Oh, what’s in a name?
Well, alot actually!
Names are a huge part of how we identify ourselves, and children are bound to feel the same way. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, originally published in 2001, is a book that I remember distinctively when I was a young child and is one that I think will resonate well with children even today. Here on Traditional Thursdays, I will highlight some resonating and outstanding ideas this book offers.
Many people consider Choi’s The Name Jar a more modern and culturally diverse spin off of Kevin Henke’s Chrysanthemum (which is also a wonderful classic!).
Actually, Chrysanthemum was the original book I wanted to review, but after rediscovering The Name Jar, I found that this book may be more relevant for classrooms today.
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Name Jar follows a young girl named Unhei, who recently moved to the States from Korea. On the bus ride to her first day in school, people are surprised by her unfamiliar name and tease her for it. She loses confidence in her name, and decides to pick a new one. Her classmates help her out by suggesting names, which are all collected in a jar. However, a friend named Joey learns the backstory of Unhei’s Korean name…and helps her pick the best name for her: Unhei.
This book is great to help young children understand what it means to embrace one’s identity, culture, and differences. I loved seeing the Korean characters in the illustrations, and the end pages are used exceptionally well:
It is touching to see Unhei write her name in both English and Korean in front of the entire class and explain that her name means ‘Grace.’ It is even better to see the teacher respond to the students’ reactions, “Lots of American names have meanings too.” No matter what language our names may come from, they are special and deserve respect! Spending the time to know fellow peers and finding an appreciation of different identities is one of the most valuable lessons I believe a student should learn. The story is complex, yet written in a simple way easy for even younger readers to understand. Any elementary classroom would benefit from reading this book together.
On a slightly more critical note, I do feel that this story touches only briefly on the other struggles of immigrating to a new country (food, family, etc). While this is already a wonderful book that has culturally diverse elements, there is much room for expansion in future books.
In general though, as someone who also immigrated to the States from Korea at an early age, this book hits home to me. Many of my friends are not aware of the dread I feel during the first few days of classes when the teacher does not know or even try to pronounce my legal Korean name. It can be embarrassing!
But I will also admit that the few people who do stop me to ask, “Hey, how do you pronounce your real name?” is one of those small things that I appreciate deeply.
Cheers to The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi and the push for more classic diverse literature!
By Sunny Kim