As an adoptive parent to a child whose origins lie in a culture different from my own, I try always to keep my eye open for things, however small, that can provide links from our culture to the place and customs my daughter had to leave behind. Such items aren’t substitutes, of course; there is no such thing. But by providing bits of concrete details–descriptions of holiday celebrations, tastes of traditional foods, videos of cities and countrysides she’s never seen–I hope to give her the beginnings of a multi-sensory story about the place and people who make up her beginnings.
I spied What Will You Be, Sara Mee? a few months ago while perusing a list of Korean children’s books before Lunar New Year. The picture book tells the story of a young child’s tol, or first-birthday celebration. The first birthday carries great importance in Korean culture because historically, many children never survived their first year. While conditions have obviously improved dramatically, the tol continues to be celebrated with much fanfare. At the center of the tol is the toljabee ceremony, when the birthday child chooses one object from an array set before her. Tradition holds that this object will determine what the child will be when she grows up–a pen means she’ll be a scholar, a bank note means she’ll be wealthy, a bow means she’ll be a warrior, and so on.
Until I discovered Sara Mee, I had never seen a children’s picture book, in English, about a tol. I ordered Sara Mee immediately, even though at age eight, “Emmie” is really a little too old for the book.
Emmie is not too old, however, to see this bit of her own story told in a larger, “this is part of the world around you” fashion. When children read books about Christmas or Hanukkah, or when they attend siblings’ or cousins’ namings, baptisms, britot milahs or first communions, these occasions provide pathways to questions and stories about their own holidays and welcoming ceremonies. The joy in their parents’ voices as they recount the details lets them know how special they are, while the continuity and tradition make them feel part of something multigenerational and bigger than themselves.
We have photos of Emmie’s tol, of course. But I bought What Will You Be, Sara Mee? to keep at home as part of our library of children’s books about days and values that are important in our family and in other families, too. It’s one more piece of the very large puzzle that can help my daughter see how she fits in the world.