Na, An. 2001. A STEP FROM HEAVEN. Asheville, NC: Front Street. ISBN: 1886910588.
An Na’s tale of moving to the United States and overcoming her father’s increasing abuse reads like an autobiography rather than a novel. At first, the little girl thinks in poetry, small concepts, and her family is her whole world. They swim in the ocean and live with her grandmother in a fishing village. America is the promised land, and believing that they will be rich and happy once they arrive, her parents take her to America to start again. America isn’t what any of them expected. The protagonist Young Ju must learn to navigate between her family’s expectations, her father’s unpredictable temper, and her new responsibilities as a big sister and an interpreter between her family and the rest of the world. With no adult who knows better, Young Ju must often choose between an easy lie and a more difficult explanation of the truth—a truth her father is often unwilling to accept.
Unwilling to take responsibility for his faults, Apa refuses to integrate with American culture, and takes out his anger on his wife and children. Eventually, Young Ju is forced to choose between the possibilities that her new life in America brings, and the dream of her father’s acceptance. When his behavior spirals out of control, she must acknowledge her status as an adult, and take responsibility for stopping him. In the process, she discovers that it is up to her to make the opportunities she wants in America.
An Nu’s first novel is full of conflict and change. While she does an excellent job of portraying the New American experience through the eyes of the growing child, Young Ju, many of her themes will be familiar to readers of any background. These include the disappointment of moving to a new place, embarrassment about your parents, abusive relationships, grumpy siblings, friends your parents don’t approve of, and being poor. Nu integrates each character’s development into the unfolding of the story. It is clear that Apa’s temper and expectations for his son affect the boy’s ability to show emotion, and his desire to escape and avoid anything he doesn’t like as he grows into a young adult. Young Ju also develops, taking backwards lessons in responsibility, self-awareness, anger, and acceptance of difference from her father, and learning to stand up not only for herself, but also for her mother and for her determination to find a good life in America. It is educational to watch Young Ju navigate between her father’s pride and the immigration department’s system when her green card needs to be renewed, since she is the only one in the family who can read and speak English clearly, and the department does not offer a Korean interpreter.
The Horn Book: “Young Ju's voice is convincingly articulated… Throughout the novel, images of reaching and dreaming poignantly convey the young narrator's desire to survive her father's brutality and its devastating effect on her family… An epilogue reveals that Young Ju's inspiration all along has been her mother, who, powerless in many respects, exerted power in other ways, working hard to make a better life for her children.”
Starred Review, Booklist: “This isn't a quick read, especially at the beginning when the child is trying to decipher American words and customs, but the coming-of-age drama will grab teens and make them think of their own conflicts between home and outside. As in the best writing, the particulars make the story universal.”
==> Discuss the challenges that Young Ju faces as a New American. How do the people around her help or hinder her transition to America? What can you do to help the New Americans you meet? What sort of challenges did you face when you moved—to a new country or to a new house or town? What sort of help would you have liked to receive from the people around you? How can we make sure that resource is available for others?
==> Possible need for parent permission on this one—Discuss the different kinds of abuse and control-through-fear that are exhibited in the book. Can anyone come up with other examples of abusive behavior? Talk about rights and responsibilities of parents and care takers. Discuss the laws and legal systems that are in place in America to protect children and adults from abusive situations and people. Why was it so hard for Young Ju to tell 911 that her father was hurting her mother? What, as children and young adults, can you do when you know about an abusive situation? How can you make sure you and the people you love are safe? What concerns might inform your decisions and choices in this situation? Young Ju took a risk when she called 911. How did it turn out for her? What were other possible outcomes? Do you think she did the right thing? How else could she have handled it?