Where’s Halmoni? works on so many fantastic levels. It’s an #ownvoices graphic novel/picture book about two Korean-American siblings and their experience over their grandmother’s house. Simple right?? Nope! Just like the Korean folktales and characters that inspire this work, there’s a delightful mix of fantasy and realism. Kim’s portrayal of everyday Korean life (it’s in the little details) adds another important level of depth to this epic debut.
So let’s start with the story. Details, Details, Details! The story actually begins and ends on the endpages (cool right?). Grandma receives a package from Korea and inside the box is a wooden window she places on the wall of her bedroom. A tiger’s head pop out the window and the next thing we know, Grandma says “Aaah! Bad tiger!” in Korean and the story begins. Joon and his Noona (“누나 older sister” her name is not Noona, it’s what younger boys call older girls in Korean) let themselves into Grandma’s house only to find…that she’s missing!! There are clues to her disappearance though (enormous cat paw prints and a disheveled kitchen) and the kids discover the curious window in her bedroom. In a very Narnia-esque turn of events, they step through the window into a world straight out of Korean folklore. On the search for their grandma, they run into a tricky (and silly) rabbit 토끼, a rowdy and hungry bunch of goblins 도깨비, and finally, an untrustworthy tiger 호랑기 fighting over Grandma’s pot of delicious red bean porridge 팥죽 with a nine-tailed fox 구미호 (who suspiciously looks a bit like grandma)!! How far will they go to find and save their grandma?
Kim is a great storyteller and her illustrations are dynamic. I love the front and back cover of this book. They’re striking and stand out well on a bookshelf. I also love the 도장 (seal) detail of Julie’s name on the cover! The attention to detail in this book is impeccable. There are so many little things packed into each spread. Joon and his Noona are very energetic and expressive, and so is the rabbit! Kim’s comedic timing and humor is excellent. This book’s palate mimics colors used in traditional Korean art; lots of rich browns, reds, greens, yellows and blues. I love the transparency of the watercolor?/gouache? that Kim uses; it’s not too heavy and has just the right feel for a story that explores other worlds and crossing-between. Kim gives us some breathtakingly, misty and beautiful mountain and forest scenes and by the end of the story, readers feel close to the family; it really does feels as though you’ve traveled with Noona and Joon to another world and back.
The language in this book! I LOVE how Korean language is an integral part of this story. The blocky Korean text is front and center, bright and essential. Once the siblings cross through the window, they are in a Korean-speaking world. Though they aren’t fluent in Korean, they have enough language skills to understand what’s going on (body language is a big help too)! Just like the siblings, readers who don’t speak Korean must use their detective skills to scope out exactly what’s going on. The vivid illustrations help with gaps in understanding. Kim does an excellent job of accompanying the Korean text with English dialogue that guides non-Korean speaking readers. As displayed in the image below, it is not essential for readers to understand the Korean text to understand the story but it does help. I think it’s great how Korean speaking/reading children will be fully immersed in the story during the first reading of this book (especially if it’s read to them by a Korean speaking/reading adult). I’ve never seen anything quite like this (featuring Korean language) from an American publishing house. Kim gives her non Korean speaking/reading readers a “What did they say?” Answer-Key at the end of the book which is really helpful. This way, non-Korean speakers/readers can go though the story on the second reading and absorb the details they missed from the Korean speaking characters (Rabbit is especially hilarious). I love it. I really enjoy how Kim approaches language in this book.
Remember how I said this book is all about the details? There are so many elements that Asian and Korean American kids will connect to. This is truly a “mirror” book. It’s a great example of the importance of supporting authors & illustrators of color by giving them the platform to share their stories. As Kim explains in the back of the book, this book is a reflection of her experiences as a mix of two worlds, Korean and American. The folktales of Korea stayed with her and her family as they moved to the United States and are still with her.
I noticed some lovely details in storytelling and illustration that made me miss Korea. A few examples are the use of slippers in the house, how Grandma’s house is full of traditional Korean mats, art, masks (hey look they are the goblins!), paintings and hanji lamps (the butterflies come to life in the folktale world!) and the huge soy sauce bottle on the kitchen counter. I like the scene where the siblings aren’t sure if they should take off their slippers or not when they are “outside” in the folktale world, and OH MY GOSH THE SCISSORS, ROCK, PAPER SCENES (가위, 바위, 보)!! These scenes have my heart and took me back to walking the halls & playground of my schools and seeing my students solve petty arguments over a fair game of Scissors, Rock, Paper. Respect the Scissors, Rock, Paper y’all. lol Don’t be like the tiger in this book. ㅋㅋㅋ The final cultural detail that I love is when Grandma mysteriously reappears and beckons her grandchildren to come eat, with her palm facing down, Korean style. I love how Kim pointedly illustrates this. It made me smile. Oh I can’t forget how much I love Grandma’s delightful white perm and baggy pants. So fresh!
Where’s Halmoni? is spectacular. Julie Kim has created a book to share with young readers that truly celebrates family, playfulness, mischief and the beauty of Korean folktales. With every read, there’s something new to see, smile about and giggle at. This book takes me back to living in Korea and interacting with my students, their families and becoming a part of the every day life of my beloved city of Daegu. Folktales are powerful; they connect us to our ancestors and remind us of where we’ve been and where we are headed as a people. They are important. Tell, share and re-learn your folktales. Make sure you check out this book and please be sure to add it to your collection.
This is a wonderful debut, Julie! Thanks for sharing this story with us. I can’t wait for the next story.
P.S. Pay attention to the mirrors in the illustrations. ;-D
Recommended for: All Ages
Great for: Family, Friendship, Tricksters, Korean Culture, Korean Folklore, Honesty, Korean Food, Journey, Determination, Cleverness, Loyalty
Book Info: Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim, 2017 Little Bigfoot (Sasquatch Books), ISBN: 9781632170774