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LEARNING ABOUT

SOOK NYUL CHOI

Revised by Kay E. Vandergrift

 

Originally Compiled in 1996 by Amy Dresnack, Janet Gonzalez, and Mariah Araujo

with Kay E. Vandergrift in Young Adult Literature

 

Biography of Sook Nyul Choi

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).

Bibliography

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, Japan, 1996.

Choi, Sook Nyul. Echoes of the White Giraffe. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Choi, Sook Nyul. Gathering of Pearls. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
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.

 

Awards

Year of the Impossible Goodbyes:

Echoes of the White Giraffe:

Halmoni and the Picnic:

Gathering of Pearls:

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, p. 522).

"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.

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.

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.

 

"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 her actions.

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.

"[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."

~Publishers Weekly

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 brothers.

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, memorable novel.

"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." ~Kirkus

"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 relies on.

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 Picnic

"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 Trip

"This book transcends Korean and English, speaking the universal language of the heart." ~Booklist

 

The Best Older Sister

"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." ~ Booklist

 

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.

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.

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Created March 17, 1996, Last Updated December 4, 1998