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Multicultural Literature for Youth

Asian Pac. Am. Lit #3
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Park, Linda Sue. 1999. Seesaw Girl. Illustrated by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN: 0-395-91514-7.

 

Set in 17th century Korea, Seesaw Girl tells the story of 12-year old Jade Blossom, the daughter of a noble family. Wealthy girls and women have very limited lives.  They are confined to the Inner Courts of their spacious homes, which they leave only to attend weddings and funerals or to move to their new husband’s home. Jade Blossom is curious about the wider world, and she listens rapturously to her older brother’s tales of the market, the mountains, and the King’s court. When her young aunt and best friend, Graceful Willow, marries and leaves the household, Jade decides to secretly visit her. The results are disastrous, but Jade gets a satisfying taste of the real world, seeing beauty, poverty, and foreigners.  With her mother’s help, “Jade discovers that creativity and imagination are powerful tools that can provide comfort and internal freedom” (Booklist, 1999).

 

Park’s well-written story provides a detailed view into the culture and daily life of 17th century Korean aristocrats. The story is well-researched; Park concludes with a long Author’s Note and a bibliography. Our heroine is a believable, three-dimensional character.  Park even adds complexity and depth to the main secondary characters, although readers do not know them well. The Tsengs’ pleasing, black and white illustrations complement and enhance the text, and they help readers visualize dress and environmental details that are unclear or unavailable in the text. Rosenfeld writes, “The lovely, delicate illustrations detail traditional clothing, architecture, and decorative arts for visualization and context” (Booklist, 1999).

 

The text and illustrations are rich with cultural markers. Park and the Tsengs address names, facial features, skin color (on the cover), hair styles, dress, the extended family, ceremonies, food, daily activities, general lifestyle for the rich and poor, art objects, games, interior architecture, religion, and forms of address. They do not address language/dialect or music. Jade Blossom wears one long braid that flows down her back, while her mother wears a bun. Both wear long dresses and Jade wears a type of pantaloons under her dress. Jade’s family, who all lived in the same complex, consists of her mother, father, two brothers, an aunt, three uncles, their wives, and their children. At Graceful Willow’s wedding, she wears an intricate wedding headdress, and the groom brings a goose that sits quietly on a table. Jade’s day is spent doing embroidery, sewing garments, pounding the wash, and playing games such as “yut.”

 

This book is highly recommended for ages 8-12. Reluctant readers in upper elementary grades will find this a good choice. Students will be amazed to learn about the constricted lives of females in that period, and teachers may want to pair this book with others that show the historical and multicultural roles of women.