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Review of the Day: Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim

Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
By Jessica Kim
Kokila (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 9780-525-55497-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves March 17th

Remember the funny girls. No one else seems to. Living as we do in an age when every other book published is an inspiring group biography, our children are currently steeped in the very serious nature of what makes a woman great. And being funny, quite frankly, isn’t something that tends to make the cut. Humorists have a purpose on this planet, but you’re not going to win a Nobel or a Pulitzer or even an Oscar most of the time for making someone laugh. This is why funny books written by women are such unicorns in the publishing world. You might find one or two written for 9-12 year olds in a given season, but they’re probably not going to attract much literary cred. You know what they’ll do instead? Make kids laugh. Give them an alternative to the deadly serious fare that’s out there. And, most importantly, show them that women can be just as hilarious as guys. So hats off to Stand Up, Yumi Chung! Sure it’s a funny story couched in a meaningful one, but for what it’s saying and how it says it, I award it a great big rubber chicken. It may not be a work of grit and suffering, but it’s fun and that, to my mind, is worth all the hoity-toity awards in the world.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy. All well and good, but it’s not like everyone’s gifted enough to turn their tragical tragedies into comic gold. Yumi Chung’s been struggling in particular since she’s first generation Korean-American and her parents have some crazy high expectations for her. They want her to pass a scholarship exam for financial aid to her fancy private school with flying colors. She wants to do stand up comedy. What’s a girl to do? Probably not sneak into a summer comedy camp hosting by her idol, pretend to be another camper under an assumed name, and concoct a crazy plan to perform and convince her parents she’s a natural born comedian. Yet that’s exactly what Yumi (now Kay Nakamura) does, and as the lies build up and her parents’ restaurant starts to flounder, she’s caught between her desires and the desires of her family. Is there a way to balance both?

So here’s a pretty basic question about the book: Is it funny? I mean, it’s about someone who’s digging deep down into the depths of their soul to bring hilarity into the world, but are the jokes any good? That sounds like a simple question, but it’s actually pretty complicated. First off, there are definitely funny moments in the book itself. Not too many wild and crazy hijinks, but good observational stuff. You know how I can tell whether or not I’ll like a book? I see how the first chapter feels. It’s not a perfect litmus test, but nine times out of ten it’s pretty darn accurate. In the case of this book, that first chapter is a joy to read. I’ve been taking deep dives into a lot of serious subject matter so encountering a first line like, “I should have known better than to think anyone would listen to me at the Korean beauty salon” feels like a breath of fresh air. But to get back to whether or not the book is funny at all, what about Yumi herself? Do her jokes fly? Let me remind you that Yumi is an eleven-year-old girl. As such, if she were whipping out brilliant material like some kind of George Carlin / Richard Pryor / Ali Wong child savant, how believable would that be? Now I’d argue that the first joke Yumi writes in her notebook is probably her funniest, but the simple fact that she’s so young and willing to try so many things is evidence of the reality of the story. Is she the funniest thing you ever saw? Nope. She’s eleven, but she’s working on that.

Ms. Kim also does this adept little tap dance around the microaggressions Yumi has to deal with in her life without having them draw attention away from whatever scene is playing out. For example, in one moment early in the book, Yumi is talking with a guy named Felipe who has just complimented her. “I break into a sweat. I’m not used to people striking up conversations with me. Last year at Winston, hardly anyone bothered to speak to me at all. My own teacher didn’t call on me for the entire first week of school because he thought I couldn’t speak English. True story.” Then we’re back in the moment with Felipe. It doesn’t skip a beat, but you know a lot more about Yumi from its inclusion. This proves true for the people around Yumi too. In one case, she’s considering how her mom can’t really compliment her without “attaching some kind of warning to balance it out. Like when she tells me, ‘You are pretty, but if you don’t put on sunscreen, your skin will turn rough like dried squid.’ It’s just her way, but I can read between the lines.” You may not be able to completely identify with Yumi’s mom after knowing that, but you can at least be convinced that she truly loves her daughter.

I should mention that I have nothing against inspiring group biographies of women. Just out of curiosity though, where’s the group biography of funny women throughout history? Does it not exist because it would be too hard to write, or because no one’s interested in women that can make people laugh? I’m interested. I bet other people are too. It’s important for kids to see all kinds of people being funny, and until we get a collection of such biographies I’ll be happy that at least kids are getting books like Stand Up, Yumi Chung! in the interim. This is a book unafraid to declare its love of comedy in the face of overwhelming odds. Funny stuff.

On shelves March 17th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Misc: Okay, this may be the best kid review I’ve ever seen. This gal read the book, adored it, and currently her video on her love has garnered something like 53.7K views.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.