There comes a time in every reader’s life when they stumble upon a book that moves them emotionally and intellectually, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi is that book for me. I was looking for a children’s literature book to use for my intermediate English language learner classes at Portland Adult Education in Maine. A learned colleague, Kathleen Hiscock, referred me to the book and the New Readers Program from the Maine Humanities Council. I was not disappointed.
The Name Jar tells the story of Unhei, a young Korean immigrant, who travels to the United States with her mother, father, and brother. Before departing for America, her grandmother gives her a red pouch that contains her name stamp, a symbol that will connect them though they are thousands of miles apart. Her grandmother writes from Korea, “Here the moon is up, but there the sun is up. No matter how far apart we are and no matter how different America is from Korea, you’ll always be my Unhei” (Choi, p.21).
Unhei (which means “grace” in English) is teased by children on her first day of school and decides that she needs her “own American name” in order to fit in with the other children. Of course, her mother disagrees and reaffirms the theme of acceptance. She tells Unhei that she should be proud of her name even if it is difficult to pronounce and even if it is “different” (Choi, p. 8).
Unhei begins to make friends. Mr. Kim the local Korean marketer is the first to welcome her to the neighborhood and becomes a grandfather figure; and Joey, a young, redheaded American boy, befriends Unhei. He likes her without knowing her name. It is after meeting Joey that a jar mysteriously appears on her desk filled with names from her classmates for her to select an “American” name.
Will Unhei change her name? What are the meanings of names? What does it mean to feel different? These are some of the questions posed by Unhei’s journey throughout the beautifully illustrated book.
I spent four weeks (classes met twice per week) teaching this book and it was a complete joy. I used a combination of reflective writing prompts, CLOZE exercises, cognition vocabulary dictionaries, and story mapping. My students ranged from 19-68 years old, and all enjoyed the story of an elementary aged girl seeking and finding acceptance and friendship in a new culture. I strongly recommend this book and hope it helps other educators and students make connections with the text and with their classmates. And perhaps, they will make a new chinku (Korean for friend).
–Farrah T. Giroux MS. Ed., CAS, is NNETESOL President-Elect and President/WIDA Certified Trainer of the English Language Institute, LLC. Antakya Choi, Yangsook. The name jar. 2001. Dragonfly Books:NY.