A Step from Heaven, by An Na

a step from heavenA Step from Heaven

by An Na

  • publisher and date: Front Street, 2002
  • genre: realistic fiction
  • age/grade: young adult

Synopsis (from www.bn.com)
2001 National Book Award Nominee
When she is five, Young Ju Park and her family move from Korea to California. During the flight, they climb so far into the sky she concludes they are on their way to Heaven, that Heaven must be in America. Heaven is also where her grandfather is. When she learns the distinction, she is so disappointed she wants to go home to her grandmother. Trying to console his niece, Uncle Tim suggests that maybe America can be “a step from Heaven.” Life in America, however, presents problems for Young Ju’s family. Her father becomes depressed, angry, and violent. Jobs are scarce and money is even scarcer. When her brother is born, Young Ju experiences firsthand her father’s sexism as he confers favored status upon the boy who will continue to carry the Park name. In a wrenching climactic scene, her father beats her mother so severely that Young Ju calls the police. Soon afterward, her father goes away and the family begins to heal.

Author’s Perspective: An Na has an insider’s perspective. She was born in Korea, just like Young Ju in the book, and then grew up in San Diego. She now lives part time in Warren, Vermont.

In An Na’s words from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program Website:

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. As with all writing, the novel draws on past emotions, but the story is not my life. What the protagonist and I do share are some of the feelings of yearning, joy, and shame that come with trying to negotiate a foreign culture.

Literary Elements:

Character – The characters were compelling. We follow Young Ju from a five year old to a young adult. We see her grapple with various issues and also grow and become strong and independent by the end of the story.

Theme – There are 2 overlapping themes in this story. One theme is that of a family struggling to hold onto a culture while also becoming part of a new culture. The other theme is that of domestic abuse.

Tone and Style– When Young Ju arrives in America, we actually hear and experience it just as she does. The language is drawn out into almost unrecognizable syllables, as if we were hearing it with Young Ju’s ears.

Curriculum Connections:

  • Make a time line – This story follows Young Ju over many years and important events. Readers could make a time line documenting these events.
  • Research Getting Inside the Author’s Head – (From TeacherVision) A Step from Heaven is semi-autobiographical. Ask students to research the author’s life and find parallels between An Na and Young Ju. They should then report where they found similarities and where they found differences. Discuss why the author might have chosen to include or change certain aspects of her life
  • Immigration Unit – Use as part of an immigration unit. Compare Young Ju’s experience with that of a character in another book.

Web Resources:


Publishers Weekly (from www.bn.com)

In her mesmerizing first novel, Na traces the life of Korean-born Young Ju from the age of four through her teenage years, wrapping up her story just a few weeks before she leaves for college. The journey Na chronicles, in Young’s graceful and resonant voice, is an acculturation process that is at times wrenching, at times triumphant and consistently absorbing. Told almost like a memoir, the narrative unfolds through jewel-like moments carefully strung together. As the book opens, Young’s parents are preparing to move from Korea to “Mi Gook,” America, where the residents all “live in big houses.” Soaring through the sky on her first airplane ride, the child believes she is on her way to heaven, where she hopes to meet up with her deceased grandfather and eventually be reunited with her beloved grandmother, who has stayed behind. After the family’s arrival, Young’s American uncle dispels the notion that the United States is heaven, yet adds, “Let us say it is a step from heaven.” It doesn’t take the girl or her parents very long to realize how steep this step is. From her first sip of Coca-Cola, which “bites the inside of my mouth and throat like swallowing tiny fish bones,” Young’s new life catches her in a tug-of-war between two distinct cultures. When her brother is born, her father announces “Someday my son will make me proud,” then disdainfully dismisses Young’s assertion that she might grow up to be president (”You are a girl”). Although she learns English in school, Young must speak only Korean at home and is discouraged from spending time with the classmate who is her sole friend. Her father, a disillusioned, broken man, becomes increasingly physically and emotionally abusive to his children and wife as he descends further into alcoholism. In fluid, lyrical language, Na convincingly conveys the growing maturity of her perceptive narrator who initially (and seamlessly) laces her tale with Korean words, their meaning evident from the context. And by its conclusion, readers can see a strong, admirable young woman with a future full of hope. Equally bright are the prospects of this author; readers will eagerly await her next step. Ages 12-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

School Library Journal (from www.amazon.com)

Grade 8 Up-An Na’s 2002 Printz winning novel (Front St., 2001) is brought to full effect in this reading by Jina Oh. Young Ju emigrates from Korea with her parents when she is four. A few months later, they live in a shabby apartment in Southern California, their family expanded to include a newborn baby boy. The parents work long hours at multiple jobs, and Young Ju struggles first to understand what is going on in school and then to be permitted to participate in typically American schoolgirl activities. The pressures of immigration, language difficulties, and oppositional cultural expectations lead Young Ju’s father to become a bitter and often drunk man, physically abusive of his wife and, eventually, his daughter. The stresses of the disintegrating family work on each of its members, sending Young Ju’s mother into a religious foray and her brother into middle school truancy. By the time Young Ju is ready to leave for college, her father has returned to Korea and her mother has been able to establish the family in their own American home. Each of the chapters in this emotionally succinct novel might be read as a short story, although the plot-the acclimation of one young girl to a new culture and to her own family-is steady and at times suspenseful. Young Ju’s narrative voice matures as she does: in early childhood, she is unclear about identity and place, later she becomes impatient with the limitations placed on her by both culture and her own understanding of what is needed, and at last she matures to a young woman who can appreciate the fact that individuals must admit to their strengths and weaknesses in order to enjoy life’s possibilities. The language is rich, studded with Korean words made intelligible both by context and the reader’s easy pronunciation. Tunes are sung gently and well, and there is dramatic differentiation made among the cast of characters, making this audio version an enrichment of an already superb text.
Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA


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