a deep appreciation
of Korean culture and tradition. Once again, Sook Nyul Choi has written a moving,
"In this sequel to Year of the Impossible Goodbyes
and Echoes of the White Giraffe, 19-year-old Sookan
continues her journey--this time leaving Korea to study at Finch,
a Catholic women's college. . .When tragedy comes again. . . Sookan
gathers her strength--her pearls--and resolves to succeed."
"The soul-searching quality of Choi's prose is at least
as important to this beautiful novel as the plot line. . .Readers
who share in this emotional journey with Sookan will grow with
her in wisdom." ~School Library Journal
Gathering of Pearls is the last novel in Sook Nyul
Choi's trilogy of a Korean girl. This young adult book tells the
story of Sookan, a young lady from Korea who comes to America
in the 50s to attend college. Gracefully, Choi explains how Sookan
passes her first year in an American college, confronts a new
culture, and comes to terms with the differences between these
two cultures and her own expectations.
Despite the closeness in her family, Sookan's determination
to leave Korea and study in the United States leads her on a very
interesting, but challenging, road. Sookan is accepted into Finch
College, a Catholic women's college in New York. From the moment
that Sookan's plane lands in New York, she learns that life in
America is completely different from life in her native country.
Unlike the other students, Sookan has a busy schedule consisting
of studying and working. Despite the fact that Sookan places unrealistic
demands on herself in order to make her family proud, she is able
to develop two very special friendships. Through these friendships
and the letters exchanged between Sookan and her family, the cultural
conflict that Sookan encounters is very evident. It is her mother's
wisdom, as it was in the two earlier books, that Sookan ultimately
Besides the cultural aspects of this book, a feminist aspect also is developed.
For the most part, all of the characters in this novel are females. Sookan's
mother as head of the household and the nuns in charge of the college give Sookan
influential and authoritative women role models. It is these women , especially
her mother, that Sookan admires. It is also these women that encourage Sookan
to break away from the traditional Korean roles for women. This trilogy allows
readers to grow up with Sookan. By the end of the last book, readers will admire
the young woman that Sookan has become.
Halmoni and the
"The lovely story describes the difficulties Yunmi's
newly arrived grandmother faces while adjusting to life in New
York City. . . With gentle glowing detail, the art and text weave
a touching tale." ~Horn BookGuide
"A good jumping-off place for discussion about
cultures and/or generation." ~Booklist
Yunmi and Halmoni's
"This book transcends Korean and English, speaking the
universal language of the heart." ~Booklist
The Best Older
"Sunhi struggles with jealously toward her younger brother
just before his first birthday. However, her sensitive grandmother
helps the child understand more about the demands of babies and
gives Sunhi some special attention. Choi tells a balanced, sensitive
story that incorporates some Korean family traditions. The important
first-birthday celebration with a traditional outfit for the baby
and silk dresses for Sunhi and her two best friends showcases
multicultural understanding as a a natural part of life. "
~ School Library Journal
"Descriptions of several Korean customs and traditions
are subtly interwoven throughout, and the full-color illustrations
capture the expressions of sorrow and joy of Sunhi and her family
as well as their friends, who represent various cultures."
for Young Adults
Historical fiction is an interesting genre for young adults to explore. The
novels by Sook Nyul Choi, especially her novel, Year of Impossible Goodbyes,
can be considered historical fiction. In historical fiction, historical facts,
settings, and customs are often intertwined with an author created storyline.
To see the list of "Best Historical Fiction for Young Adults" in the
June, 1993 issue of VOYA.
References on Korea
and on Sook Nyul Choi
Han, Woo-Keun.The History of Korea. Honolulu: East-West
Center Press, 1971.
"Korea." Encyclopedia America, 1993.
Telgen, Diane, ed. Something About the Author. Detroit:
Gale Research Co., 1993.
Thank you for coming
to the author website for Sook Nyul Choi!
Created March 17, 1996, Last Updated December 4, 1998