Trevor Eissler, author of N is for North Korea, is a father with deep concern for his children’s education, and places his faith in the schooling system first proposed by Maria Montessori. Montessori education states that children should follow their interests freely and be allowed to explore them fully in order to learn to their full potential. N is for North Korea is a book which aims to tell a story with multiple levels and appeal to various age ranges; the story of a young girl with a fondness for unusual pets (grasshoppers), the story of a girl from a different culture, and a girl who likes adventure. More than this, it is a story which explores some of the harsh facts of our world; separated families, nations in conflict and differing political situations. The story begins with the girl and her two grasshoppers. Her father tells her she has a cousin in South Korea, but she cannot contact her. Na-young is not sure why. In a seemingly unrelated event, her father brings her a balloon from the Arirang festival. Na-young then proceeds to use the balloon to send a message and gift to her Southern cousin, going through many challenges. Finally, she succeeds and follows the balloon to the DMZ, where she is stopped by soldiers as she watches it fly away.
N is for North Korea is cleverly written for children up to the age of around 10 years old. Young children will love the beautiful illustrations by M. J. Baek (a Korean man whose family escaped from the North). Older children will be taken in by its gripping content which poses a subject which would baffle many adults; how do you reduce weight on a balloon to get it to carry both a message and a gift many miles away? Na-young tries many methods including tying variously weighted objects. She meets many an obstacle such as propaganda billboards and the performers at the Arirang festival, until she must separate her grasshoppers and send one to her cousin in the South tied to the letter “N” for her name.
There are many questions to be asked by a child in N is for North Korea. For example, why does Na-young’s father tell her she can’t contact her cousin either by phone, by mail or in person? Or, for the modern child, why can’t Na-young just email her cousin? Why does everyone in the pictures wear badges? Why are there so many soldiers in North Korea and why do they stop Na-young following her balloon?
Eissler hasn’t been overly vague in leaving these questions unanswered; in fact, he has been very clever. The parents are going to have to teach their child about this mysterious country, about exactly why Na-young is separated from her cousin and cannot visit her. Moreover, this is a book that young children can easily relate to. Girls will connect with pretty 8 year old Na-young who loves her dress and humorously ties a balloon to her hair, to make it stand up. Boys will like the fact she loves grasshoppers, which instantly puts the girl’s cool factor up in their young eyes, and they will also like the military imagery.
N is for North Korea is educational beyond raising questions about the Korean peninsula’s division as it also introduces the basic ideas of physics, with Na-young tying variously weighted objects to the balloon, the idea of wind directions as it drifts the wrong way several times, and the illustrations surround the child reader with the culture of North Korea’s propaganda posters and foreign Korean writing. The book isn’t threatening in any way; there is no mention of human rights, no mention of the Great Leaders, and no punishment for Na-young’s child-like curiosity in sending a message to South Korea.
The language is, on the whole, simple. Eissler has used clever repetition in parts to build suspense such as when Na-young cannot sleep for thinking about her cousin. Eissler also emphasises that Na-young and her cousin may live in separate countries but that they are the same people, and Na-young loves this girl though she has never met her. There is definitely a good message in that. There are a few terms which will need explaining such as the Demilitarised zone or Arirang, both of which provide a good lead in to explaining the culture and politics of North Korea.
Perhaps some would argue that North Korea, with its food shortages, human rights abuses and indoctrination, is not an age-appropriate subject for children, however, none of this is present in the book. It is parental discretion whether to explain these things to the child, and that is what makes the book so clever. The book presents a foreign culture, a young girl sending a note to her cousin in another country via a unique and intuitive method, and really carefully chosen and engaging language and illustrations. What happens to Na-young at the end, or whether the note is received by Na-young’s Southern cousin, is left to the reader’s imagination. And who is to say it couldn’t happen?
The book is a clever and innovative way to introduce complex problems in a child-friendly way, without seeming patronising. Children are always curious and will often ask uncomfortable questions, like why does war exist? Or, why is that girl so different from me? As parents, these may be difficult questions to explain appropriately, without trying to soften the blow of reality as it were. Books like N is for North Korea can really appropriate topics in a way that children can relate to, can expand their intelligence, and can make a difference to the world if they are knowledgeable about the world from such a young age. Aristotle taught us that our children hold our future in their hands, and this future can be shaped by books like N is for North Korea by presenting children with reality and allowing them to see things, with their innocence and enthusiasm, in ways we may not be able to ourselves.
N is for North Korea will be on sale from the 1st of August, and is priced at US$20. Whether you have children or not, you cannot resist smiling at this beautiful book, it is a must-have for any parent interested in educating their child about the world, or just giving their child a book with a great story, and wonderful pictures.
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