Vintage Reviews from 2006: Behind the Mask by Yangsook Choi
Folks, I’ve been in this game a while. You want to know how long? Well, today I decided that the best way to celebrate Halloween would be to find a blog post from the very first year that I started out. That year: 2006. Thirteen years ago I was a children’s librarian at the Jefferson Market Branch of New York Public Library. Blogging had been talked up in a recent School Library Journal article, and I wanted to try my hand at it. So, on October 31, 2006 I wrote five blog posts in a single day on my Blogger site. Because that is what people in their 20s without children can do, apparently. Just blog and blog and blog and devil take the consequences!
Out of curiosity I wanted to see if, somewhere in the midst of those five posts, I did any book reviews that day. I did and I was pleasantly surprised by the choice. Perhaps better known today for The Name Jar, Yangsook Choi’s Korean American take on Halloween was an #ownvoices title that, sadly, is out of print today. SLJ called it “evocative”, PW called it “satisfying”, and Horn Book Guide (which probably means it was Peter Sieruta) said, “The muted autumnal illustrations move seamlessly between depictions of traditional Korean culture and those of modern-day America, invoking both solemnity and humor.”
Here then, is a second life for an old review. A fascinating exercise for me, since my writing style has changed a bit over the years:
Behind the Mask
By Yangsook Choi
Farrar Straus and Giroux
On shelves now
Around early October, children’s booksellers and librarians perform synchronized shudders as an influx of bad Halloween titles swamp bookshelves everywhere. You can’t get away from them. Will the parents walk off with the repugnant tale of a little witch who just wants to be loved or something ironically saccharine involving a boy who learns to share his candy? Whatever the case, the sheer piles of Halloween-inspired dreck is heady. With that in mind, a book like Yangsook Choi’s, Behind the Mask comes across as a breath of fresh air in the midst of all this garbage. Choi tells a measured tale of a boy’s wish to have the best and scariest costume for Halloween and throws in a good measure of Korean history and culture along the way. Consider this book the antidote to all the colorful, horrible Halloween books that end up clogging the kiddies’ brains.
Kimin has a problem. A Halloween problem. He has no idea what to dress up as this year, and his mom isn’t being much help. All she’s done is suggest that he look through his grandfather’s old belongings stuffed away in two heavy boxes. Kimin is aware that his grandfather was once a famous dancer in Korea, but he’s just uncovered a hitherto buried memory from when he was younger. When he was very little, Kimin spied on his grandfather late one night, only to find that the beloved relative had transformed his own face into something horrific. Now, going through the old boxes, Kimin discovers a scary mask that is EXACTLY the face the boy thought he saw that night. Now everything is clear for Kimin, and better still, he’s found his new costume. His choice of disguise comes off as a hit with the other kids, but when Kimin accidentally bruises his family’s priceless heirloom it’s his mother he’ll have to explain everything to in the end.
Choi makes certain to end her book with a useful Author’s Note at the back, explaining fully what a Talchum, or mask dance, really is. Now I’m not entirely certain why great Korean-American picture books are more plentiful than picture books from many other cultures these days. Maybe it’s just my own perception, but when you’ve such high quality titles like Linda Sue Park’s, The Firekeeper’s Son and Bee Bim Bop alongside, The Have a Good Day Cafe, by Frances and Ginger Park, you begin to take notice. This is by no means Choi’s first book for children, but for those of us who are unfamiliar with her work, it makes for an ideal introduction. The story itself is intriguing. I was particularly interested in Kimin’s repressed memories of seeing his masked grandfather and how that played into the plot. The last image in this book is of the boy asleep under the formerly “scary” mask, which gives the story a lasting feel of comfort. For me, the illustrations were touch and go. Some of them, like Kimin staring longingly out his window on a dark creepy night, have a wonderful tone and feeling to them. Others, like group shots of children on the playground, come across as two-dimensional and flat. By and large these illustrations carry the story along well (though my husband pointed out the Charlie Brown-ish shirt on the cover as a touch distracting).
For those amongst you who might want to pair this title with another dance inspired picture book, consider, Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin by Michelle Lord. Both books use similar illustration styles, but while one speaks of traditional Korean dance, the other concentrates on the dancing style of young girls in Thailand. The two together would make for an eclectic storytime. Original, interesting, and fun, this book is bound to garner itself some well-deserved attention.
On shelves now.
I wanted to see what Yangsook Choi was up to these days, and certainly her website is up and running without difficulty. This book was the last picture book she published, but I was very happy to see that in 2018 she created a TED Talk as well. Here then is that talk. Enjoy:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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