When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park is set in occupied Korea during World War II. It follows a brother and sister as the Japanese inflict more and more hardships.
The story itself didn’t blow me away, but the history was a perspective I knew nothing about. I don’t know much about Korean history, so it was fascinating to get this glimpse.
Much of the World War II story we get is the brutality of the Nazis. I’ve heard some about Japanese soldiers, but this viewpoint is more from a civilian point of view as Korea has been occupied by Japan for more than 30 years. The story chronicles many of the ways the Japanese tried to eliminate Korean culture, including banning the language and writing, forced renaming of citizens and even uprooting and burning the national tree of Korea.
The Japanese were working to homogenize their empire, crush the spirit of any resistance and wipe out any unique identifiers that Koreans could take pride in.
With this backdrop it becomes painfully obvious how offensive it is when non-Asians treat all Asians with a broad brush, confusing Koreans for Japanese for Chinese and then dismissing it all as meaningless.
When Julia and her friend Patrick team up on a state fair project, Julia is disappointed that the silkworm project is too Korean. She wants to do something more American.
Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (author of A Long Walk to Water) is a simple story that touches on race and identity, but doesn’t drown in them. It’s an internal debate for Julia, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. It’s actually refreshing to see her struggle with difficult questions, ask some awkward questions, and move on. It’s not one of these depressing novels about the horrors of institutional racism. It’s about everyday struggles, everyday problems.
That makes it a lot more relatable.
What’s weird about Project Mulberry is the between-chapter dialogues between Julia and Linda Sue Park, the author. The character and the author actually have a conversation. They talk about how the story is going, what Julia likes and doesn’t like, etc.
It’s a fun concept and an interesting way to teach kids about the writing process. But I’m not sure if it works. I felt kind of ambivalent about it, and it seems if something like that is going to work it really needs to be a positive addition to the book.