Other Free Encyclopedias » Brief Biographies » Biographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) Biography » An Na (1972-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress

An Na (1972-) - Sidelights

heaven step novel review

"Uhmma's hands are as old as sand. They have always been old, even when we were young. In the mornings, they would scratch across our sleeping faces as she smoothed our foreheads, our cheeks, and told us quietly, Wake up. Time for school." Thus begins the debut novel by An Na, A Step from Heaven, a "stirring immigration story of Young Ju's coming of age from the time she leaves Korea as a small child until she graduates from high school in America. . . , a universal drama of a family's search for home," as Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman described the book. "I started writing the novel as a way to capture memory," Na told Cynthia Leitich Smith on Children's Literature Resources Web site. In the event, the book captured more than memory.

This unassuming first novel was the recipient of numerous awards in 2001 and 2002, including the Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association for excellence in young adult fiction, and was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award. Presenting Na with the Printz Award, chair of the selection committee Judith A. Druse praised this first novel as "both intimate and universal," and, in remarks quoted on the American Library Association Web site, further called it a "powerful story of . . . coming of age." Na, a Korean immigrant herself, intimately knows the terrain of her novel. In an essay posted on the Front Street Books Web site, she noted that A Step from Heaven "grew from a need to express some of the longings and frustrations that I felt as an immigrant growing up in America. Many people ask me if this novel is autobiographical, and I always respond by saying yes and no.... What the protagonists and I do share are some of the feelings of yearning, joy, and shame that come with trying to negotiate a foreign culture."

Considered one of the more important young voices in Asian-American children's literature, Na is still amazed at her overnight success. "The whole experience has been kind of unbelievable," she noted in her interview with Smith. "Nobody expects a first novel to get that much attention, let alone nominated for such a prestigious award. Being at the [Printz] awards ceremony felt like I had somehow crashed a party. Who let me in with all these amazing writers?"

Like the heroine of her first novel, Na was born in Korea and came to the United States as a four year old, settling with her family in San Diego, California. Other similarities exist between the real-life Na and her fictional creation, but "the characters in [her] novel are more extreme than in her own life," Sally Lodge noted in a Publishers Weekly profile. In fact, Na's own parents adapted well to the new environment and the family prospered. Na told Smith that she looked back at her youth and could see "two distinct personalities" forming her. One was the "real me, which was gregarious, liked to laugh and have fun, who showed up at my Korean church." The other personality was the shy one who was always in the minority at school, "quiet, soft spoken, hardly raised her hand." She could really only truly be herself in social situations at her church; at school her shyness was a defense against being teased. There was also the conflict between home and school, as she explained to Rochman in a Booklist interview. She was torn between "learning to be independent and speak my mind at school, and then coming home to be a Korean daughter, demure, soft-spoken, obedient." She often felt dislocated because of her Korean origins. "I went to a pretty affluent high school," Na told Rochman, "and it was difficult being in honors classes, feeling kind of poor and out of place because I was Korean American."

In these circumstances, Na took refuge in a rich life of the imagination and in books. She developed a series of personas for her favorite stuffed bunny, Buggsy, and would tell and act out stories through the toy, using such indirect means to communicate difficult truths with her brother and sister. Books were also vital to Na. As she noted, "Books were my cultural teachers." She further explained to Smith, "Books were often times the resources for me to discover how Americans lived. My parents couldn't explain things like Thanksgiving, and I was too embarrassed to ask my peers, so books, often times, were my teachers." Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, taught her about the traditions of Christmas; Judy Blume was her guide to discovering about sex. Other favorite authors included Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L'Engle. "I remember reading books and falling under a spell," Na wrote on her publisher's Web site, "stepping into another world, becoming another person. More than television or movies, I could identify with the protagonist simply because she or he was not portrayed for me. While there might have been descriptive passages about what the character looked like, the beauty of a book stems from the way in which readers can overtake the words."

Despite this love of books, Na had no inkling she would become a writer. "I never thought about it simply because the possibility didn't occur to me," she noted on the Front Street Books Web site. "I was a reader, and coming from an immigrant family and community, one aspired to be a doctor or lawyer or some other professional." Na attended Amherst College, but it was not until she was in her last semester and took a class in children's literature that she thought she might want to write. She taught for a time in middle school, and then enrolled in Vermont College's M.F.A. program in writing.

The writing program at Vermont College provided Na with the daily experience of putting words to paper, of structuring and creating worlds of her own. "All the elements that made writing so fantastic were still there," she wrote on her publisher's Web site, "but along with the thrill was the discovery of the day to day process. Writing, revising, editing, rewriting, re-revising, cutting, chopping, crumbling, all of that was also writing." Inspired by Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street and by Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, she began to see how she might fashion some of her own stories into such a tapestry of vignettes.

