Halmoni and the Picnic by Sook Nyul Choi, illustrated by Karen Dugan

An understanding friend gifted me with this book in my twenties. I wish I could have read it when I was five or six.

Yunmi lives in New York City with her beloved Halmoni (grandmother), who has recently immigrated from Korea. Halmoni is lonely and homesick and reluctant to speak English, so Yunmi’s school friends invite her to chaperon their class picnic in Central Park. Except that Halmoni insists on making a whole bunch of Korean kimbap for the class to eat. And Yunmi is worried that her bologna-sandwich-eating classmates will make fun of her.

The ending is predictably happy, but not cloyingly so. You can tell that Halmoni still has a loooong way to go before she’ll begin to feel comfortable in America. And there are so many “life lessons” in this book for younger primary school kids that I hardly know where to start. Isolation of elderly immigrants! Unconventional family structures! (Halmoni is the primary caregiver and Yunmi’s parents are nowhere to be seen, probably working their asses off at some corner store.) And above all, the simple truth that children of immigrants will always feel self-conscious about their family’s cultural differences, even in multiculch Manhattan.

The drawings by Karen Dugan are colourful and charming, with careful attention to details like Halmoni’s hanbok, Yumni’s calligraphy materials, and their ethnically diverse neighbourbood.

Reading Age: 4-6

Rating: B+

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