where's halmoni?

I read Julie Kim’s picture book-slash-graphic novel Where’s Halmoni? a couple of years ago, and every now and again I’ll remember it and feel so glad (not warm and fuzzy glad, but “that was a fantastic book! UGH, so much talent!” glad). It’s a super fun, vivid journey through a portal and into a world of magic, and it’s a great bridge read during that age when picture books are still preferred by kids, but not by parents.

where's halmoni? by julie kim cover
Beautifully illustrated and told by debut author Julie Kim, this book follows a young Korean girl and boy whose search for their missing grandmother leads them into a world inspired by Korean folklore, complete with mischievous goblins (dokkebi), a greedy tiger, a clever rabbit, and a wily fox.

Two young children pay a visit to Halmoni (grandmother in Korean), only to discover she's not home. As they search for her, noticing animal tracks covering the floor, they discover a window, slightly ajar, new to their grandmother's home.  Their curiosity gets the best of them, and they crawl through and discover an unfamiliar fantastical world, and their adventure begins.  As they continue to search for their grandmother and solve the mystery of the tracks, they go deeper into a world of Korean folklore, meeting a number of characters who speak in Korean along the way, and learn more about their cultural heritage.  

In this delightful book, siblings Joon and Noona are trying to find their Halmoni (grandmother), who is missing. Halmoni may also be more than she seems! Though the concept is simple, Kim keeps the story interesting with some unexpected reveals and a journey through a magical land. Included along with the quest of finding a lost person are games of charades, rock, paper scissors, outwitting the enemy, and escaping just in time. Children and adults alike will delight in turning the page to see what Joon and Noona will come across next.

The highlight, of course, is Kim’s art: lush, vivid, detailed, symmetrical, and aesthetically pleasing. The illustrations and text are tightly interwoven – and the stylized landscapes on each page will be familiar to anyone who has seen an example of Asian art or handicrafts. And as the journey the children take introduces them to creatures from Korean folktales (including deals, trickster creatures, the mandate to feed those you come across, and mystical old ladies!), the setting fits. It’s a beautifully produced book, with no dust jacket but an embossed cover, and it’ll be a title to keep in collections for many re-reads.

The story begins on the endpapers and ends on the endpapers – with lots of hidden details that will delight readers of all ages upon re-reads. It’s picture heavy, with fewer words – somewhere halfway between being a picture book and graphic novel. Where’s Halmoni? would fit in teaching units on mythology, with its lovingly-detailed illustrations and connections to traditional legends.

Where’s Halmoni? will be a favorite with anyone who likes animals and unexpected twists, and independent readers ages 6 and up.

Recommended for: young readers who like their books with pictures in, and anyone interested in fairy tale and mythology retellings in illustrated formats.

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