The Color of Earth trilogy (First Second) by popular Korean manwha creator Kim Dong Hwa is hugely popular in his home country and has been positively received in many schools and libraries in the United States, but it has faced some opposition since its translation into English. In 2011, The Color of Earth held the two spot on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books. As a book about a young girl coming of age and growing into her sexuality in a small rural Korean town, some attempted to have the book banned for perceived “sexually explicit” and “age-inappropriate” content.
In hopes of preventing any future challenges or bans of The Color of Earth, we’ve put together these resources for librarians and educators who may need to justify and defend the inclusion of the book in library and classroom collections or curricula.
Macmillan, which houses First Second, the imprint that published the book, describes the story:
First love is never easy.
Ehwa grows up helping her widowed mother run the local tavern, watching as their customers — both neighbors and strangers — look down on her mother for her single lifestyle. Their social status isolates Ehwa and her mother from the rest of the people in their quiet country village. But as she gets older and sees her mother fall in love again, Ehwa slowly begins to open up to the possibility of love in her life.
In the tradition of My Antonia and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from the pen of the renowned Korean manwha creator Kim Dong Hwa, comes a trilogy about a girl coming of age, set in the vibrant, beautiful landscape of pastoral Korea.
First Second, the publisher of The Color of Earth, graciously provided many of the following materials, which can be used to support your selection of The Color of Earth or (and we hope this never happens!) to defend it against a challenge.
Reviews for The Color of Earth
Booklist (starred review)
The first in a trilogy, this beautifully scripted and drawn Korean manhwa provides a truly intimate but respectful journey in the company of a young girl and her widowed mother. Spanning Ehwa’s life from age seven to 16, each chapter shows the progress of her sexual awakening, much more as an emotional and social reality than a set of physical circumstances. As Ehwa moves from the open curiosity of childhood that fixates on body parts to the mysteries of attraction and her own heartbreak, she and her mother navigate common issues that range from defending one’s feelings from bullies (little boys in Ehwa’s life; gossipy men in her mother’s) to mutual attraction (a young monk and a visiting boy from a more monied class for Ehwa; an itinerant painter/scholar for her mother). The mother and daughter share their stories with each other in a developmentally appropriate and credible fashion. The black-and-white art is presented in generous panels and several full-page spreads. While there is some nudity appropriate to the narrative, both the natural and social worlds are depicted to call attention to facial expressions rather than body parts. A variety of flowers adorns the pages, lending a palpable scent of perfume to this heady and gentle read. This is an exquisite and feminist-positive story richly literate and imaginative. Readers will eagerly await the subsequent volumes. –Francisca Goldsmith
BCCB (recommended review)
In this first manhwa (Korean graphic novel) of a trilogy (based on the author’s youth and set in rural Korea), Ehwa grows from a naïve six-year-old girl taunted by local boys for not having a penis to a lovely young teenager trying to decide which of two young men, a monk or the son of a local orchard farmer, she is drawn to more. The most important relationship she has, however, is with her beautiful, young, widowed mother: as Ehwa grows and learns more about her developing body and her sexuality, her mother is there to correct misapprehensions and help her understand the complicated and sometimes contradictory emotions of becoming and being a woman. She does this mostly by working through metaphors around their home; it helps that she too has a slowly blossoming relationship with a kind and artistic traveling sales man. The lush drawings combine prettily stylized elements with richly realistic detail, and they turn even indelicate moments, such as a literal pissing contest between local boys, the monk’s first nocturnal emissions, and Ehwa’s shock at her menarche, into tenderly rendered, universal episodes of growing up. Though the art is black and white, the textures inked in the fabrics and details of the landscapes suggest breathtaking beauty and rich color to complement the lyrical music of the text, which at times becomes poetic. As one might expect from an artist who typically writes in the frothier genre of Korean sunjung, this is on the sweet side for a graphic novel, and yet it contains depths of sentiment that are personally revealing and affirming for young readers while they manage to confront issues of sexism and the difficulties as well as the joys of a woman rearing a daughter alone in a strongly patriarchal culture. The themes of sexual awakening for Ehwa, and reawakening for her mother, are timeless, as is the intimacy of their relationship. Notes from a Korean scholar follow and enrich the reading of the novel, commenting on multiple contexts for this original and appealing work.
