Na, An. A Step from Heaven. Speak, 2002. 154p. Grades 8 and up. Realistic Fiction. (2002 Printz Award).
Told in a series of short vignettes, this debut novel tells the story of Young Ju, a young Korean girl who immigrated at the age of four to the United States. Young Ju initially believes the US will be an idyllic place, a “step from heaven,” but the realities and hardships of immigrant life, family turmoil, and her father’s alcoholism and abuse shown reveal the truth about the difficulties of life in a new country. Na’s lyrical prose illuminates the story of Young Ju’s life from her early childhood in Korea all the way to her celebrated graduation from an American high school and preparations for her departure to college, and the novel’s spare style matures along with the narrator further depicting her growth and maturation.
Thoughts- I am of two minds about this particular Printz Winner. On the one hand, I see the elegance and skill of Na’s writing; the English teacher in me swooned over the sentence-level writing. Her prose is gorgeous—lyrical and evocative, conveying hard truths with a masterful shifting of narrative maturity that mirrors the physical growth of her narrator. On the other hand, this book does not feel definitively “teen” to me like all the other books I’ve read this semester. It feels like adult literary fiction, the stuff teachers think kids should read rather than what they actually want to read. Additionally, it basically has no plot…and I know lots of adults who won’t read a book like that, much less teenagers.
I admire the way Na creates a specific, detailed world that speaks not only to the Korean immigrant experience but also to the universal experiences of childhood and loss of innocence, yet I still wonder how this novel is received among teens. I appreciated this book on a technical level, but it didn’t really MOVE me in any significant way, and I think that is an important quality in a YA novel. Teens don’t want to read something that doesn’t touch their lives or open their eyes in some way, and I’m not sure A Step From Heaven is dynamic enough to do so.