As seen in Allen Say’s The Favorite Daughter, names can be a very strong tie to your identity when you are young (and when you are not). A name can denote where you came from and who your family is or was. The heroine of Yangsook Choi’s picture book The Name Jar struggles with her name and her new identity as an American.
Unhei has left her grandparents in Korea, and is starting a new school in America. When kids have difficulty pronouncing her name (“Yoon-hye”), she decides she would prefer an American name. Unhei tries out different names, and the children in her class decide to help, creating a Name Jar filled with their suggestions. With some help from her faraway grandma and a new friend, Unhei takes ownership of her own name.
Like Yuriko from The Favorite Daughter, Unhei is teased because of her name, and wishes to change it. And like Yuriko, visits to familiar places and words from family help Unhei decide to be who she is, because who she is is special. Choi’s story negotiates the turbulent waters of adolescence and school with a gentle ease. Her classmates tease Unhei, but are not cruel. Though their help is misguided (in wanting her to pick a new name), their desire to aid Unhei with the Name Jar is well-meaning. Anxiety over a name is a common childhood complaint, and such Unhei’s story is something to which many children, regardless of their background, will be able to relate. Choi illustrates her children with bright faces and easy smiles, giving the book a relaxed feel, so that even when Unhei is being teased, there does not appear to be any malice in it.
From the beginning, on the second illustrated spread, Choi sets up the cultural background of her This two page spread sees Unhei saying goodbye to her grandparents in an airport in Korea, while her grandma gives her a wooden block with her name in Korean letters on it (we find out later this block is a name stamp). When Unhei doubts her name, a trip to Kim’s Deli to pick up kimchi and seaweed reminds her of Korea. “Just because we’ve moved to America…doesn’t mean we stop eating Korean food,” her mother says. It is in the market, talking to Mr. Kim that the reader learns the meaning behind Unhei’s name. Here, feeling safe among her family and familiar cultural markers, Unhei proudly announces of her name that “My mother and grandmother went to a name master for it.”
Kirkus Reviews highlights Choi’s illustrations, saying “The paintings are done in creamy, earth-tone oils and augment the story nicely.” The review also praises how Choi “draws from her own experience, interweaving several issues into this touching account and delicately addressing the challenges of assimilation.” Booklist also notes the beauty of Choi’s art, noting the earth-tones and that “the figures have both stature and simplicity--as does the story.” The Name Jar was a nominee for several state book awards, including those from Utah, Arizona, Arkansas and California.
The Name Jar would pair wonderfully with Allen Say’s The Favorite Daughter, as both books feature a young girl wrestling with name anxiety and with her cultural heritage, as well as being personal stories told by the author/illustrator. The Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings features a girl adopted from China, and the three names she claims: one whispered by her birth mother, one from the orphanage and one from her adopted American parents. Each name represents a piece of who she is. My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits and beautifully illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska features a similar conundrum to The Name Jar. Yoon is in a new country, and writing her name in Korean makes her feel happy, but her father says she must learn to write it in English. Yoon goes through much of the same questioning that Unhei does, and the two books make good companions to each other. For a silly note from the same song, My Name Is Elizabeth, by Annika Dunklee and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe is a funny picture book about Elizabeth, who loves her name…but don’t call her Lizzie. Or Beth. And don’t even think about Betsy. Like Yuriko, Unhei and Yoon, Elizabeth has strongly linked her identity to her preferred version of her name.
Choi, Yangsook. The Name Jar. New York: Dragonfly Books, 2001. ISBN: 9780440417996