The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Published by Dragonfly Books a division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2001
Reviewed by Kylie Milosevic
Drawing from her own personal experiences, author Yangsook Choi, writes a compelling story about a young Korean girl and her experience arriving in a new country, and a new school. A realistically fictional story, The Name Jar’s chronological plot revolves around the main character’s conflict of wanting to choose a new American name. The story can be used to relate to young children as it takes place in a modern day American neighborhood, in which the setting and characters are realistically represented. Author and illustrator Yangsook Choi presents an approachable way to address a very common multicultural issue that is imperative for all children to become familiar with as they grow in our naturally diverse schools. I feel that this symbolic children’s story is perfectly appropriate for grades K-2 and beyond.
Main character, Unhei (Yoon-hey), develops through a sense of herself throughout the story. She faces a conflict within herself and against society as she adjusts and discovers herself again in a new culture. The story features a powerful flashback to the moment Unhei says goodbye to her beloved grandmother and prepares to board the plane with her family to make the journey from Korea to America. In this moment the author creates a mood of multi dimensions: sadness, nostalgia, and hope. The author also introduces a powerful symbol in this same moment, a wooden name stamp. The name stamp represents Unhei’s originality, her grandmother, and her home.
As Unhei’s journey begins on the bus to her first day in an American school the children struggle to pronounce and poke fun at Unhei’s unique name. As Unhei arrives to her new classroom, the conflict changes from character versus society to character versus self. When Unhei is asked to introduce herself she decides to tell her classmates that she has not yet chosen a name. The supporting characters react in an authentic way to Unhei’s no-name introduction. The third person omniscient viewpoint allows us to have understanding of some of Unhei’s thoughts and feelings throughout the story.
Readers of this charming picture book may find that they are able to directly connect with Unhei, having once been the new student, or instead they may connect with the minor characters of the story being that they have experienced meeting a new classmate from a different culture. Either way the author makes it easy for any young learner to visualize themselves in the shoes of the characters. The story promotes plentiful opportunity for discussion of important multicultural and social issues, in which readers can contemplate collaboratively, problem solve, and connect to.
Throughout the story, there are references to the Korean culture, such as food, and name symbolism. The supporting characters attempt to solve the conflict for Unhei when they decide to create a jar full of names for Unhei to choose from. Unhei befriends a curious classmate named Joey who becomes very interested in Unhei’s culture. Joey’s character traits shine through his actions and the story eventually reaches a point of climax when the name jar goes “missing”. The central message of the story is revealed when Unhei decides to choose her own name and teaches her classmates how to pronounce it.
The author’s precise word choice and simple, yet beautifully painted illustrations, make this children’s story easy to comprehend. The author’s purpose is clear and provides teachers the opportunity to address a sensitive issue in a safe environment that promotes thoughtful dialog. Yangsook Choi appears to have written the story to provide opportunity for children to experience what it may be like to be Unhei, as well as, contemplate how they may handle being Unhei’s classmate. The only wish I have for this text, is that the author provided a page of back matter. Being that the story was written from the author’s personal experiences, I feel that providing the back matter for students would make the message that much more powerful.
All in all, The Name Jar is a thoughtfully crafted piece of children’s literature that addresses an important issue in a way that is relatable for young learners. I would highly recommend this book to all teachers of young children, especially those of diverse populations.