Navigating the ups and downs of friendship is never easy – particularly when on the cusp of adolescence. Two debut novels give voice to the experiences of girls growing apart from their BFFs. And both stories are enriched by vivid depictions of Korean-Canadian family life.
In Angela Ahn’s Krista Kim-Bap, the eponymous fifth-grader has always been “the Korean girl” at school. This has never before got in the way of her friendship with red-headed, bespectacled Jason. That’s about to change, though, as a group of new, cool girls threaten to pull her into their circle. To make matters worse, Krista has to come up with an idea for a class project focused on her family’s heritage at a time when fitting in, rather than standing out, matters more than anything.
Glimpses into aspects of Korean culture are revealed honestly and effectively, especially when Krista experiments with eye tape to make her “regular Korean eyes” appear larger. When her fearsome grandmother goes so far as to suggest taking Krista to Korea for double eyelid surgery, readers will cringe while remaining sympathetic toward Krista’s desire for external approval: “It was the first time my grandmother had ever liked the way I looked. Of course, it was the first time I didn’t actually look like myself.” Krista’s mother redresses the balance with a slightly heavy-handed tirade against false beauty standards.
Ahn’s writing style is direct, verging on heavily expository, and tension sometimes slackens, with several chapters ending on a flat note. Krista’s best friend, Jason, also remains slightly under-realized. Apart from a few physical details, and the fact that he likes kimchi, we don’t learn much about him or his own family life.
But if the storytelling is at times simplistic (the moralizing ending may strike more sophisticated readers as a little too pat), Krista Kim-Bap nevertheless offers an accessible story that will open younger readers’ eyes to an under-represented perspective in Canadian kidlit.
Geared toward a slightly older audience, Michelle Kim’s Running Through Sprinklers features Sara, another Korean preteen growing up in Vancouver’s suburbs. Sara’s best friend, the high-performing Nadine, lives across the street. Part Japanese, Nadine knows what it’s like to be half-Asian in the West. The lives of Sara and Nadine practically blend into one; in Sara’s words, “It’s the way my shoes line up at their front door, the way my favorite snack sits on their kitchen table after school, the way I can still smell her house on my clothes when I come home.”
So the news that Nadine is going to skip a year and go straight into high school hits Sara hard. Her reactions – from fury to resentment to despair – are cast against another developing storyline involving the disappearance of a local boy, a subplot which feels slightly overplayed for thematic echoes without ever being fully resolved.
The brunt of Sara’s emotional upheaval is caused by the loss of her friend. Older readers may find this more akin to a first heartbreak: “I know deep down that I will be forever alone because my best friend has left me. Things will never be the same and I will never find another friend so true and honest and pure in a way that matches all those parts of me that are true, honest, and pure.”
Kim isn’t afraid to show the flaws in her character’s response: Sara attempts to get back at Nadine by becoming friends with Nadine’s younger sister. Sara’s also fickle with her own younger brother and, at her lowest point, launches into a cruel outburst directed at her mother.
At the heart of both books lies a painful realization: becoming your true self sometimes means learning to separate from those around you. Fortunately for young readers, novels such as these may help ease the sting of this lesson.