It’s no accident that I picked a (South) Korean book, because it’s been a while since I wanted to read more Asian novels. But it’s more due to chance that I chose a middle grade novel (10 years old and more) in my new children library.
I find it very interesting for young readers to get exposed quite early to foreign literature, and not only to Anglo-American one as the big majority of books published here outside French ones. Apparently this publisher, Flammarion, has a whole collection centred on Korean literature for children from big albums to novels for middle school. What an pioneering initiative!
When you know that a big part of contemporary Korean literature addresses the issue of the country’s dramatic history, especially the cruelty of Korean war and the subsequent separation in two enemy regimes, often at the expenses of many families torn apart by the demarcation line (the infamous DMZ), you can figure what a challenge this is. One might think that is waaay too grim and difficult a theme for children, but Kim Hyang-yi doesn’t flinch from the task, and does it with tact and subtlety.
It’s also important to know that it’s not the main story, more like a background, but that more traditional childhood themes also play a big part, like having a best friend, the relationships to boys, to adults and how children’s life is impacted by the adults decisions…
Her main character, Song-Hwa, 11 year old, is a lonely girl brought up in the countryside by her grandmother. They live in South Korea, not far from the northern frontier. We don’t know exactly when the story happens (presumably during the 1980s), because the countryside life is timeless and Song-Hwa’s grandmother engages in the very exotic business of being a shaman. She heals villagers using plants and prayers and performs ritual ceremonies. We slowly gather that Song-Hwa’s mother has died not long after the birth, and that her father is away. What will happen when he eventually shows up?
The book was so pleasant and moving that I nearly forgot it was not for adults. I’m really looking forward to read more Korean literature, hopefully before the end of the year. If like me, you’re interested in discovering Korean literature (not specially for kids), you’ll find a great list here listing online texts.