The Barnes & Noble Review
In a stunning novel debut honored with the Michael J. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults, writer An Na tells the story of a Korean family that immigrates to California in search of a better life, only to find that the American Dream is harder to achieve than they thought. Told through the eyes of Young Ju, who is a preschooler when the book begins and a young woman heading off to college by the time it ends, A Step from Heaven is a moving and sometimes painful tale about cultural differences, family dynamics, and the struggle to survive.
As little Young Ju's plane leaves Korea and climbs high into the sky, she thinks she is headed for heaven. In a way, so do her parents, who believe that America will offer them big opportunities and a more heavenly lifestyle. But life is much harder than they anticipate, and both of Young Ju's parents must work multiple jobs just to make ends meet while they share a house with relatives. Disillusioned and ashamed, Young Ju's father tries to drown the harsh realities of his life in liquor, eventually descending into a pit of alcoholism that turns him emotionally and physically abusive.
Though the family as a unit doesn't adapt well, Young Ju adjusts quickly and soon excels in school. But the shame of her family's poverty and her father's worsening alcoholism leads to several lies and cover-ups that prevent her from ever fully embracing her new life. Caught between two cultures and increasingly isolated by the growing tension within her family, Young Ju eventually finds herself at a crossroads, forced to make a decision that will likely tear her family apart.
A Step from Heaven is an insightful, enriching read that should appeal to teens and young adults on many levels. An Na tells the story through a series of vignettes, using poetic prose and well-drawn characters. And Young Ju's wonderfully engaging voice is a perfect match for the family's evolving reality, ranging from the starry-eyed wonder she has as a toddler to the quiet but hopeful reflectiveness she expresses as a young adult. (Beth Amos)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her mesmerizing first novel, Na traces the life of Korean-born Young Ju from the age of four through her teenage years, wrapping up her story just a few weeks before she leaves for college. The journey Na chronicles, in Young's graceful and resonant voice, is an acculturation process that is at times wrenching, at times triumphant and consistently absorbing. Told almost like a memoir, the narrative unfolds through jewel-like moments carefully strung together. As the book opens, Young's parents are preparing to move from Korea to "Mi Gook," America, where the residents all "live in big houses." Soaring through the sky on her first airplane ride, the child believes she is on her way to heaven, where she hopes to meet up with her deceased grandfather and eventually be reunited with her beloved grandmother, who has stayed behind. After the family's arrival, Young's American uncle dispels the notion that the United States is heaven, yet adds, "Let us say it is a step from heaven." It doesn't take the girl or her parents very long to realize how steep this step is. From her first sip of Coca-Cola, which "bites the inside of my mouth and throat like swallowing tiny fish bones," Young's new life catches her in a tug-of-war between two distinct cultures. When her brother is born, her father announces "Someday my son will make me proud," then disdainfully dismisses Young's assertion that she might grow up to be president ("You are a girl"). Although she learns English in school, Young must speak only Korean at home and is discouraged from spending time with the classmate who is her sole friend. Her father, a disillusioned, broken man, becomes increasingly physically and emotionally abusive to his children and wife as he descends further into alcoholism. In fluid, lyrical language, Na convincingly conveys the growing maturity of her perceptive narrator who initially (and seamlessly) laces her tale with Korean words, their meaning evident from the context. And by its conclusion, readers can see a strong, admirable young woman with a future full of hope. Equally bright are the prospects of this author; readers will eagerly await her next step. Ages 12-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Oh's appropriately girlish voice and measured reading bring to life Young Ju, quiet heroine of debut novelist Na's dark tale of a family of Korean immigrants, which just won the ALA's Printz Award for teenage literature. At age four, Young Ju is not happy to be leaving her Korean home and loving Halmoni (grandmother) to move with her parents to Mi Gook (America), believed to be the land of great promise. Through Young Ju's experiences, listeners hear the family unravel as difficulties mount for them in the States. Young Ju's parents struggle with several low-paying jobs, handicapped by their language barrier. Young Ju's alcoholic and bitter father abuses his wife and children and forbids Young Ju to socialize with American friends. And when her father crosses a frightening line in his cruelty, Young Ju bravely takes action that sets her mother, younger brother and herself on the path to yet another new life in America. Oh's characterization, which realistically captures this powerful contemporary story and gives authentic crispness to Korean words and phrases, will keep listeners in its grip. Ages 12-up. