Korea's youngest published authors

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A middle-class suburban home, surrounded by similar homes with manicured lawns and well-clipped shrubs, is not the first place you'd expect to find a pair of famous Korean authors.

But these authors would surprise anyone. Two round-faced children greet their visitor with shy smiles. They are Sabina and Annie Yoon, 13 and 11 years old respectively, and they are Korea's youngest published authors.

In the United States only seven months, the youngsters are unsure of their English, and rely on their aunt, Jean Keimon, to translate for them.

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Unusual as it is for children anywhere to become published authors, it is even rarer in Korea. According to Mrs. Keimon, the girls' book was the first by children to be published in that country.

How did it happen?

''When I was in fifth grade,'' Sabina says through her aunt, ''the schoolteachers and board of education wanted to have a book printed, but Father objected.''

''He didn't want the children exposed to publicity,'' Mrs. Keimon explains.

The girls' father, Joong Chul Yoon, is no stranger to the lot of a child star. When he was in the seventh grade, Mrs. Keimon says, he entered a poem in a newspaper competition and won top honors.

''At the ceremony,'' she says, ''they expected an adult.''

Mr. Yoon's achievement caused quite a stir at the time, Mrs. Keimon says. There was even a question raised about whether he qualified for the award, since the contest had been for adults. The newspaper had not made that limitation clear, however, and in the end young Yoon got his prize.

Despite his own experience, the girls' father finally relented and allowed his daughters' work to be published. The result is a 117-page collection of poetry and essays called, in rough translation, ''A Circle in Chorus.''

The ''circle'' of the book's title is Annie's face, as described in one of Sabina's poems, and the ''chorus'' is comprised of both girls' voices, Mrs. Keimon explains.

The book, charmingly illustrated by Sabina's and Annie's cousin, a well-known Korean cartoonist, has been adopted by that country's board of education for distribution throughout the Korean school system. It is also being translated into Japanese.

How did the work of two young children gain recognition?

Almost as soon as she learned to read and write, Sabina began to follow in her father's footsteps, winning her first writing award in the second grade. Among the 12 prizes she has amassed so far, is the highest honor in Korea, the Prime Minister's Award for Writing, which she won in 1979.

''A person can only get it once in a lifetime,'' her aunt says.

The prize, an organ with an inscribed plaque, has a place of honor in Sabina's new American bedroom.

Like her sister, Annie began winning awards for her writing in the second grade. So far, she has four to her credit.

It was when Annie showed the same talent as her sister that their teachers came up with the plan to publish.

Life in their new country is ''entirely different,'' Sabina observes. ''Even school life is different.''

''There are no uniforms,'' Annie says.

''In Korea,'' Sabina continues, ''we didn't have physical education. Here it's every day, and we're running all day long. In Korea, I had my classroom and different teachers came in. Here, we don't have a teacher who is my teacher. Instead, we move around to different classrooms.''

Sabina has just completed the seventh grade at Jordan Junior High School in Burbank.

''I wish I would learn English quickly,'' she says, ''so that I can write and read books. I'm so frustrated that I can't read books right now.''

Annie, who completed the fifth grade at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School in Burbank, is beginning to bridge the language barrier with the help of her new friends, particularly Mesalina, a girl of Mexican descent.

''Annie is teaching Mesalina Korean,'' her teacher, Patricia Lowe, says, ''and Mesalina's teaching Annie English and Spanish. So I would sometimes go to Annie's desk and see the same word written in Spanish, English and Korean.

''Within the first month of school,'' Ms. Lowe says, ''Annie wrote a story.''

Sabina and Annie attended an elite private school in Korea that has tough entrance exams.

''It's comparable to going to Stanford or Harvard - but on an elementary-school level,'' Ms. Lowe says.

''Once they're in, the pressure to stay in is incredible,'' Mrs. Keimon adds. ''The children work night and day.''

''Here we don't have much homework,'' Sabina observes. ''Also, in Korea, the communication between the teachers and students is very close. Here it doesn't seem so.''

Asked how she likes being a celebrity, Sabina smiles shyly. ''I get so used to it,'' her aunt translates, ''it's not such a big deal.''

''She's been in newspapers and on TV all over Korea,'' Mrs. Keimon explains. ''And she was the top student in her school, with a 99 percent average.''

Sabina has ambitious plans for the future. ''A Circle in Chorus'' will be translated ''when I know enough English,'' she says. And she hopes that more books will follow. ''I would also like to write novels,'' she admits.

Overcoming her shyness a little, she adds that she hopes someday to win a Nobel Prize. ''I don't know if I'll be good enough, but it's good to have a goal.

''I wish a lot of American children would write also,'' she says, ''so that we could share our feelings together.''

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