Although much in the news lately, I’ve seen very few picture books written in English about North Korea and South Korea. Following are two recent ones that I’ve enjoyed reading, as I learn more about the fascinating history of this divided peninsula.
Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans
Author: Tina Cho
Illustrator: Keum Jin Song
Publisher/Date: Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing USA/2018
Themes: South Korea, North Korea, hunger, rice, compassion, making a difference
Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Rice from Heaven is based on a true story about compassion and bravery as a young girl and her community in South Korea help deliver rice via balloons to the starving and oppressed people in North Korea.
“We reach a place where mountains become a wall. A wall so high, no one dares to climb. Beyond that wall and across the sea live children just like me, except they do not have food to eat.”
Yoori lives in South Korea and doesn’t know what North Korea is like, but her father (Appa) does. Appa grew up in North Korea, where he did not have enough food to eat. Starving, he fled to South Korea in search of a better life. Yoori doesn’t know how she can help as she’s only a little “grain of rice” herself, but Appa tells her that they can secretly help the starving people by sending special balloons that carry rice over the border.
Villagers glare and grumble, and children protest feeding the enemy, but Yoori doesn’t back down. She has to help. People right over the border don’t have food. No rice, and no green fields.
With renewed spirit, volunteers gather in groups, fill the balloons with air, and tie the Styrofoam containers filled with rice to the tails of the balloons. With a little push, the balloons soar up and over the border, carrying rice in the darkness of the night over to North Korea.
Read a review at Picture Books Help Kids Soar.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ
Author & Illustrator: Uk-Bae Lee
Translators: Chungyon Won and Aileen Won
Publisher/Date: Plough Publishing House/2019 (originally published in Korean/2010)
Themes: South Korea, North Korea, nature, demilitarized zone, division, barriers
Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Korea’s demilitarized zone has become an amazing accidental nature preserve that gives hope for a brighter future for a divided land.
This unique picture book invites young readers into the natural beauty of the DMZ, where salmon, spotted seals, and mountain goats freely follow the seasons and raise their families in this 2.5-mile-wide, 150-mile-long corridor where no human may tread. But the vivid seasonal flora and fauna are framed by ever-present rusty razor wire, warning signs, and locked gates–and regularly interrupted by military exercises that continue decades after a 1953 ceasefire in the Korean War established the DMZ.
Creator Uk-Bae Lee’s lively paintings juxtapose these realities, planting in children the dream of a peaceful world without war and barriers, where separated families meet again and live together happily in harmony with their environment. Lee shows the DMZ through the eyes of a grandfather who returns each year to look out over his beloved former lands, waiting for the day when he can return. In a surprise foldout panorama at the end of the book the grandfather, tired of waiting, dreams of taking his grandson by the hand, flinging back the locked gates, and walking again on the land he loves to find his long-lost friends.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ helps introduce children to the unfinished history of the Korean Peninsula playing out on the nightly news, and may well spark discussions about other walls, from Texas to Gaza.
Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.
I paired these books because they tell stories based in fact about the divided Korean Peninsula. In Rice from Heaven, a young girl and her father in South Korea help send rice via helium balloons to hungry North Koreans across the demilitarized zone. Here the DMZ acts as a barrier which compassion breaches. In When Spring Comes to the DMZ, the DMZ is portrayed as a nature preserve, an Eden flourishing between the divided Koreas and signaling the possibility of future peace. Both books also include informative back matter to help explain the complex issues that remain decades after the international conflict that divided the land into two vastly different countries.
Looking for similar reads? See Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero (Patricia McCormick/Jacobo Bruno, 2017) about the Korean War.