Wednesday, March 19, 2014

From Marmee's Library: Seesaw Girl by Linda Sue Park

In recent years, Linda Sue Park has become one of my favorite writers. I was going to say “writers for children,” because she does indeed write for children, but in point of fact, I think she has become one of my favorite writers period.

I first encountered her 2002 Newbery award winning A Single Shard. Set in 12th century Korea, it tells the story of Tree-ear, an orphan who longs to become a potter. As I wrote in my review of the book back in 2010: “This kind of work is story-telling at its finest, lean and gentle, filled with adventure but also with grace.” It’s about as pitch-perfect as a novel can be.

I’ve gone on to read a number of Park’s other novels and picture books, and my daughter, now eleven, has read a few I haven’t yet, but recently we discovered and read together Park’s very first novel, Seesaw Girl, published in 1999.

This is another gentle but moving tale told in Park’s clean, clear prose. Its 17 chapters cover only 90 pages, which include some beautiful black and white illustrations by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng as well as an author’s note to further detail some of the Korean customs and settings. The book is set during the 17th century, about midway through the Choson period (which lasted from 1300-1880) in Korea. It tells the story of a young, aristocratic girl named Jade Blossom whose father is an advisor to the king.

As a reader, I was immediately pulled into the details of the place and time. Jade Blossom is a likable protagonist, the kind of young girl that many young girls will likely relate to. She plays pranks on her older brother and enjoys giggling with her young aunt and best friend Graceful Willow. She enjoys art, especially (at story’s beginning) the careful, decorative embroidery she is learning to do, but she’s not overly fond of chores, especially the complex processes involved in laundry day.

Beyond the universal likability of the character, however, there are the specific details of her circumstances. Jade Blossom lives the kind of protected life that most contemporary girls in the West will have a hard time fathoming. She is not allowed to leave the “Inner Court” of her family’s home. Since they are well-to-do, the home complex is fairly large, which means the Inner Court includes some outdoor spaces, such as the garden. So “she’s not like Rapunzel,” as my eleven year old put it.

Not quite locked in a tower, no, but still she must live within some very strict traditional constraints. These become more challenging for her as the narrative moves on, especially after Willow gets married. She essentially loses all opportunity to see Willow, since a new bride belongs almost exclusively to her husband’s family. The attempt to break tradition and go to Willow’s new home results in Jade Blossom’s first experience of the wider world outside her inner court. That experience inspires her to some complex feelings and questions.

As a writer, I appreciate, as always, the tidiness of Park’s prose. Tidy is the word I tend to think of when I read such tight, well-crafted writing.

I also appreciate the complexity of Jade Blossom’s characterization. Park must have walked a delicate line between the specific and the universal, wanting to be true to the time and place and those restraints that a character in Jade’s position would have really lived under, and yet wanting to craft a character who would resonate with readers now. I think she succeeds admirably, without falling into the mistake of making her too contemporary, but pulling on traits that somehow do feel believably universal.

It’s hard not to imagine that at least some of the girls of Jade’s status and time did not feel some level of curiosity, discontent, frustration, and anger. This must have been true even when they understood that this was just “how things were done,” and that they were done because their families wanted to cherish and protect their daughters. I like the way Park uses the distant mountains to symbolize Jade’s longings for a wider world. (It reminds me a little of the way I’m using the ocean in my work-in-progress, where my character lives in a small, land-locked country hemmed in by warring peoples on either side. In fact, Park’s delicate use of the mountains is helping me think through how I want to work the ocean more into my own story.)

With all that said, there is something about Seesaw Girl that feels like a first novel. It’s beautifully written on every level, and yet there is less lyricism in the prose and perhaps a little less development of the secondary characters than in Park’s later work, especially A Single Shard. I always think writers must feel frustrated when people compare an early book to a later masterpiece though, and I don’t mean anything denigrating by the comparison. It just somehow encourages me, as a writer, to know that Linda Sue Park had things to learn as a storyteller too.

As a teacher and parent, I am delighted by all the good takeaways from this novel. There is richness to be found here in history studies, literary studies, and character qualities.

History: this novel can enrich your young learner’s understanding of Korea in late-medieval-edging-into-early-modern times. So often, students don’t learn much about the Eastern world in the early history years. Even if you’re using a world history curriculum like Story of the World, information about Korea is pretty thin.

Seesaw Girl would fit right in with the information Susan Wise Bauer shares about Chinese influence in Korea in chapter 9 of SOTW Volume 2: The Middle Ages. In fact, it might be interesting to point out why Linda Sue Park intentionally chose the name Jade Blossom. As she says in this great interview: “At that time, Korea was a satellite state of China, and among the aristocracy or the nobility, the idea was to create a culture and a lifestyle within your home that was as Chinese as possible. I named the main character "Jade Blossom," which is a much more Chinese-sounding name than a Korean name because that's what wealthy families (like hers) at the time were doing.”

My daughter found it so unfair that Jade Blossom had not even been taught to read, when her brother Tiger Heart had so many academic opportunities. That point may be a great opening for discussion of illiteracy and educational opportunities for girls and women around the world, not to mention a cause for gratitude for the learning opportunities many of us take for granted.

The Peabody Essex Museum has provided this interesting social studies and art unit inspired by Seesaw Girl. 

Literature: The conflict in the novel is worth discussing. Jade Blossom is clearly the protagonist, but who or what is the antagonist? Although the rules of the household are strict and Jade Blossom is supposed to adhere to them, Park’s sensitive portrayal of Jade’s parents means that they are not precisely antagonists. (Get your students to think through how and in what ways Jade’s mother and father support and help her.)

It’s really cultural expectations that block Jade Blossom from what she most wants, and those are not easy to overcome. In fact, the narrative subtly raises the idea that perhaps sometimes there are things in life (like family honor and obedience) that may be as or more important than getting exactly what we want, even if what we long for is good. That leads us right into the next learning reservoir….

Character Qualities: There are really two virtues or qualities that stand out to me in this novel: contentment and creativity-within-limits. Jade wants many things that her limitations seem to block her from having: time with her Aunt Willow, freedom of movement, understanding of the wider world (both natural and cultural/political), and more complex artistic expression (she wants to learn how to paint, typically a male pursuit, and not just embroider, a woman’s more usual art).

By the end of the novel, she has not achieved all of these things, but she has taken small but creative steps, still working within the confines of her situation, toward more freedom. We see that in the way her father satisfies her curiosity about the political situation in the palace, in the way her brother Tiger encourages her painting skills, in her poignant conversation with her mother about a woman’s place in the household, and in her own ingenuity as she invents the seesaw game that allows her fleeting but real glimpses of the faraway mountains. Jade has not flouted her parents’ authority or eschewed cultural traditions to get her way, but she has found a respectful way forward that honors authority and tradition and yet enables her to grow and learn. It may not feel like enough for readers accustomed the bold and empowered characters of modern fiction, but it feels authentic to the story, and I think it has a lot to teach our contemporary, restless sensibilities.


Erin said...

A wonderful review of what sounds like a lovely story. I have yet to read anything by Park, but I am eager to do so!

pestyside said...

This is beautiful. I might, occasionally, place links to reviews of friends in my announcements.


Beth said...

Erin, I think you would really like her. She's the kind of writer you can trust so completely that anything you pick up by her is a fine place to start.

I think I said here that A Single Shard was my introduction to her work, but now that I'm thinking back, it may have been her book Keeping Score. I tend to gravitate toward baseball books. :)

Beth said...

Carol, I'm glad you liked it! I think I'm going to enjoy tailoring reviews this way...