Linda Sue Park, Seesaw Girl (Houghton Mifflin
Linda Sue Park, The Kite Fighters (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000)
Linda Sue Park, The Firekeeper's Son (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004)
The Kite Fighters, Seesaw Girl and The Firekeeper's Son, by Linda Sue Park, are three stories for children set in an ancient Korea that really was.
In The Kite Fighters, tensions between an older brother (Kee-sup), a younger brother (Young-sup), and their father (Lee) are underscored by the character of a fatherless boy-emperor, and brought to light by the kites hinted at it in the title. Ms. Park never says too much; certainly not about the fascinating kites Kee-sup makes, Young-sup flies, and the boy-emperor is drawn from his gardens for. Both her writing and storytelling is subtle and fine; she shows and tells only what is necessary to create an authentic setting for her characters to move within. Her voice is a truthful one, not only about a time most of us aren't familiar with but about the way kids feel and why they do the things they do, as well. The Kite Fighters was a good book with a simplicity that belies how multi-faceted the tale really is. The plot was predictable and there were no great surprises, but the descriptions of kite-making and competing were enthralling, and the Young-sup so likable that the predictability didn't register as a bad thing. A younger reader would be kept in suspense and children between the ages of nine and thirteen are the ones most likely to enjoy this book. The Kite Fighters is a graceful, self-contained book to return to with a remembrance worthy final image that deserves mention, simply for its beauty.
I wouldn't mind going to the park and flying a kite about now, either.
Seesaw Girl is something entirely different. In Korea girls were not allowed to leave their homes. They kept to the inner rooms and the inner gardens until they married, at which time they were taken in procession to the home of their husbands which would be the new measure of their world for the rest of their lives. Where The Kite Fighters is a coming-of-age story with a happy ending, Seesaw Girl is bittersweet. The tale focuses less on inter-character relationships and more on one girl coming to terms with her life, alone, and what she must sacrifice to do so. It's the story that will linger in the mind the longest of the three books I'll deal with in this review, and it is worth the price of admittance. Once again, Ms. Park demonstrates that she can conjure a character, with a few graceful, unadorned sentences, so honestly real that the character becomes larger than the sum of her struggles. Jade is a flesh-and-blood girl only masquerading as ink-and-paper. Whereas there were few surprises in The Kite Fighters, Seesaw Girl did surprise me; perhaps that's why it feels like it will be remembered the longest.
Seesaw Girl has illustrations which, despite the cover, look little enough like said cover a fact which I was glad for. The cover is oversimplified, a style which doesn't suit Linda Sue Park's elegant simplicity, and in both the Seesaw Girl and The Firekeeper's Son I found myself wondering what might have been gained by illustrations that drew on traditional Korean art forms. That said, the few illustrated images (by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng) in Seesaw Girl were lovely. They are charcoal, in gentle black and whites, smooth lines and vivid strokes that render the figures expressive in all of their moods.
The Firekeeper's Son is a storybook aimed at children between the ages of four and eight. However, the historical detail Ms. Park imbues her story with would make it an appropriate read to a middle-school class as an opening for a unit on Korea. "We live in an important village," Sang-hee's father said. Sound familiar?
Sang-hee, the firekeeper's son, has listened to stories about the great responsibility his father carries; how the fires have been lit on every night, without fail, for three generations. In the early 1800's Korea had in place a warning system a fire-keeper would light the fire on his mountain which set off the signal on the next mountain (and so on and so on) until the King's city itself saw the fires burning on the mountains. Instead of a burning call for aid, the fires burning through the night were a sign that all was well in the land. If for some reason the first fire should go unlit, then the second would stay unlit, and so on until the King saw the dark mountains and sent his soldiers to the sea. (This is, as Ms. Park explains in her note at the end of the book, a slight oversimplification of the system, but it does the job.)
The Firekeeper's Son is about the weight of wanting a test of both character and trust. It's a nice bed-time story; I'd have no qualms about reading it to my own children. Julie Downing's illustrations, while not a style I prefer in illustration, suit the story well and worthy of admiration is the way the flames glow on the page, in the eyes of the child, and the child himself: rendered in warm detail. The images are simple, colorful and smooth; they complement Ms. Park's style well. My favorite was the cover illustration: the boy staring at flames, while they dance in his warm brown eyes, while in the flames soldiers of fire battle. The soldiers are worked so skillfully into the flames, in this image, that it was a surprise to see them the second or third time I glanced at the cover.
There are certain qualities that Linda Sue Park reliably displays in her works: veracity of character, simplicity of telling, authenticity of detail and elasticity of (her) ability. All of her stories are multi-layered, and reveal the complexity of the issues afflicting the characters without drawing attention away from the force of their story. These are not one-dimensional or even two-dimensional stories; they breathe. Her skill in this way is almost invisible; the way it should be.
Perhaps because her stories are enclosed stories (they do not deal with great historical events, although in Seesaw Girl the heroine glimpses a great historical event, nor are they exciting action-filled adventures) they work together very well. The Firekeeper's Son is about a peasant father and son who live by the sea; the first line of defense against threats from the sea, where, Ms. Park tells us, trouble often came for Korea. Seesaw Girl is about a bright and intelligent little girl of the aristocratic class whose world is measured by the walls of her rooms. The Kite Fighters is about two sons of a merchant in the capital city, what their position dictates for them, and what their skills and desires dictate for them instead. Each book deals in a very specific and very different sphere of influence. Details carry over from work to work and weave, like threads, into a richer picture of this other world. I've come away from the books with new facts under my hat; children will too. At the end of each novel, Ms. Park includes bibliographies as well as historical notes to place the facts into the context of fiction; thanks necessary.
Less recommended, perhaps, is The Firekeeper's Son, if only because Ms. Park's style suits the longer (87 and 136 pages, respectively) books better. Perhaps they are not must reads, but they are unlikely to be regretted reads. Any of these books would be a nice addition to the shelf, whether gifted to burgeoning readers or hoarded for old hands.