Picture Book Around the World: Reading Through Korea
“We live in an important village,” Sang-hee’s father said.
The village doesn’t look very important to Sang-hee. However, it is a special place because Sang-hee’s father climbs the mountain near the coastal village in Korea every evening to light the watchfire. Then the firekeeper on the next mountain sees the fire that signals that everything is peaceful, no invaders, and he lights his fire as a signal to the next firekeeper and so on, all the way to the king’s palace in central Korea. The king sees the series of mountaintop watchfires and knows that his kingdom is safe.
If there is no fire, it means that the kingdom of Korea is in danger, and the king will send brave, noble soldiers to defend the land. Sang-hee knows the importance of peace in the land but wishes he could see the king’s soldiers just once. What will Sang-hee do when one night the watchfire doesn’t appear?
In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park says that the bonfire signal system was used in Korea up until the late nineteenth century to protect the land from invasion. The actual system of fires was more complicated and extensive than the simple chain of watchfires presented in this picture book, but as a vehicle for character development and for conveying some information about the history and culture of Korea, the “firekeeper system” is a friendly and constructive image.
Sang-hee finds himself in a situation where he must decide whether to take responsibility and live up to his position as the firekeeper’s son, or to indulge his own fantasies at the expense of developing his character. It’s a decision that all of us, both children and adults, face frequently.
Julie Downing’s watercolor paintings bring out the colors and beauty of early nineteenth century Korea for those of us (me sometimes) who tend to think of the past in shades of gray. One illustration in particular (pages 18-19) is all purples and greens and yellows with a stunning late evening feel to it as Sang-hee and his mother look to the mountain and realize that something is wrong because the evening watchfire has not been lit.
Linda Sue Park is an exceptionally talented Korean American author who won the Newbery Award for her historical fiction novel, A Single Shard. She’s written several other books for young adults and middle grade readers, including Seesaw Girl, The Kite Fighters, A Long Walk to Water, and Keeping Score. Other picture books by Ms. Park include The Third Gift, a Christmas story about where the wise men may have gotten the gift of myrrh, and Bee-Bim Bop!, a book about a family cooking rice Korean-style.