By Maureen Tai, 3 March 2021
It’s not often that I feel so excited after reading a book that I immediately want to write a review about it! Where’s Halmoni?, a recent purchase from Bleak House Books (our favourite independent bookstore in Hong Kong), is a masterfully-illustrated, comic-esque graphic novel about Noona and Joon, a pair of effervescent, brave and snack-guzzling siblings. The children arrive at their grandmother’s cosy home one day to discover that Halmoni (“grandmother” in Korean) has gone missing!
Perplexed, Noona and Joon follow the unusually large and dusty animal paw-prints on the ground that lead to a mysterious door in Halmoni’s bedroom (the front endpapers tell us that interestingly, Halmoni herself installed this door…hmm, the plot thickens). The curious siblings climb through and find themselves – to their great surprise – in a vast land of green-blue mountains, gnarled pine trees and mist-shrouded forests! It is the landscape of Korean folktales, the home of colourful, fun and magical characters whom we meet as the children continue their search for their grandmother. Be prepared for some rib-ticking and enchanted encounters!
What I absolutely love about this book – in addition to the action-packed spreads, imaginative storyline, and expressive, bold characters – is how so many elements of Korean culture, past and present, are infused within its pages. I am not of Korean descent, nor do I speak the language, but I love seeing Hangul – bright, vibrant and untranslated – jump off the pages, spoken by the hilarious Moon Rabbit or the not-so-scary dokkebi (goblins); I love how snacks play a vital, life-saving role in the story; and I love the little details like the magic bamboo back-scratcher and the home slippers that the children wear the entirety of their adventure. Most of all, I love how the titular Halmoni, whilst appearing only at the beginning and end of the story, is hinted at as being a force to be reckoned with. There is much, much more to the white-haired elderly lady than meets the eye (and having had experience with many Asian grandmothers including my own, I can attest to this as a fact). A feast for the eyes and a delightful read for all ages, whether you believe in magic or not!
For ages 5 and up.