It's tough to be adopted, wondering which of your personality traits and physical characteristics came from someone you've never even met. It's even harder when you're Korean, and your family is Italian-American (including your much younger twin sisters, who are not adopted). To have your social studies teacher go and assign an essay about tracing your family heritage feels like having salt rubbed into a wound. And to have that essay assigned on your fourteenth birthday, well, that's just icing on the cake.
For New Jersey eighth grader Joseph Calderaro, the heritage essay ignites a passion for research into his birth family - a difficult search, given that he was found in Pusan, abandoned by the waterfront in a police station parking lot. The research doesn't sit so well with Joseph's proud Italian-American father, however, provoking family discord and internal conflict. In many ways, Joseph's quest is every teen's quest, to understand where he fits into the world and how he's both part of and unique from his family. In Joseph's case, however, the stakes are higher, and some of the necessary information is missing.
Fortunately for the reader of Rose Kent's debut novel, Kimchi & Calamari, Joseph's cultural identify quest is lightened considerably by being juxtaposed against another important coming of age quest: to secure a date for the Farewell Formal. We also see Joseph goofing around during band practice (he plays the drums), taking care of and being annoyed by his younger sisters, and exchanging jokes with his friend Robyn. These scenes keep Joseph real and accessible for all readers.
One other fun thing about Kimchi & Calamari is that the author sprinkles food-related analogies throughout the text:
"The world is your supersized soda waiting to be guzzled, right?" (Page1)
"Rain sprinkled on my face like salt on french fries." (Page 40)
"... my backpack was soaked and my hair looked like black spaghetti." (Page 41)
And, of course, the primary analogy: Joseph himself as "an ethnic sandwich". Here are a couple of other quotes, to give you the flavor of Joseph's witty personality:
"I hit my mental button to mute the sibling static. I was on a roll, two-finger punching at the keyboard." (Page 83)
"Mom was like a human bridge trying to connect Dad and me. But Dad kept shaking his head -- not angry, because the Mad Meter wasn't running, but not ready to join my search party either. Yet I could tell he was trying, in his Dadish way, to understand." (Page 188)
For kids who are adopted, and/or kids who are struggling with ethnic vs. American identities, this book is likely to resonate strongly. Rose Kent has personal experience with these identity questions through her four children, all of whom have Korean heritage, and two of whom are adopted. This personal experience shows in her understanding of Joseph's feelings, and in the details of the story - the Korean food that another family shares with Joseph, the dynamics of that Korean family, and the physical characteristics that Joseph notes in himself.
I think that Kimchi & Calamari is an excellent read for middle schoolers, boys or girls, Korean-American or not. There's nothing that will be too PG-13 for younger kids, either, though they may be less excited about the Farewell Formal. And for the many kids who are adopted (especially from Korea), the book could be a lifeline. One final point: I do think that this is a book that librarians will need to put directly into kids' hands. It's not obvious what the book is about from the cover (although the cover is cute), and it's particularly not obvious that it's about a middle school-aged boy. I wouldn't expect 12-year-old boys to pick it up off the shelf on their own, but I think that they would enjoy it if you could get it into their hands.
Publication Date: April 2007
Source of Book: Review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: Book Bits, Trilingual - Indonesian, French & English
Author Interviews: Karen Day at classof2k7, A Year of Reading, Cynsations
See also Rose's thoughts on National Adoption Month, published at A Fuse #8 Production
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.