Na, An. A Step from Heaven. 2001. New York: Speak-Penguin Putnam, 2002. Print.
As a four year-old, Young Ju’s experience of immigrating with her parents is confusing, especially since they have left her grandmother behind in Korea. When her brother Joon Ho is born shortly after their arrival, Young Ju is disrupted again, as a son is more important to her father than a daughter. As she grows up and learns English in the United States, she experiences the strain between cultures and the relationship between her parents disintegrates. Young Ju and Joon both lie to their parents in order to spend time with their American friends. One day, her father catches her in a lie about her friend Amanda, and he delivers a beating to Young Ju and then her mother that ultimately changes all of their lives.
Korea and Southern California, contemporary time period.
Point of View:
1st person (Young Ju)
Immigration, culture shock, domestic abuse, gender roles, coming of age, identity.
An Na convincingly portrays the simple voice of a young child, showing the passage of time through her development of language. As Young Ju ages, we see the growing complexity of her family’s dynamics in her narration. Her emotions are vividly described and we as readers share in her joy and pain. An Na was honored with the Printz Award, the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, National Book Award Finalist and multiple others for this, her first novel.
The author, like her characters, was also an immigrant to the United States from Korea. She contrasts Korean and American culture through the family’s experiences with adapting to the change, especially in regards to gender roles and respect of elders. The inclusion of Korean words and sounds at the beginning of the book are a beautiful reflection of how language sounds to a young English Language Learner. She also uses the Korean terms for the adult family members throughout the entire book.
This book would most appeal to a young adult audience. Middle schoolers might also be interested, though the abstract use of language to portray a four year-old Korean child at the beginning might be a bit overwhelming for some. Readers with some prior knowledge of the Korean immigrant experience and/or Korean culture will also identify with this book.
I was awestruck by the genius use of language to portray aging, language development and acculturation in the main character. It was so impressive to me to be able to infer Young Ju’s age through her words without needing a lot of other contextual markers (like grades in school). I also smiled ruefully at the introduction of her little brother as the new “prince” in her family, as some of my Korean immigrant friends have told me similar stories of their brothers when they were growing up. This was short, but powerful, book that dealt with some tough issues in a strong and empowering way. It was frustrating at times to see Young Ju and her mother feel caught, but the resolution was satisfying. I was glad to feel as though it would work out for them and that they finally had their feet at the end.