Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

Author: Linda Sue Park
Title: When My Name was Keoko
Illustrator: none noted
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: 2002
ISBN: 0-618-13335-6

The year is 1940. Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul, having grown up in occupied Korea, tell their story in alternating chapters. They are taught Japanese in school, have never seen the Korean flag, and are only allowed to speak Korean in their home. Now, things are changing. The Japanese have decreed that everybody must take a Japanese name. They will be punished if they call anybody by their Korean name. Suddenly, Sun-hee and Tae-yul become Keoko and Nobuo. When the Japanese empire spreads its wings too far by bombing Pearl Harbor, World War II begins in the Pacific. Although Korea never sees any direct fighting, they, too, feel the effects of war. Food, clothing, metal, and young men and women are confiscated in the name of supporting the Emperor. The underground Korean resistence grows stronger, supported by protecting Uncle and providing food and clothing for his family. Sun-hee, the guardian of her uncle’s and brother’s secrets, is left behind with her father and mother. After rigorous training, Tae-yul is chosen to be a Kamikaze pilot. Less than two months after the news of her brother’s death, the war ends. The joy felt by Sun-hee and her parents when Korea is set free from Japanese rule is bittersweet.

Linda Sue Park is the daughter of Korean immigrants. She grew up outside Chicago and has been writing stories and poems since she was four years old. In an author's note, Park writes about some of the facts she discovered during her research and about her family. By including stories told to her by her parents about their experiences as children in occupied Korea, Linda Sue Park wrote When My Name was Keoko, the same Japanese name her mother had to use as a child. A bibliography lists the items used by Parks to research the historical details included in the story. A note on Korean terms of address assists the reader in understanding the importance of family relationships and respect. The research combined with the family stories and Park’s writing style brings the tale of Keoko Kaneyama and her brother to life.

Most history books cover the battles and the experiences of military commanders. Yet war can affect people on the home front, those who never face an actual battle. So it is with Sun-hee, Tae-yul, and the rest of the Kim family in Korea from 1940 through 1945. Through the use of vivid imagery, Sun-hee and Tae-yul alternate telling their story using a first person point of view. Details of their lives, customs, and language are included to authenticate the story, making it more real than a simple textbook rendition would provide. Through these years, Sun-hee and Tae-yul mature, showing their bravery and family loyalty in ways that reflect their personalities.

“I wasn’t supposed to listen to men’s business, but I couldn’t help it.... Ears don’t close the way eyes do.” Despite this, Sun-hee is curious and slowly clears the table hoping to hear more. Girls and women are protected from the ‘outside’ world. The male head of the household tells them what he feels they should know. Yet, Sun-hee is an observer, who likes to discover the deeper meaning behind things and a scholar who likes to learn languages.

Her ability to understand unspoken words was not always accurate. When her Japanese friend Tomo tries to give her a warning about an upcoming Japanese request for all household metals like that used by her uncle, she misunderstands and warns Uncle that the Japanese are coming to get him. He disappears into the underground resistance never to be seen again. From this misunderstanding, Sun-hee learned to act slowly and to seek the advice of others before acting on her interpretations. When her family receives a letter from Tae-yul, Sun-hee reads for the deeper meaning. A reference to a special assignment and to the Youth Air Corps leads her to believe that Tae-yul was going to be a kamikaze pilot. “Remember Tomo—remember Uncle.... Don’t make a mistake this time.” She wants to tell the Japanese that her brother supports her uncle in the underground resistance in order to stop Tae-yul’s flight, but she seeks her father’s advice before acting. Abuji helps her to see that this would lead to either the imprisonment or the death of Tae-yul. Sun-lee knows that she has to leave any actions in her father’s hands.

Sometimes a decision to not act takes more courage than a decision to take action. Sun-hee’s courage is also seen in other ways as she supports friends and family. She helps Omani (her mother) and Tae-yul pot a rose of Sharon tree and hide it from the Japanese who had ordered that all of these symbols of Korea be destroyed. She warns her uncle when she thinks he is in danger. She helps her neighbor, Mrs. Ahn, learn to count to five in Japanese and get her into line in one of the first five spots during neighborhood accounting so that she wouldn’t get beaten again. She defies the Japanese order not to write poetry and stories in a diary by starting a new one after the other is burned. She asks to learn to read Korean from her father even though this is forbidden. And, the hardest of all, she stays friends with Tomo who is Japanese and Jung-shin whose father was chin-il-pa (friend to the Japanese) even though both of these things could have her labeled chin-il-pa.

