North Korea remains forefront in U.S. news, as both countries’ boastful, ambitious leaders toy childishly with nuclear threats. We here in the U.S. can only hope and work within our political system to avert such disaster. Novels such as Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son  confirm how our freedom to protest still contrasts vividly with the brutal silences imposed in North Korea. But that all-prose masterpiece is written with adult and possibly older teen readers in mind. Which works—in particular, graphic works—aimed at younger audiences bring deeper understanding of North and South Korea, their culture and people, while at the same time offering reading pleasure? Which works show that—regardless of politics or frightening headlines—Koreans and folks in the U.S. are more alike than different? This feels like an apt moment to spotlight a delightful, brand-new graphic novel and to revisit an acclaimed, sometimes controversial graphic novel series.
Where’s Halmoni? (2017) is the first book that artist Julie Kim has authored as well as illustrated. It charmingly brings to life the Korean folk tales her immigrant parents carried with them to the United States. Its clever, vivid storytelling deftly combines words with images in whimsical as well as dramatic ways, as Kim depicts the fantastic adventures of two Korean-American children visiting their grandmother, their “Halmoni,” in her home. I think Kim is too modest in her blog, writing that she “thrives on telling little stories with lots of big pictures.” This graphic story book will satisfy readers of all ages, even though it is clear that youngsters ages 5 through 9, the apparent age of characters Joon and Noona, are its target audience.
Looking for Halmoni, whose aromatic red bean soup they smell but who is also mysteriously absent, this brother and sister pass through a marvelous doorway into a magical world—one where the landscapes echo those of traditional Asian art and creatures from Korean folklore. Careful readers will find additional pleasure in observing that these landscapes and creatures—including goblins, a tiger, and a fox—also harken back to Halmoni’s household decorations. This is just one way that Kim’s full-color illustrations silently enhance her storytelling. Others include her figures’ expressive body language and boldly drawn facial expressions, including the eye-to-eye glares Joon exchanges with that mythological tiger. The book’s wordless double page spreads also communicate moods ranging from tranquil mystery to energetic conflict, while telling close-ups emphasize key moments in Joon and Noona’s adventures. They encounter Korea’s legendary, very hungry rabbit, pacify friendly goblins with the remaining snacks in Joon’s backpack, and defeat that fierce tiger by winning a game of “rock, paper, and scissor”! When the tiger proves to be a poor loser, the sly fox comes to their rescue.
Readers will be intrigued by Kim’s smartly unconventional choices in presenting dialogue. While Joon and Noona speak English, the creatures they meet speak Korean, written here in the Hangul characters used in Korea. It is fun figuring out what is being said during these clearly-illustrated, well-paced encounters! We can double check just how spot-on our translations were by referring to the “What did they say?” page that follows the story’s satisfying conclusion, when the children are back in Halmoni’s home, being served some of her delicious soup. On the next page, Kim explains the origins of her creatures in Korean folklore, adapted here to reflect her own vison as a Korean American artist. This delightful book does not end here, though. Not mentioned by any early reviewers, Kim includes an almost wordless bonus feature on its interior covers. Front and back, they show Halmoni installing and using that magical door into wide-ranging fantasy land. Perhaps that is one answer to the question, “Where’s Halmoni?”
Teens on up will gain further insight into experiences U.S. readers and Koreans share—along with some of our cultural differences—when they read an award-winning graphic novel trilogy by author/illustrator Kim Dong Hwa. I first reviewed this South Korean’s Colors trilogy (The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven [1992; 2009]) here in 2013. Its first volume was singled out as one of YALSA’s Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens and one of Booklist’s Top Ten Graphic Novels for Youth. Its author has explained that his lifelong fascination with how girls transform into women, his mother’s own life, and the high value Koreans place on mother-daughter relationships inspired him to create this series. It is set in rural, 20th century Korea, but its insightful depictions of how a hard-working, widowed mother and her daughter interact—as well as how both boys and girls handle the physical changes of adolescence—are relevant and dramatically effective today. Unfortunately, this trilogy also received some notoriety—unjustifiably, I believe—in 2011 as the second most frequently challenged book for young readers in the United States! It is sex that drew the ire of its critics.
As I have noted, the close, loving relationship between Ehwa and her mother, who runs a tavern to support them, is depicted in acute, sensitive detail, as is village life in general. The psychological development of Ehwa and her playmates, ages seven to thirteen in The Color of Earth, is also handled deftly. Believable situations lead them from discovering the physical differences between girls and boys, to first menstruation and wet dreams, onward to first innocent “crushes” and the realization that adults experience such emotions, too. In The Color of Water, Him Dong Hwa includes teen masturbation and adult sexuality. In The Color of Heaven, he further develops his life cycle approach towards emotional and physical development by depicting 17 year old Ehwa’s wedding night and the sexuality of village elders, whose bodies sometimes fail to “rise” to their desires.
Throughout the trilogy, Kim uses symbols in words and images to represent sexual feelings and emotions. Randy men are beetles, children becoming adolescents resemble new butterflies, while specific emotions and people are associated with individual kinds of flowers. These connections, often rooted in Korean folklore, are noted by asterisks in the text, with brief, helpful explanations then given at the bottom of the page. Kim conveys the joy of Ehwa and her husband Duksum through images of waves, clouds, and bright sunshine as well as partial glimpses of their nude bodies.
Throughout these books, Kim uses a range of black-and-white line drawings to show village settings and outdoor scenes in skillful, realistic detail. One’s eye lingers on the page to absorb their intricate, satisfying patterns, textures, and details. Yet at other times this veteran illustrator employs some non-realistic visual conventions—such as “cat tongues” on the faces of mischievous kids and “stitched” mouths on the faces of embarrassed characters—typical of both manhwa (Korean comics) and manga (Japanese comics). (Unlike manga, Korean comics are published and read “Western style”—front-to-back and left-to-right.) Kim also varies panel and image size to great effect, using double-page and one-and-a-half page spreads for dramatic emphasis.
I agree with this Korean author/illustrator who, in an interview said that, while some “Korean . . . cultural background from the book will be unfamiliar and exotic . . . Americans are equipped with sufficient knowledge and willingness to learn. In addition, no matter where and when a life takes place, there are similar things happening all over the world.” Besides your local library, bookstore and schools, the web offers many resources to acquire more knowledge about Korea. One current opportunity offers interactive challenge and fun for the young people in your life. The Sejong Cultural Society, based in Chicago and since 2004 dedicated to advancing awareness of Korean culture, sponsors an annual writing competition based on its on-line folktales or novel. The deadline for current submissions is February 28, 2018! Let’s engage in such peaceful connections, even if our current leaders insist on foolishly hawking issues and differences that threaten war.