Have you ever met a dynamic author who puts herself into her stories and illustrations? Well, we have. That author's name is Yangsook Choi, and we have read several of her books to learn about the author and how she crafts her stories. What we learned about Miss Choi is amazing—an encounter we will always remember!
Yangsook Choi was born in Seoul, South Korea. As a child, she lived with her mother, father, and two younger brothers. The oldest of three children, Yangsook often took care of her little brothers. Because of this, she learned to be responsible and caring at a very young age.
Proud of her cultural heritage, Yangsook loved to draw. She started drawing pictures at age 4. She can remember her parents—especially her father—pushing her to work hard in school and be a good student instead of doing art. Her family's desire did not stop her from drawing. At times she would squeeze herself into a quiet place or would hide inside a closet to draw. For many years, she kept her dream of wanting to draw tucked away in her heart. Not until she moved to the United States and became a college senior at age 24, did she let her parents know that she truly wanted to be an artist. Her parents were still not happy with her career choice, but Yangsook persevered, and in our opinion, it was the best thing she ever did!
Many of the stories Miss Choi has written are about the experiences of Korean people or about Korean traditions.
"In The Sun Girl and Moon Boy,"
she noted, "I used the tiger as a character that symbolized evil. Long, long ago, Siberian Tigers lived in Korea. They had big frames, long fur, and good looking faces, but people were afraid of the tigers. Fortunately, I was never chased by a tiger. That's probably why I'm living to tell stories, but people liked to tell and hear scary stories about them."
We were curious to know if the author wrote Korean folktales and realistic fiction stories because her parents or grandparents told her these types of stories. "Actually, it was the opposite," she responded. "I told stories to my grandmother, and she enjoyed hearing them. My grandmother lived two hours away from our family, and most of the time, she was the only one who listened to my stories. I told many folktales to her whenever she visited us. I would tell her real old stories about a sweet faithful bird or Korean ghosts and many other stories. The stories came from my imagination."
Yangsook shared that at times, things she has done in her life influenced the way she builds the setting or characters in a story. "Like the children in The
Sun Girl and The Moon Boy
she noted, "I didn't always obey my parents when they requested something of me. Many times, I made my own decisions and did things my own way. Sometimes, I learned great lessons when I did not obey. I made mistakes, but I also learned that my parents had my best interest in heart."
Yangsook grew up in a culture where people believe that ancestors watch over and protect loved ones who are still living. Because of that awareness, she was able to weave that knowledge into her story. Miss Choi added that although she never lived near a deep, dark woods like the scene depicted in my Sun Girl, Moon Boy, she has gone to a graveyard in a deserted mountain town at one o'clock at night. "My friends and I hiked up that mountain all during the day to get to that graveyard," she noted. "Because of that, I experienced what it feels like to be in a spooky setting, AND BOY WAS I SCARED!" Our class decided that there is no way we would have visited a graveyard past midnight, but because she did, Yangsook Choi sure knew how to create spooky settings in
Sun Girl and Moon Boy
Behind the Mask!
Our research revealed that Yangsook Choi was already a grown woman when she first came to America. Unlike Unhei in the story
The Name Jar
Yangsook did not experience being teased because of language differences. "That's where using one's imagination comes in," the author shared, noting that when she exhausts ideas, she writes stories based on the experiences other people she has met or known.
We noticed that the name of the main character in
was Yangsook. The little girl took charge and used her brain when she had a problem. Unhei was also thoughtful of others. We discovered that the author grew up in a small town at the bottom of a hill that had many peach orchards. We wondered if the story was true. "Yes, it was a true story," Miss Choi revealed, "except the end part where the kids gathered fallen peaches and returned them to the orchards. That's the only part that was fictional." Most of us guessed the part where Yangsook tied the peaches back onto the trees had to be from her imagination. We're glad she shared this information with us because a few kids in our class said they were going to try to fasten pieces of fruit onto some tree branches!
Yangsook Choi also revealed that she creates many of her children's books based on things she remembers from her childhood along with the way she felt because of those experiences. "When I first heard the folktale
The Sun Girl and Moon Boy
I thought about how excited and scared captivated I felt when I listened to it. I was anxious for the boy and the girl in the story to be saved from the danger, that's because I prefer to write stories that have a positive ending. Whenever you face danger, I hope you remember that the danger is not the end of your story. There's always that overcoming climax waiting to turn your story around."
Yangsook embraces diversity through her stories. We evidenced that when we read
Behind the Mask
The Name Jar
"Learning from one another is one way to help build relationships and community in our multicultural world," she noted. I think it's so fun that we are created in diversity. And my job is to celebrate that with my stories. That's why we love Yangsook Choi. She creates wonderful books!
Yangsook had not yet responded to all of the inquiries my students had asked her at the time of this writing. As a result, my third graders will follow up doing additional, detailed biographies based on responses received specifically regarding
Behind the Mask
. In the meantime, the children collectively crafted this wonderful biographic snapshot. They brainstormed in small groups and convened to discuss vocabulary, use of descriptive words and phrases, and dialogue to bring the biography to life; input was provided across abilities levels. I served only as a facilitator, guiding them to be mindful of organization and fluency. Note that the tone and style of this writing effort differed significantly from Vaughn's autographic sketch. Nevertheless, the students made use of the author's storybook creations to convey their perception of Yangsook Choi as a creative, persevering, comedic, compassionate, global, and gregarious artist willing to share her talent and know–how with others.