Unlike his sister, Tae-yul much prefers to work with his hands. Over time, he is allowed to work more often in Uncle’s printing shop where he discovers that Uncle is secretly printing a resistance newspaper. To Tae-yul, his uncle is brave. He begins to question his father’s bravery. Uncle gets mad when their radio is confiscated by the Japanese, but not his father. “Abuji says it’s no use getting angry. But how can he not get angry?” Then Tae-yul’s bike is taken as his father does nothing. Tae-yul says, “You just let them take it. You didn’t even try to stop them. Couldn’t you have thought of something—anything--” Questioning a father’s decision is the rudest thing a son can do. Yet there are moments of understanding, like when his sister’s diary is burned by the Japanese and the family can only watch. Tae-yul is angry, but realizes that, like Abuji when his father’s topknot was cut off by the Japanese, “What could he have done? What could any of us do?”

One day, Tae-yul is picked up by the police and questioned about his uncle. The Japanese want to use Tae-yul as bait to capture Uncle. In order to prevent this, Tae-yul shows his courage by enlisting in the Japanese military, deliberately disobeying a command from his father. “I believe in Uncle and in the things he believes in. I’d do anything not to betray him. Anything. Even join the army of his sworn enemy.” After Tae-yul volunteers to be a pilot for a special mission in order to show that Koreans, too, are courageous, he and other Koreans in his unit are treated with more respect. Yet, Tae-yul knows he can not destroy American ships or planes, so he bravely plans to miss his target and die as he destroys his plane.

When the war ends and Tae-yul is home once more, he does not speak of his time in prison. Then Abuji admires the courage it took somebody to write an article in Uncle’s paper which openly criticized the Japanese economic policy. Tae-yul yells, “What right do you have to speak of courage?” He runs out the door, thinking, “My father is a coward.” “Why should I respect a coward?” he asks Sun-hee. She shows him Uncle’s paper. Abuji wrote many of the articles in the paper, but kept it secret from his family. Tae-yul understands the courage it took for his father to risk writing for a resistance newspaper. “My eyes start to feel hot, and the print slowly goes all blurry.” Tae-yul realizes that courage comes in many forms.

Review excerpts:
Booklist (March 1, 2002) “Park does a fine job of showing how the politics of the occupation and resistance affect ordinary people.” (Gr. 5-9)

Horn Book (May/June 2002) “The boy/girl narrative widens the audience,...but the structure also allows readers to see events from two sometimes-opposing points of view and to witness two different but equally honorable paths of resistance.... The novel provides an accessible introduction to this painful history.”

Kirkus Review starred (February 1, 2002) “This powerful and riveting tale of one close-knit, proud Korean family movingly addresses life-and-death issues of courage and collaboration, injustice, and death-defying determination in the face of totalitarian oppression.” (10-15)

Publishers Weekly (March 4, 2002) “...telling details provide a clear picture of Sun-hee and Tae-yul and their world. Readers will come away with an appreciation of this period of history and likely a greater interest in learning more about it.” (Ages 10-14)

School Library Journal (April 1, 2002) “What is outstanding is the insight Park gives into the complex minds of these young people.... Like the Rose of Sharon tree, symbol of Korea, which the family pots and hides in their shed until their country is free, Sun-hee and Tae-yul endure and grow. This beautifully crafted and moving novel joins a small but growing body of literature...that expands readers’ understanding of this period.” (Gr 6-9)

2006 Sunshine State Young Readers’ Master List
2005 Garden State (NJ) Teen Book Award Nominee
2005 Sequoyah Book Awards (OK) Nominee
2005 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award
2005 Mark Twain Award Master List (MO)
2004 Skipping Stones Honor Award
2004 Maine Student Book Award Master List
2003 Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book
2003 ALA Notable Children’s Book
2003 Notable Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies
2003 ALA Best Book for Young Adults
2003 Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year
2003 NYPL Book for the Teen Age List
2003 CCBC Choices
2002 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
2002 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
2002 NY Public Library, 100 Titles for Reading

Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood by Richard E. Kim (1998) is an autobiography which provides seven stories about the life of a boy living in Korea during the Japanese occupation. This book adds a difference perspective to When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park. Further explore the importance of names by reading The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (2001) in which Unhei moves to the United States from Korea and asks her classmates to help her choose a new name. Have everybody pick a name from a jar. That will be their name for the day. How did they feel?

Read other historical fiction books about things that happened in Korea during, and after, the 1940s. In Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi (1991), a young Korean girl survives the Japanese and Russian occupation of North Korea, later escaping to freedom in South Korea. Echoes of the White Giraffe (1993) is the sequel in which Sookan adjusts to life in the refugee village in Pusan, hoping to be reunited with her family in Seoul. What happened to the Japanese who lived in Korea after WWII? So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins (1986) is a fictionalized autobiography in which Yoko escapes from Korea to Japan with her mother and sister at the end of WWII.

For more information on Korea during the time of the Japanese occupation, visit or


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