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The Name Jar

Title: The Name Jar

Author/Illustrator: Yangsook Choi

Age Group: 4-8

Synopsis: When Unhei moves to America she finds that her name is just one more thing that makes her different, while she ponders whether to change in order to fit in she finds that accepting yourself is a


The Low Down:

We use our names to introduce ourselves to the world. They can be armor or they can be an olive branch. Either way they are an integral part of how others view us and even how we view ourselves. Choosing your own name isn’t something many people get to do. The burden of implication, meaning, and association are all things new parents can relate to. I never thought that I’d have more than one name but when we moved to Taiwan I needed it not only to have a bank account and lease an apartment but to fit in. That being said, fitting in in Taiwan was difficult. People could spot me easily in a crowd, especially in the smaller town that we moved to. There was no blending in, no obscurity. However, I did feel accepted and included. People went out of their way to make me feel welcome, whether it was sharing a box of fruit or issuing invitations to dinner or local ceremonies. In the end, I didn’t use my Chinese name much. It appeared on my visa and the characters are some of the few that I can remember easily but it didn’t really define me. I already knew who I was and with the acceptance that I found in Taiwan I didn’t need to redefine myself. The Name Jar touches on this acceptance and even expands upon it, opening new possible avenues of discussion and understanding.

The readers follow Unhei (Yoon-hye) as she moves from Korea to America. Everything is unfamiliar and when the children on the school bus are confused about her name Unhei feels even more nervous about her first day. A friendly boy encourages her in class but she still doesn’t feel comfortable with her name and tells her classmates that she’ll choose an American name the following week. The students are more than willing to give her suggestions but when she shows them her name stamp from Korea they’re very impressed. In the end, she chooses to keep her name and her friend ends up asking for a Korean name and name stamp instead.

The value and sweetness of the tale really give it the strength it needs to make this an important read for children. Messages relating to cultural acceptance to self-worth to inclusion are all components that dot the pages, allowing the reader to take home a different message with each reading. The inner strength and peace that Unhei eventually finds is paired with soft, simple, and calming illustrations. Often the pictures have a smooth, child-like quality to them that while slightly unpolished is charming nonetheless. Choi draws on her own experiences and culture to make the story feel genuine and meaningful.

The Name Jar isn’t something that Bug can really relate to yet but it is something I’d like him to be aware of. The multitude of lessons available in the story and the way they are presented assure me that whether it is encouraging him to accept himself and find his own inner strength, to be a good friend to those who need it, or to learn about others before judging them he will have a good example to follow.We are not obligated to know everything about the world around us but showing an openness and kindness to those we don’t understand and who need support and acceptance are attributes that I hope to encourage in Bug. We can live such sheltered lives so that those with different names, clothes, and cultures can easily be viewed as strange or a threat. It is only when we learn and understand that we can create an environment that defuses ignorance and the danger that it can become.


Story Tips:

  1. There’s a pronunciation guide for Unhei on page 5 if you’d like to check it out before reading the story and avoid butchering Unhei’s name like I did the first time I read it through.
  2. The text can get quite long about halfway through. If little one’s get squirmy you can just paraphrase.
  3. This book presents a perfect opportunity to discuss the issues presented. Use it!

I need more!

Yangsook Choi has illustrated and written books mostly focusing on different cultures within Asia. Her works have been included on Reading Rainbow and listed as one of the Best of the Best by Chicago Public Library. For a full list of works: http://www.yangsookchoi.com/books/


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