Manga master Kim releases the first in a trilogy of graphic novels that trace the coming of age of a young girl in pastoral Korea. Ehwa lives with her mother, a widowed tavern keeper ostracized by fellow villagers for her independent lifestyle. But an unexpected visit from a traveling salesman ignites a flame of desire in her mother that lays the groundwork for Ehwa’s exploration of her own sexual awakening. Flower and water motifs course steadily through the author’s erotically tinted observations of daily life, but the breathtakingly elegant line drawings of Korean landscapes elevate the use of such standard metaphors for fertility and sexuality. Furthermore, the author is able to evoke nuances of emotion from stock-character forms in a genre not known for its subtlety. Despite his best intentions, however, yang clearly overpowers the mystique of the yin in this opener: Stereotypes — among those referenced here are that women talk a lot, are emotionally fragile and must rely on men for their sexual fulfillment — dot the otherwise unblemished landscapes that saturate this enchanting meditation on love and longing. (Graphic novel. 14 & up)
This manhwa — first in a trilogy — chronicling the lives of a single mother and her daughter in rural Korea is a moving and evocative look at love as seen through the eyes of one feeling it for the first time and another who longs to savor it once more. The story follows daughter Ehwa from age seven up as she discovers the physical differences between boys and girls, grows into young womanhood and undergoes her initial confusing experiences with attraction and romance. Ehwa’s interest is piqued by a young Buddhist monk, a lad whose interest is mutual but doomed to futility thanks to his faith’s strict code of celibacy. Meanwhile, Ehwa’s mother, who was widowed at an early age, finds her loneliness soothed by the attentions of an artistic traveling salesman known only as “Picture Man.” Their relationship later helps Ehwa understand much about the joys of making a romantic connection. This book has no conflict other than that common to youthful competition over boys, but it is a work of great humanity that sucks the reader in. Kim’s artwork is stunning, and seldom has a male writer captured the attitudes, emotions and behavior of female characters so believably.
School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up — A coming-of-age story set in rural Korea a few generations ago. Ehwa is a beautiful young woman who, over a series of vignettes, learns about her body and how men and women make babies. She suffers the pain of her first unrequited love for the boy monk Chung-Myung (who also suffers from his own forbidden love for her). She also finds herself attracted to Sunoo, a rich son of an orchard owner who studies in the city. While Ehwa discovers her own desires, her widowed mother finds love again with a traveling picture salesman. The story revolves around the close relationship the women share as Ehwa becomes her mother’s main ally and confidante. The illustrator uses flowers in many of the vignettes to explain aspects of love or to represent his characters and their relationships. While the book begins when Ehwa is seven and only takes her into her early teen years, the nostalgic tone and slow pacing make the title more likely to appeal to older readers. The artwork is beautiful, particularly in Hwa’s depiction of the landscape and the two main characters. A good additional purchase for libraries looking for less action-oriented manga/manhwa titles. –Alana Abbott, James Blackstone Memorial Library, Branford, CT
Shojo Beat Magazine
Creator Kim Dong Hwa is a master of shojo manga in Korea (where it’s called sunjung manhwa). Hoping to reach beyond his established teenage girl audience, Hwa has produced a sweeping trilogy of books about two generations of women. In the first book, Ehwa is a young girl who is slowly discovering her sexuality. Her mother, a widow and restaurateur, is also grappling with her own struggle being a single mother. Hwa compares and contrasts the dynamic between mother and daughter to great effect, and he portrays his two protagonists with all the dignity and chaos they deserve. A lyrical poem, a tale of sexual awakening, and an homage to generations of Korean women, The Color of Earth gives us an intimate glimpse of adulthood seen through the experiences shared by a mother and her child. Book two comes in June, and the final book will be in stores in September. –Eric Searleman
Reviews for The Color of Water
The story of Ehwa’s maturation and relationship with her mother continues at the stately and symbol-laden pace that marked The Color of Earth (2009). Now in her teens, Ehwa falls in love with a laborer who at first pays her unwanted romantic attention. Meanwhile, Ehwa’s mother’s own love life continues to be one as much of longing as of satisfaction. Excellent storytelling and beautiful artwork make this worthy of the included reading-group discussion guide. Recommended for all graphic-novel collections, this is essential for those that already have the first volume. —Francisca Goldsmith
