A Step from Heaven: take a walk in someone else’s shoes

A Step from Heaven by An Na; published Front Street, Asheville, North Carolina, 2001; 156 pages.

Four year old Young Ju does not want to leave Korea, we discover as the novel opens.  She hopes that the airplane, as it climbs higher and higher, is taking her to Heaven so she can visit her grandfather and Jesus; but she is going to America, dubbed “a step from Heaven.”  Na’s riveting prose starts in choppy, phonetic language, in the voice of a four year old struggling with a new language, and grows in its rhythm and complexity as Young Ju develops into a young woman.  As Young Ju grows up, she has to deal with acclimating to a new culture while being forced to retain her Korean heritage (and language) at home.  She also deals with an abusive father—he physically abuses Young Ju, her mother and her brother.  In the end, her father returns to Korea but Young Ju (now bound for college), her mother and her brother remain in California to make a life for themselves in America. 

Na’s story is at once heartbreaking and hopeful.  The story feels real; there is no obvious punishment for the villain and there is no unbelievable good fortune for the heroine.  There is only the perseverance of the human spirit to find hope in all situations.  The way this book was crafted—each chapter a vignette of Young Ju’s life—as well as the presentation of an immigrant’s experience all add up to a phenomenal read worthy of the Michael L. Printz Award.

In our melting pot, it’s imperative for young adults to get a taste of the American experience from the perspectives of those outside the mainstream—such as the struggle of a homeless drug addict in Fat Kid Rules the World or the struggle to assimilate in American Born Chinese.  A Step from Heaven is another book to add to that list.

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-12+

a_step_from_heavenCover Art: The sweet smiling face peeking through the sheer drapes is interesting—why is she smiling?  The mystery of her face and the intriguing title probably aren’t enough to get teens to pick this book up; it will have to be a referral.

From Reading List: Michael L. Printz Award, 2002 Winner

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