Eun Hye Son


Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-21 14:00-15:30 Room I

Speaker: Eun Hye Son (Korea)


The Images of Korean people and culture reflected in the picture books published in the United States

In this presentation, I will discuss themes, plots and authenticity of 22 picture story books about Korean people and culture. I examined 22 picture books dealing with Korean immigrants, Korean American children and Korean culture. I limited my examination to picture story books, and excluded folktales, nonfictions and chapter books. Picture story books were considered to be the most appropriate for the study because images of Korean people and Korean culture are described both through texts and pictures in the perspective of the author, illustrators, and society in the United States.

Three major themes of picture books about Korean people and culture

The following main themes can be found within the twenty-two books chosen for this study: 1) adjustment to a new country, 2) adoption, and 3) daily life. Even though half of the books deal with Korean immigrants’ adjustment to the United States, Su An (1968) is the first one that shows adoption as a theme in picture story books about Korean people and their culture. Between the 1960s and 1980s, there were rarely any published picture story books dealing with Korea. However, since the 1990s, the number of books about Korean people and culture has dramatically increased. Moreover, the “melting pot” theme started to appear in the mid-1990s. According to Sims’s (1982) definition, “melting pot” tells of generic (meaning white, middle-class) stories in which only the illustrations indicate race or ethnicity.

Table 1. Twenty-two story books organized according to their common themes.

Adjustment to a new culture Adoption Daily life (“melting pot”)

? Aekyoung’s dream (1988)

? Halmoni and the picnic (1993)

? Father’s rubber shoes (1995)

? Yunmi and Halmoni’s trip (1997)

? Halmoni’s day (2000)

? The trip back home (2000)

? The name jar (2002)

? Good-bye, 382 Sin Dang Dong (2002)

? My name is Yoon (2003)

? Sumi’s first day of school (2003)

? The have a good day café (2005) ? Su An (1968)

? Katie-Bo (1987)

? An American face (2000)

? Jin Woo (2001)

? The coffee can kid (2002)

? One afternoon (1994)

? New cat (1999)

? One Sunday morning (1999)

? Dear Juno (1999)

? Bee-bim Bop! (2005)

Adjustment to a new culture

Eleven out of 22 books dealt with the adaptation of individuals, either Korean or American, to unfamiliar cultures. For example, Korean Americans, who were born and raised in the United States, sometimes struggle to adapt to their Korean heritage while it is a more challenging task for Korean immigrants to adjust themselves to American society.


The five books that deal with Korean adoptees, i.e., Su An, Katie-Bo, An American face, Jin Woo, and The coffee can kid seem to reflect the reality of South Korea sending the third most adoptees to the United States and other countries. The first picture story book about Koreans, Su An describes her life in the orphanage in Korea and the process of her adoption by a Caucasian American family. On the other hand, Katie-Bo and Jin Woo do not directly show Korean adoptees’ lives in the United States, but put more focus on how their adoptive-siblings-to-be perceive and react to the adoption.

Same daily lives as other Americans: “melting pot” stories

Five books including One afternoon, One Sunday morning, New cat, Dear Juno and Bee-bim Bop! are categorized under the daily lives and “melting pot” theme. Those books usually describe children’s outing with family and other common happenings. They are difficult to be viewed as dealing with Korean’s authentic experiences and culture.


Conflicts or problems in adjusting to new surroundings

One of the challenges Korean children have to overcome in adapting themselves to the United States is to accept their differences from the mainstream. Unhei in The Name Jar wants to have an American name like her classmates, and believes having a new name will make it easier for her to become a part of this society. Jessie, who was adopted by an American family in The American Face, waits for the day he acquires an American citizenship thinking he will get a new American face, which will make him look like other children in his school.

