Title: The Name Jar
Author: Yangsook Choi
Publisher: Dragonfly Books; Reprint Edition
Publication Date: October 14, 2003
Audience: Ages 4-8
Summary: New year, new country, new school, the first day. Unhei ( Yoon-hye)is nervous and excited, but for assurance she carries with her the red pouch that her grandmother gave her as they said goodbye in Korea. In the pouch is a block of wood with her name written on it in Korean characters and an ink pad. The other children on the bus ask her name then make fun of it and mispronounce it. The welcome in her class is better but she tells them when they ask her name, “I haven’t picked one yet.” At home, when Unhei says she would like an American name, her mother reminds her of how carefully her name was chosen with the help of a Name Master. “It’s too different,” complains Unhei and her mother reminds her that she is different and “That’s a good thing.” Mr. Kim at the Korean market pronounces her name correctly and appreciates its beauty and meaning. The next morning at school there is a glass jar on her desk containing American names on slips of paper. The class wants to help her select a new name Her new friend, Joey, sees her name stamp and printed name and admires it. On the day that Unhei is to choose her American name, the name jar is missing. But by now Unhei chooses to keep her own name and Joey chooses a Korean name for himself that means “friend.” Joey brings the name jar to her home. He had taken it because he wanted her to choose her Korean name.
Literary elements at work in the story: The theme of this simple story is cultural differences from pronunciation to customs and family. The unappreciative children on the bus ridicule Unhei’s name (in part because they can’t pronounce it.) Unhei’s acceptance in her class room is almost immediate. Still we can feel how difficult it is for Unhei to be different even as she is reminded of the values of her Korean culture.. Yangsook Choi came to the US from Korea in 1991 and has produced an ALA Notable Book and an IRA Children’s Book Award winner.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? The cultural differences are a source of ridicule in one instance but are accepted and enjoyed in Unhei’s class. The teacher of this class (2nd grade?) is a man, Mr. Cocotos, possibly Japanese. Cultural differences are valued in several conversations.
Theological Conversation Partners: Three aspects of The Name Jar deserve our attention. Biblically, names are important. Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Peter all had their names changed to indicate who they were becoming. In baptism our names are said, marking us as Christ’s own. God knows Israel by name and calls Israel by name. (Is. 43: 1) Jesus was given two names in the gospels: Jesus, which means savior, and Emmanuel, which means God with us. Names represent our identity. There is value in helping children say their own names and the names of others clearly and respectfully, in practicing introduction. The second aspect is welcoming the stranger. The Hebrews are reminded that they were aliens and God gives special instructions about showing hospitality and care for them. (Ex.23:9 is one of many examples.) And the third is the diversity of God’s children. Each child, each culture has some richness and strength that we need to value and which will broaden our lives.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Have you ever gone to a new school and felt like Unhei, even though it is a school in your own country?
- Have you ever worried about being different? In some ways Unhei is like you then.
- Why do the children on the bus make fun of Unhei’s name?
- Unhei’s mother says that being different is good. Do you agree?
- What experiences helped Unhei appreciate her Korean name? Do you think she made a good choice in keeping her Korean name?
- Did you get to choose your name? Does it have a special meaning?
- What name do you share with every member of your church family?
- Have your tried to pronounce a name in another language?
- Is there someone in your school or neighborhood from another country? How can you welcome that person?
Alumna and regular contributor Virginia Thomas is our book reviewer this week.
The Name Jar by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.