Yumi is a middle-school-age Korean-American with immigrant parents. Yumi wants to do stand-up comedy but her parents believe she needs to concentrate on studying to pass a test and get a scholarship to an expensive private school with a good academic reputation (on the path to a good college and a career that is financially secure). Through a ridiculous misunderstanding Yumi ends up being mistaken for Kay Nakamura–a student who didn’t show up for a summer comedy camp led by Yumi’s idol, Jasmine–an up-and-coming youtube comic. Yumi begins learning about the craft of comedy by maintaining the others’ mistaken identity assumption. At the same time Yumi’s older sister has dropped out of medical school–to her parents’ dismay–and volunteered for the Peace Corps and her parents’ Korean barbecue restaurant is in danger of closing. In the midst of all this Yumi just feels invisible–unseen and unheard. She creates a “plan” to convince her parents of the validity and importance of both her comedy aspirations and her desire to attend the new performing arts school.
Stand Up, Yumi Chung! could easily have been a typical middle grade story: a few humorous moments, a few thoughtful moments, a big afterschool-special moment and characters that look different from other stories superficially but are really interchangeable. Yumi Chung is SO much more than that!
Yumi’s story is mostly grounded in reality. Yumi’s “plan” is definitely created from a middle-school-age worldview (i.e. most people over the age of 17 would see the obvious pitfalls and the majority of kids 16 and under would find it reasonable). Yumi and her sister’s relationships with their parents (and their expectations) avoids the stereotypical immigrant/parent-doesn’t-understand-the-child-in-modern-American-culture and the child cannot understand their parents’ ignorance-of-or-refusal-to-embrace-said-culture. Their conflict is more universal: they are struggling to find ways to communicate with each other. Yumi’s parents have some traditional beliefs but still have space to love and listen to their daughters–even when they do not agree. In turn, Yumi loves her parents completely but is beginning the developmental phase of deciding which of her parents’ beliefs and behaviors she wants to keep for her own and from which ones she will choose to diverge and create her own versions. This is a part of life with which every reader can identify. There is an absolutely beautiful scene between Yumi and her father when he allows her into a moment when he is feeling especially vulnerable. She sees a different side of her father–including elements she is surprised to recognize in herself.
I was gratified to see Jasmine’s instruction of comedy theory and technique, as well as improvisation, are represented pretty accurately for a middle-grade theatre class: a balance between teaching and NOT underestimating your young students. The enthusiasm, the trial-and-error nature, the allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to make mistakes in order to discover your best material and the need to deal with rejection and “failure” as a moment instead of a designation are all elements of theatre that mirror so much of our everyday lives.
Another aspect that makes Stand Up, Yumi Chung! stand out in middle-grade literature is that the conclusion of the novel does NOT hinge on the success or failure of Yumi’s “plan.” Yumi’s journey is not a success-only venture–artistically or interpersonally. Yumi’s biggest accomplishment is finally feeling seen and heard, and realizing that she doesn’t need to be someone else to find joy and contentment in her life–she just needs to accept and embrace who she already is. Those middle grade years are when we tend to both over and under think things while trying to identify what is valuable to us and who we are as individuals. There are lots of difficult and overwhelming (to us) emotions and situations. Constructive feedback, honest communication and unconditional support when we mess up are the things that help us through. Stand Up, Yumi Chung! brilliantly weaves that journey for Yumi in front of us.
I will be honest and say that there were two moments that stretched my believability threshhold but the good-hearted nature of its characters, the strength and quality of the writing and the depth of the character development make Stand Up, Yumi Chung! a book I will be recommending to a lot of my middle school theatre students!