Sometimes figures from their native cultures can be an important support for children undergoing the difficulties. Halmoni, or grandmother, is a “comforting bridge” that connects the children to Korean culture for both Korean American and immigrant children. For example, grandmothers are depicted writing letters to soothe and encourage their grandchildren who are having difficulties coping with their unfamiliar environments. For Korean American children, halmoni is the one who reminds them of their Korean heritage as well as help them to understand their heritage. In Halmoni’s Day, halmoni and Jennifer are disconnected by language, but at the same time they cannot be separated by their inability to communicate using the same language. They share a common story and memory. Ching & Pataray-Ching (2002) claimed that “through Halmoni’s storytelling, this memory is passed down to progeny. And language bridges the distances of time, cultural boundary, and geography” (p. 28) .

In addition to a “comforting bridge”, grandmothers can be introducers of Korean culture to their grandchildren. They wear traditional Korean dress, hanbok, and cook Korean food such as kimbab, bulgogi, mandoo, bibim bap, etc. They also talk to their grandchildren about their experiences back in Korea.

Solving conflicts and problems encountered

In the process of solving the conflicts and overcoming the differences in cultures, young characters in picture books are rarely depicted working out the hardships for themselves except in two books. For example, most children in other books depend on assistance from others, especially Caucasian American friends in school in order to overcome obstacles. Among the diverse members of American society with different backgrounds, Caucasians are generally described as the most helpful to Korean immigrant children. Given the chance, they may be able to sympathize with each other better while sharing concerns and problems with Korean immigrants or immigrants from other countries. However, these immigrant children do not often encounter opportunities to get along with Korean Americans, or Americans from other cultures.

Finally, all children in these books overcome the critical issue of their difference from others. Yoon in My Name is Yoon says, “Maybe America will be a good home. Maybe different is good, too.” Yunmi’s grandmother comforts Yunmi, in Yunmi and Halmoni's Trip, saying “We are lucky because we both have two families”. They do not neglect the other more unfamiliar culture, which is also an important part of their self identity, but accept both cultures as part of who they are.

Korean culture introduced in the picture books

These books describe how children deal with unfamiliarity, changing, and adapting in their lives, but do not overlook to show Korean culture through its limited pages. Most books display the printed Korean language through pictures in the books, such as sign boards of Korean restaurants or grocery stores, various decorations on the wall in homes, letters from family in Korea, and Korean name. In addition, many books describe representative Korean foods, like kimchi which is explained as “pickled vegetables” or “Korean-style spicy pickled cabbage”; bulgogi which are “thinly sliced meat in a sweet soy sauce” etc.

Furthermore, the Korean traditional clothing, hanbok, became one way of introducing Korean culture. The grandmother’s wearing hanbok is used to introduce Korean culture and to symbolize the grandmother as an introducer of Korean culture to Korean American children. However, a strong impression seems to be given that hanbok (a general term referring to the Korean traditional clothing for adults of both genders and youths) is only for female elders because most old women, such as grandmothers, are usually shown wearing it in the picture books. In addition, showing grandmothers wearing hanbok every day does not reflect contemporary reality of Korean culture quite well. It used to be an everyday outfit until the early 1900s, but today in Korea it is worn only for special occasions such as weddings, and traditional holidays (i. e. New Year’s day, chusok, etc.). It is quite inaccurate to see two halmoni in Yunmi and Halmoni’s trip and Halmoni’s day depicted wearing hanbok, which is not the most comfortable and appropriate clothing for a more than 10-hour-flight or a picnic.

Korean manners and customs are explained and sometimes compared to that of the United States. In Halmoni and the Picnic, for example, Yunmi’s grandmother admonishes her not to call grown-ups by their names and to lower her eyes out of respect when she talks to them. As for interesting activities or play, hwato, a game of cards with pictures of flowers and deer and hills and the moon has also been described. Moreover, historical places like Kyoung Bok Kung, the royal palace during the Chosun dynasty, the National museum, and Chomsongdae Observatory to study stars are depicted. Finally, in Halmoni’s Day, Jennifer’s grandmother told Jennifer’s classmates perhaps the gravest part of Korean history, the Korean War.

