In 2001 a book came out entitled, "The Name Jar" about a girl from Korea who had moved to America and wanted an Americanized name. Then, in 2003, "My Name Is Yoon" came out with practically the same plot. Normally, I have little sympathy for children's books that mimic their predecessors. In this case, however, there can be little doubt as to which book is the better of the two. "My Name Is Yoon", is a complex tale of imagination, flights of fancy, and gradual acceptance. By contrast, "The Name Jar" was simply okay. You can find ho-hum picture books lining the shelves of most libraries and bookstores around the globe. It is far rarer to find books quite as remarkable as the stunning, "Yoon".
Yoon isn't exactly thrilled to be in America. Wherever she looks, she sees that life is different in this strange new land. In Korea, where Yoon was born, her name meant Shining Wisdom. Despite her father's assurances that it means the same thing here, Yoon isn't so sure. And then there's the fact that when she writes her name using English characters, it's just a series of sticks and circles, whereas in Korean, "The symbols dance together". She's right. They do. Yoon carries her unhappiness to school where each day she learns a new word and makes that her name. One day it's cat. Another it's bird. Still another (and most amusingly) it's cupcake. In the end, Yoon learns to like her new country, supposing perhaps that maybe that being different can be good too. And in the end, she embraces her real name. "It still means Shining Wisdom".
I hate summarizing picture books where the plot, when written down, sounds so much hokier than it feels on the page. What I've just written sounds nice but bland. The book is anything but bland. Yoon's a distinct and remarkable character. With each new name she adopts, she becomes that object in her dreams. For example, when she becomes BIRD she wishes she could fly back to Korea once again. The book also skips what I've come to feel is the obligatory foreign-child-gets-teased sequence. The kind of thing you tend to find in books like, "Molly's Pilgrim". I was grateful for the oversight. "My Name Is Yoon" is tackling more important problems here. The acceptance of one's own self in a foreign environment, for example. Becoming your own name. Becoming your own self. What could be greater than this?
The pictures, for their part, don't hurt. Artist Gabi Swiatkowska is perhaps best known for this book and the title, "Silk Umbrellas" by Carolyn Marsden. "My Name Is Yoon" is good as a story, yes. But the Yoon we see here is a complex original human being. A one-of-a-kind gal. When her imagination soars it takes off like nothing else, aided by Swiatkowska's realistic images. I especially liked looking at the pictures of her in her home. Here, the black and white tiles of the floor bend and twist in strangely surreal patterns. I'll be honest with you, though. The book could've been awful and I still would have loved it just so long as it continued to contain the picture of Yoon floating through her classroom window as a delicious fluffy cupcake.
Realism is what grounds "My Name Is Yoon". Surrealism sets it apart from the rabble. If you're stocking your personal library with only the most essential picture books out there, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to include this truly delightful title.