12 Aug / Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth by Joan Schoettler, illustrated by Jessica Lanan
Manga addict that I’ve become in my old age, I tend to start books-with-pictures from the back cover. This, I’ve learned, often yields insightful rewards. [And no, I am not one of those skippers with novels, ahem!]
Going backwards worked well here: author Joan Schoettler, who is not of Korean descent, reveals in her “Author’s Note” that she was so inspired after visiting a collection of bojagi – traditional Korean wrapping cloths– on exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, that she was inspired to write this, her first picture book! She shares her new knowledge in an informative historical overview of bojagi and its importance in everyday Korean culture. Her “Author Acknowledgements” point to her extensive research, as well. Context always makes any story richer …
Ji-su’s mother’s sewing skills are so accomplished, she is chosen to create her bojagi for the royal household. But in order to serve in the palace, she must leave Ji-su behind with her aunt. Already fatherless, Ji-su begs her mother to stay.
“My dear daughter, be strong like bamboo,” her mother encourages. Handing her a parting gift, she gently tells Ji-su: “Open this after I leave. Wrapping a package with a bojagi, we send good luck to the person – blessings and wishes of happiness, health, and good fortune.”
Inside Ji-su finds her mother’s “seven close companions” – the tools with which her mother created her intricate bojagis. She begs her aunt to teach her to sew, and vows she will one day create a bojagi of her own so beautiful that she, too, will be called to the palace. And so the young girl’s lessons begin … hoping every stitch will someday bring her closer and closer to her beloved mother.
Illustrator Jessica Lanan has a dreamy style that evokes Korea of centuries past. Certain panels clearly stand out – little Ji-su trying to envelop her mother with her too-short arms, Ji-su flying high all alone above the tall tree branches bursting with autumn colors, frightened Ji-su silently awaiting the judgment of the two looming palace masters as they examine her handiwork.
As engaging as Good Fortune is, two rather minor details I found myself questioning. The Anglicization of the Korean word for ‘mommy’ is “Eomma” here. The first syllable is just a plain ‘uhm’ – ‘eom’ just doesn’t work – and it’s usually written out as ‘umma.’ Because the book starts with “Eomma …,” to see the word thus written was initially a jarring surprise. Additionally, Lanan’s choice to depict Ji-su’s aunt as elderly didn’t seem to fit the story. Ji-su is 10, her mother couldn’t be more than 30 given childbearing practices hundreds of years ago; even if her aunt is much older, she wouldn’t possibly be 60, which is what she looks like here. Other pictures suggest that the aunt has fairly young daughters, the oldest maybe a teenager … so maybe she’s 40 at most?
Small details, yes, but enough to make me take sharp notice. More importantly, however, will your kids be bothered? Most likely not … they’ll be too busy enjoying and celebrating Ji-su’s hardworking Good Fortune.