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Interview: Q&A with Yangsook Choi

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The Name Jar

The Name Jar
by the award winning author and illustrator, Yangsook Choi.
It's a story of Korean names, friendship, and love.
Yangsook Choi

A name stamp is only a name stamp, right? Wait until you read The Name Jar, a touching story about a little girl from Korea and her quest of adopting a new American name. Created by the award winning author and illustrator, Yangsook Choi, The Name Jar is a story of friendship and love. After reading the book, I felt impacted emotionally by it, and I appreciate my own special adopted Chinese name and the name stamp more than ever.

Interview by Sheila J. Lindal

Good Characters: First, please tell us about The Name Jar.

Yangsook Choi: It is Unhei's first day at school in America. Her family has just moved from Korea. Unhei feels awkward about her name after some teasing by a few American kids on the school bus. Unhei is a beautiful name and it means grace but when she reaches her classroom and is asked her name, she tells her classmates that she has not yet decided on one. The next day she finds a glass jar on her desk, which her classmates fill in with their suggestions. What name will she choose? Evry, Miranda or Daisy? Before she chose a name for herself, the jar disappeared. (I don't want to give out the ending...)

GC: You grew up in Seoul, Korea and then moved to this country. Is The Name Jar an expression of your own emotions and experiences of America?

Choi: In some ways, probably, yes. Surely, it was not my intention. One day my editor asked me to write up a story based on an experience that a designer at the same publishing house had when she was in elementary school. A new girl came from China and wanted a new name. So, I started from there. Rather than placing Unhei with unfriendly friends throughout I gave her supportive classmates who were diverse in their opinions so that she faced an inner conflict and struggle.

GC: How do the characters in The Name Jar compare with those in your own life?

Choi: Since I came to the States as a grown-up I never got teased about anything I had as a Korean. People do pronounce my name wrong once in a while, but often times they are pretty good at saying it right. When I first came to Michigan to go to an art school my very new relationships with people there were very warm and positive. They made sure to invite me for a warm dinner on every holiday, and they asked tons of questions to get to know me and my Korean culture better. (American Christmas and birthdays are the best: I get Christmas presents here and will continue to get them but only children get Christmas presents in Korea. People take you out for your birthday. In Korea the birthday person takes people out.) A couple of friends were amazed when I showed them my name stamp. It's natural that I created very welcoming classmates for Unhei.

GC: Yangsook sounds like a really pretty name. Andy told me that his Mom's name has the Sook character. Please tell us more about your name. Who named you? What does it mean? Is there special significance of it for you?

Choi: Each syllable in Korean name means something. Yangsook was created by my father, and my mom had something else in mind but they went for my father's choice. 'Yang' means sweet and nice, 'sook' clear and pure. My last name, 'Choi' means high. I like what my name means but never liked the sound of it. It's definitely not a savvy name. There were times when I felt sorry that I was stuck with it, although, I began to value it gradually, since I left Korea. It's like finding a way back home because I had left home.

GC: Do you have other names?

Choi: Rachel is my other name. Some people call me by Yangsook, some Rachel and some both. I always love diversity and variety in things. I am glad that I can have two names. If you mix red and blue it becomes purple. Having grown up in Korea and spent 12 years in the States I feel as if I am a purple.

GC: Who was your target audience for this book? What would you like your readers to learn from The Name Jar or about you, as the author?

Choi: Children who are 5 and up. A story is an experience. So, through Unhei's experience it would be wonderful if The Name Jar could suggest a positive approach for children who live in a multicultural world.

GC: Are there any plans for a sequel or related stories in progress?

Choi: No more stories on a jar, maybe a story about a plastic bag? I like to create something new and different each time. I am writing a new story right now, but I have no idea what I'll write about after that.

GC: Thank you, Yangsook, for sharing your insights and inspirations behind The Name Jar with us. Best wishes for your future endeavors.

Choi: Thank you so much.


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