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Teaching A Step from Heaven by An Na

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From the book jacket:
"I am looking for Harabugi all over Gomo's house. There are so many rooms. All of the floors are covered with a warm white blanket that is soft on my feet. And the rooms do not have rice paper doors but a big piece of wood like the stores in the village. Everyone in heaven must be very rich to have so many blankets and wooden doors inside the house.

"In this first novel, a young girl describes her family's bittersweet experience in the United States after their emigration from Korea. While going up and up into the sky on the flight from Korea to California, four-year-old Young Ju concludes that they are on their way to heaven--America is heaven! After they arrive, however, Young Ju and her parents and little brother struggle in their new world, weighed down by the difficulty of learning English, their insular family life, and the traditions of the country they left behind. An Na's striking language authentically reflects the process of acculturation as Young Ju grows from a child to an adult."

Challenge #1: Difficulty with Korean vocabulary and family relationships.

In many books where the characters speak another language, foreign words are translated. That is mostly the case in this book, but there are a few times when they are not, leading to possible confusion.


Discuss with students the reasons why an author may choose to include foreign words in a multicultural text. Before the discussion, check out the following journal article:

Intelligibility and Meaningfulness in Multicultural Literature in English
Reed Way Dasenbrock
PMLA, Vol. 102, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 10-19
This article consists of 10 page(s).
As new literatures in English emerge all over the world, literature in English is increasingly multicultural, but the criticism of these literatures has not fully come to terms with this multiculturalism. Specifically, a work read across cultures is likely to be at least partially unintelligible to some of its readers, and critics have seen this as a factor necessarily limiting the readership of these works. But intelligibility and meaningfulness are not synonymous. This essay analyzes moments of difficulty in four such multicultural texts, by Narayan, Kingston, Anaya, and Ihimaera, showing on Gricean lines that meaning can be created precisely by the struggle to make sense of the unintelligible. The work done in that process can lead to a deeper understanding of the text, and the reader who must do that work is therefore not excluded from a full understanding.

This article is available through JSTOR: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0030-8129%28198701%29102%3A1%3C10%3AIAMIML%3E2.0.CO%3B2-V&access=1&origin=JSTOR-accessOptions

or through a local or university library in hard copy form.

Vocabulary List:

It may be helpful to give students a vocabulary sheet with translated words or to have them find the translations online on their own. Here is a list of some of the untranslated words:

Apa - Father

Uhmma - Mother

Halmoni - Grandmother

Harabugi - Grandfather

Mi Gook - America

Gomo - Aunt

Uhn-nee - Sister

Ahjimma - Adult woman

San toki - This is a traditional Korean children's song, sung by Young Ju's grandmother. It is about a wild rabbit hopping around the forest

Sahmchun - Uncle

Hana, duool, seht, neht - One, two, three, four

Yuhboh - an affection term Young Ju's mother uses for her husband

Han Gook - Korea (a shorter version of Dae Han Min Gook, meaning the People's Republic of Korea

Adapted from the website: http://a-step-from-heaven.7th-grade-orp.jbnet.groupfusion.net/modules/groups/group_pages.phtml?gid=74098&nid=14544&sessionid=c2976ac99fb8844cbc9f1ae9efe917e3

At first, it is difficult to understand which character the narrator is referring to because of the Korean names associated with them. It may be helpful, after looking at the vocabulary above, to create a chart showing the relationships of all the characters as they appear in the story. Suggets students keep this near when reading and this should help students better understand what's going on in the story.

Challenge #2: Domestic violence

Although this book is written on a level that young children can understand, it does contain a lot of domestic violence. This might be something that would spark a controversy with the parents of your students and perhaps affect some students in class personally if this is the culture of their homelives. Teachers should be prepared for both situations.


The two most important things here are to understand your community and to have a careful discussion of the topic as you read. I think it is an important issue to address, but the context of that discussion should be age-appropriate. The teacher should evaluate the possible benefit versus parent backlash depending on the community.

This is an excellent resource that will help us better understand domestic violence and how to stop it.

This website gives some practical information about domestic violence and issues of immigration that may be helpful for students as they question the issues surrounding this problem.

Other resources that might be helpful in teaching this text:

This teachers' website contains practical teaching idea, along with potential lesson plans.

This librarian's blog contains helpful interpretation of the text as well as useful links, including a link to an interview with the author.

-Christy Yingling