Na credits one of her writing teachers, Jacqueline Woodson, with teaching her to "pare down" her language, as she told Rochman. Her own vignettes began with the story of how her mother took her to have her hair curled shortly after the family arrived in America so that she would look more like other little American girls. These vignettes slowly began to grow and take shape. Another faculty member, author/illustrator Brock Cole, took an interest in Na's stories, offering to send them to his editor when they were in shape. Na continued to work on the tales, finally seeing how they held together and could be connected with bridging material. Sent to Stephen Roxburgh at Front Street Books, the novel began to take even more shape, focusing on the family dynamics. It was finally published in 2001 as the assemblage of interlinking stories, A Step from Heaven.

The novel takes its title from what one of Young Ju's uncles says about America—that it is only a step from heaven. Thus when four-year-old Young Ju takes off in an airplane, she expects to literally wind up in heaven where she will be able to once again see her deceased grandfather. She is disappointed at her arrival in America, quickly discovering that it is no heaven. Na details events in the life of this young Korean American from her first taste of Coke to her feelings of shame at her parents who cannot speak English. From the outset, Young Ju is caught in the cultural clash between home, A Korean immigrant family falls apart as it struggles to make a living in America with an alcoholic and increasingly abusive father. where she is expected to speak only Korean and be a dutiful and submissive daughter, and her outside life. In the ensuing years, to her parents' consternation, she becomes increasingly adapted to Western ways, and, after an initial stage of awkwardness, she develops, to her parents' greater satisfaction, into an adept student. As Young Ju adapts to life in America, however, her father, a laborer mourning his mother's death, succumbs to alcoholism, becomes abusive, and eventually returns to South Korea. The heroine, meanwhile, realizes academic honors and prepares to enter college.

Upon its publication, A Step from Heaven won acclaim as a compelling and impressive literary debut. Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman proclaimed Na's novel "a beautiful coming-of-age drama," and she affirmed that it will "grab teens and make them think of their own conflicts between home and outside." Another reviewer, Diane S. Marton, concluded in School Library Journal that A Step from Heaven is "a beautifully written, affecting work," while a Publishers Weekly critic hailed Na's novel as "mesmerizing." More praise came from Kate Torpie, writing in Teenreads.com: "An Na weaves a wonderfully poetic first novel." Sally Lodge, meanwhile, acknowledged the novel, in another Publishers Weekly review, as "absorbing," and Susan Chira, in her New York Times Book Review assessment, deemed the tale "engaging." Jade reviewer Irene Kim also lauded the work, calling A Step from Heaven "a mature book that adeptly captures the heartache of a child."

The plethora of awards Na won with her first novel also earned her the luxury of writing full time. By 2003, she was hard at work on a second novel in which she explores cultural lines in a love story between a Mexican-American boy and the daughter of the Korean owner of a dry-cleaning business. Writing has become the center of her life, as she told Smith. "I love being lost in the story and the characters, Of looking at the clock and realizing that four hours blinked away. It's so amazing when I can get into the story, and that is all I want to think about. Words and sentences and phrases stream through my mind when I'm running or cleaning the house.... Another perk of being a writer is that you can work in your pajamas. I love that!"

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

An, Na, A Step from Heaven, Front Street Books (Asheville, NC), 2001.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, June 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of A Step from Heaven, p. 1881; November 15, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of A Step from Heaven, p. 567; March 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman, "The Booklist Interview: An Na"; July, 2002, Anna Rich, review of A Step from Heaven (audiobook), p. 1866.

Horn Book, May-June, 2002, Kristi Beavin, review of A Step from Heaven (audiobook), p. 354.

New York Times Book Review, May 20, 2001, Susan Chira, review of A Step from Heaven, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly, April 2, 2001, review of A Step from Heaven, p. 65; June 25, 2001, Sally Lodge, "Flying Starts," p. 23; February 4, 2002, review of AStep from Heaven (audiobook), p. 22.

School Library Journal, May, 2001, Diane S. Marton, review of A Step from Heaven, p. 156; June, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of A Step from Heaven (audiobook), pp. 73-74.

Skipping Stones, September, 2001, review of A Step from Heaven, p. 33.

ONLINE

American Library Association, http://www.ala.org/ (January 21, 2002), "An Na Wins Printz Award."

Booksense.com, http://www.booksense.com/ (February 20, 2003), "An Excerpt from A Step from Heaven, by An Na."

Children's Literature Resources, http://cynthialeitichsmith.com/ (December, 2001), "Interview with Young Adult Author An Na."

Front Street Books, http://www.frontstreetbooks.com/ (February 2, 2003), "An, Na."

Jade, http://www.jademagazine.com/ (January 13, 2002), Irene Kim, review of A Step from Heaven.

Teenreads.com, http://www.teenreads.com/ (January 16, 2004), Kate Torpie, review of A Step from Heaven.*

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