Authenticity and stereotypes about Koreans and Korean cultures depicted in picture books

In Trip Back Home Wong who is a writer of Korean-Chinese descent and Bo, an illustrator of Chinese heritage, portray the countryside of Korea beautifully and in detail, but deliver the wrong information about some aspects of Korean culture. In their book when the family is depicted playing the hwato game, which does not look authentic, the girl sitting on the floor next to the folded blanket is wearing shoes in the room. Wearing shoes inside the home is never allowed in Korean culture.

The writer and illustrator of the adoption story, The coffee can kid, Jan M. Czech and Maurie J. Manning, seem to have a difficulty distinguishing different cultures in Asia. When Annie’s adoptive father tells her about her adoption story, the picture illustrates the countryside of China rather than Korea. Furthermore, Annie’s biological mother and her grandmother are wearing Chinese-looking clothes. There are some items in the house, which seem to be more Chinese than Korean such as a red lantern and Chinese style teapot and cups.


By the end of the twentieth century, more fictions dealing with the Korean people and Korean culture began to be published. These picture story books mainly describe Korean immigrant children’s adjustment to the United States; interracial adoption and Korean people’s daily lives. At the same time, the authors of these books attempt to introduce Korean culture to their readers. Nevertheless, regardless of the authors and illustrators’ ethnic background, some books still provide inaccurate descriptions and stereotypes about Korean Americans and Korean immigrants, and Korean culture.

Inauthentic descriptions about the Korean culture in the picture story books can impact both insiders and outsiders of Korean culture. Applying Bishop’s mirror and window theory, for example, readers outside of the Korean ethnic group may acquire inaccurate information about the culture as well as experience a misrepresentation of the Korean culture. In addition, Korean readers may not be able to identify and reflect themselves in the book, thus ending up frustrated and furious about the distorted and mistaken features of their own culture. Thus, it is important for authors, illustrators, publishers, and educators to make sure to provide authentic children’s literature about cultures including Korean to readers.

Children’s literature cited

Bercaw, E. C. (2000). Halmoni's day. Illustrated by Robert Hunt. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Bunting, E. (2001). Jin Woo. Illustrated by Chris Soentpiest. New York: Clarion Books.

Choi, S. N. (1993). Halmoni and the Picnic. Illustrated by Karen M. Dugan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Choi, S. N. (1997). Yunmi and Halmoni's Trip. Illustrated by Karen M. Dugan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Choi, Y. (1999). New cat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Choi, Y. (2002). The name Jar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Czech, J. M. (2000). An American face. Illustrated by Frances Clancy. Washington, D.C.: Child & Family Press.

Czech, J. M. (2002). The coffee can kid. Illustrated by Maurie Manning. Washington, D.C.: Child & Family Press.

Fisher, I. L. (1987). Katie-Bo: an adoption story. Illustrated by Miriam Schaer. New York: Adama Books.

Heo, Y. (1994). One afternoon. New York: Orchard Books.

Heo, Y. (1995). Father's rubber shoes. New York: Orchard Books.

Heo, Y. (1999). One Sunday morning. New York: Orchard Books.

Johnson, D. (1968). Su An. Illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company.

Paek, Min. (1988). Aekyung's dream San Francisco, CA: Children's Book Press.

Pak, S. (1999). Dear Juno. Illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung. New York: Viking.

Pak, S. (2003). Sumi's first day of school ever. Illustrated by Joung Un Kim. New York: Viking.

Park, F. (2002). Good-bye, 382 Shin Dang Dong. Illustrated by Yangsook Choi. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Park, L. S. (2005). Bee-bim Bop! New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Park, F., & Park, G. (2005). The have a good day cafe. New York: Lee & Low Books.

Recorvits, H. (2003). My name is Yoon. Illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska. New York: Frances Foster Books.

Wong, J. S (2000). The trip back home. Illustrated by Bo Jia. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Wong, J. S. (2000). This next new year. Illustrated by Yangsook Choi. New York: Frances Foster Books.