By Julie Kim
The whimsical tale Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim is adapted with aesthetically pleasing and beautiful illustrations. The children’s storybook centers on two siblings searching for their lost grandmother in a Korean folklore-inspired world.
Inside the book’s cover, the story begins with Halmoni, or grandmother in Korean, as she prepares red bean soup for her grandchildren. The door rings, and she receives a big, rectangular box from the mailman. When she unpacks it, it’s revealed that it is a window. After she installs it, a tiger peaks through the window sneaks inside the house, and Halmoni screams in Korean, “나쁜 호랑이!” (Bad tiger!).
Later on, the grandchildren, Joon and his older sister, whom he refers to as “noona”, arrive at their Halmoni’s empty home. As they search every room, the kitchen and bedroom floors are littered with tiger paw prints. Then become curious when they find the newly installed window and decide to climb through it. They find themselves in an enormous woodland in the midst of mountains and trees. The children begin their journey following the tiger’s tracks, and the moon is shown in the background with a ladder hanging down from it.
The first section of the story، we see the rabbit, or 토끼 (tokki). At first, the rabbit follows the children without their notice. But when they realize the rabbit is behind them, noona finds it cute, and the rabbit’s stomach grumbles. Noona gives it chocolate from Joon’s bag, and the rabbit is overjoyed and says, “너무 맛있다!” (too delicious!). Joon then questions it about the paw prints, and the rabbit becomes frightened, screaming that there’s someone whose teeth are sharper than the rabbits and another whose body is bigger than his. The rabbit gives them a wooden stick and tells them how much he enjoyed the chocolate before wishing them farewell.
The children follow the tracks for a very long time until they find themselves deep in the misty, dark forest. When they sit down to take a break, they find themselves sitting on a goblin that looks like a boulder. Other goblins also peek at them from behind the trees. The goblins, or 도깨비 (dokkebi), take more snacks from an annoyed Joon’s bag! The goblins compensate the children with a bowl of treasure, designer, tiger-print underwear, and a golden doorknob in the shape of a goblin’s face. The goblin puts the doorknob on a boulder, and a shortcut showing more tiger paw prints appears. The children thank them and depart using the shortcut.
Shortly after, they hear a thunderous roar and run towards it. They find a tiger and a white, nine-tailed fox (구미호) fighting over something. Joon points and exclaims that it’s Halmoni’s pot. Joon screams as he tackles the tiger and bites his paw. Before things take a bad turn, noona stops everyone and says that it must be settled fairly: with a game of rock, paper, scissors. After facing off for a few rounds of the hand game, Joon wins over the tiger with paper, and it becomes visibly angry. When the tiger tries to run away with the pot, noona tickles him with the rabbit’s wooden stick. The fox takes the pot away again, and the tiger becomes furious and breaks the wooden stick. The tiger hovers over noona with his sharp teeth and fire in its eyes. Joon and the fox work together to stop the tiger. The fox drops the pot and bites the tiger’s tail. Joon then puts the goblin-shaped door knob on the tiger’s stomach, and his body opens up to Halmoni’s bedroom. The fox hurries them inside with the pot, and as the tiger’s portal closes, the doorknob falls inside, and Halmoni comes into the room. Noona picks up the doorknob, and they run to Halmoni and start to ramble on about what they have seen. Halmoni listens as she ushers them to the kitchen to pour them a bowl of red bean soup.
Julie Kim is a Korean author who moved to the United States as a child. She describes how her parents preserved their culture by talking about Korean folklore and creatures, which she subsequently added in this story. She describes each creature from the story and its significance in folklore.
The first creature, commonly referred to as the “moon rabbit,” lives on the moon and pounds rice cakes throughout the night. It’s described as a witty, creative, and humble creature. Moon rabbit is the only creature that can defeat the tiger by itself. The tiger is a symbolic representation of the forces of nature and is feared by many creatures due to its strength and “its ability to gobble up everyone it meets.” However, as mentioned, it can be defeated by the rabbit or the alliance of small creatures, just like how Joon, noona, and the fox did. Dokkebi are the magical goblins of Korean folklore. The goblins are friendly, despite their prankster nature, and they reward those who befriend them. The nine-tailed fox, Gumiho, is a thousand-year-old fox who can take on human form to elicit harm. The Gumiho initially traveled between heaven and earth to spread peace. Its ability to travel and connect with them is what originally inspired Kim to write this story.
In celebration of Hangul Day on October 9th, the spotlight was put on one of the Raffles American School library books that explore Korean folklore. Hangul Day is a national holiday celebrated to honor the Korean alphabet. In the fifteenth century, Koreans used Chinese alphabets, making reading and writing difficult for much of the population. To solve this problem, in 1443, King Sejong created an entirely new alphabet, no longer relying on Chinese characters. Despite its decline in the 16th century, it reemerged once again in the 19th century, and in modern-day usage, it is rare to see any Chinese characters in Hangul. Hangul is easy to learn, with only 24 letters, and most of the sounds coincide in English. Although all Chinese characters have been excluded, the shapes of the letters can still give a hint as to what Chinese character it is referring to and what the word means (90 Day Korean, 2021).
“Where’s Halmoni?: Kim, Julie: 9781632170774 – Books – Amazon.com.” https://www.amazon.com/Wheres-Halmoni-Julie-Kim/dp/1632170779. Accessed 5 Oct. 2021
“Hangul Day: The Official Holiday for the Korean Alphabet.” 17 Sep. 2021, https://www.90daykorean.com/hangul-day/. Accessed 5 Oct. 2021.
Raffles American School