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A Step from Heaven is an unusual book because it is about a Korean girl adapting to America from age two to eighteen. I liked that the author showed how people hear languages differently when they really do not speak them well. I also liked the realistic way that the girl lived her life, showing how her life was not always perfect. What was really sad was how her father treated her, not understanding that she suffered from being in a strange land. This book should be read by teens fourteen and up because it is somewhat painful. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, Front Street, 156p, . Ages 12 to 18. Reviewer: Miriam Min Joo Lim Levy, Teen Reviewer SOURCE: VOYA, June 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 2)
This is An Na's first novel, certainly exhibiting an "exquisite voice" as stated in The New York Times Book Review. Based partly on her own experiences as an Asian immigrant, her work is a welcome addition to Asian American literature. Written in a series of titled vignettes, this is the tragic but ultimately triumphant story of a Korean immigrant family through the eyes of Young Ju. In a manner appropriate for all YAs, it deals with relationships, self-esteem, lying, conflict of cultures, poverty, gender differences and abuse as a result of alcoholism. The story of how the Park family adjusts to their new environment and lifestyle begins with four-year-old Young Ju hearing about the move to America and confusing it with going to heaven, and concludes with her thoughts about going off to college. Young Ju must cope with learning a new language, being forbidden to have a best friend because of the cultural influence implied in the relationship, coping with a younger brother who is treated differently than she is, and the physical abuse of herself and her brother as well as her mother at the hands of her father. This is written in the first person present tense with no burdensome narrative, which makes it appealing for younger readers with short attention spans. The manner and sensitivity of the storytelling itself will appeal to all readers. It would work well as supplemental reading for many of the social studies in areas of culture, immigration, abuse, and poverty. We will eagerly await more from this author. (Note: Winner, 2002 Michael L. Printz Award, and an ALA Best Book for YAs.) KLIATT Codes: JSA*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advancedstudents, and adults. 2001, Penguin Putnam, Speak, 160p.,
When four-year-old Young Ju learns she is going to move to America, she thinks her family is on its way to heaven and that she will see her deceased grandfather, Harabugi, when they arrive. Bitterly disappointed when she learns this is not true, her American uncle tries to console her by telling her that perhaps it is "a step from heaven." Young Ju believes that "In Mi Gook (America), everyone will be happy and filled with love." Unfortunately, her family brings its own problems with them, and as her father fails to find a job that will lift them from their poverty, his drinking and abuse worsen. Young Ju finds refuge in her school. She spends as much time as she can with Amanda, her American friend—a friend her father views with suspicion since she is outside the Korean culture—and keeps her family's poverty a secret. The many trials of an immigrant family adjusting to life in this country appear in stark clarity through Young Ju's eyes. The struggle to assimilate and to deal with her father's abuse will leave a deep impression on middle school or high school readers.
Read an Excerpt
A Step from Heaven
Just to the edge, Young Ju. Only your feet. Stay there.
Cold. Cold water. Oh. My toes are fish. Come here. Fast. Look.
What is it, Young Ju?
See my toes. See how they are swimming in the sea? Like fish.
Yes, they are little fat piggy fish.
Come on. Up. Keep your legs around me. Are you ready to go swim in the waves?
Hold me. Hold me.
I have you. Look over there, Young Ju. See how the waves dance. See? Hold on tight. We are going over there.
No. Stop. Deep water. Go back.
Shhh, Young Ju. Do not be afraid. You must learn how to be brave. See, I have you.
No. No. Go back.
Young Ju, can you be brave? Look, that is only a small wave. Do not worry. I will hold you tight the whole time. Can you try to be a brave girl for me?
I will try.
Good girl. Ready for the wave? Here it comes. Get ready. Up. And down. There, do you still want to go back?
Again. Do it again. Another one.
That is my courageous girl. Hold on to my neck, Young Ju. Here we go. Up. And down.
I am a sea bubble floating, floating in a dream. Bhop.