School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up — In this installment in the trilogy set in 19th-century Korea, Ehwa falls in love with a strong young man named Duksam, while her mother continues her affair with a traveling salesman. This is a quiet and intimate story about a girl’s first sexual awakenings as well as the changing nature of her relationship with her mother during her adolescence. The language and concepts are poetic — Ehwa’s mother teaches her that women are like flowers while men are like fire and wind. While Hwa’s artwork predominantly conveys a lot of emotion with very few carefully placed lines, there are some larger scenes of natural beauty (flowers, trees, the night sky) that are breathtaking in their detail. A Korean village is a far cry from the environment of most American teens, but the romantic themes will keep even modern girls pining for more of this story. It is not necessary to have read The Color of Earth (Roaring Brook, 2009) to understand this volume, but since readers will probably be curious to learn about Ehwa’s first two loves and about what will happen with Duksam in the future, ordering the trilogy is a sound investment. –Andrea Lipinski, New York Public Library
In this second installment of the Color Trilogy, teenaged Ehwa learns more about the thrills and the pains of love when she falls for Duksam, a brash and handsome young wrestler. Ehwa lives alone with her young widowed mother, Namwon, in a rural Korean village in the late nineteenth century. As Ehwa pines for Duksam and longs for their secret meetings, her mother waits for visits from her lover, a traveling salesman. Ehwa and Namwon’s bond is the core of the book, as they navigate their changing mother/daughter relationship. Although Namwon does not know of Ehwa’s feelings for Duksam, she realizes that Ehwa will soon be ready to marry and considers what her life will be like when Ehwa is gone. Ehwa and Duksam’s dreams are threatened when Duksam’s elderly master, Cho, finds out about Ehwa. Obsessed with Ehwa’s youth and beauty, Master Cho is determined to marry Ehwa himself.
Like the first book of this manhwa trilogy, this sequel should appeal to any reader looking for a poetic coming-of-age story or adventurous manga fans. Ehwa’s physical and emotional growth is evocatively compared to her natural surroundings. Hwa’s expressive artwork and lyrical writing sensitively yet realistically explore romance and sexuality, including Ehwa’s first kiss and her first masturbation experience. Humor also pervades the story, especially when Ehwa learns about sex from her more experienced friend Bongsoon. —Amy Luedtke
Reviews for The Color of Heaven
The tender and gorgeously illustrated manhwa trilogy (begun in The Color of Earth and The Color of Water, both 2009) honoring the artist’s mother as she travels from childhood through girlhood to her status as a newlywed young woman comes to a successful close in this volume. Ehwa, at 17, is beautiful and lonely, having had to part with her true love when he must run away to sea. With her widowed mother, she learns to wait and to read traditional signs in nature, such as specific flower bloomings or the first snow. All turns out happily with her love’s return and the ensuing marriage. The full cycle belongs in every literary collection. —Francisca Goldsmith
Having foundered a bit in terms of narrative flow in the second installment of this manhwa trilogy, Hwa regains his footing as he completes the coming-of-age tale of Ehwa, a young woman of early twentieth century Korea, in this graphic novel based on his mother’s youth. After a tearful farewell to her young man, Duksam, who promises to return to her after he has made some money, Ehwa is lashed by her mother for staying out all night. Her punishment concludes, however, with a new sense of trust as he mother acknowledges that Ehwa is no longer a child. The two women commiserate over the trials of waiting for one’s beloved, and Ehwa shares a funny moment with a randy female friend as they discuss the Korean ideals of beauty for women. When Duksam returns, he and Ehwa turn their attention to marriage, and Ehwa’s mother mediates on the joy she has for her daughter commingled with the fears she has for her own lonely future. Fortunately, Mother’s own suitor returns with intention to stay, so both women will enjoy futures with the men they love. Hwa is at his pictorial storytelling best in the chapter on Ehwa’s bridal night, where he mingles increasingly ecstatic metaphoric imagery (starting with butterflies, clouds, flower petals, and paper lanterns and ending with pounding gongs, a mortar and pestle, and a waterfall) with discreet but illustrative linework of the beautiful young couple making love. The result is both sweet and sexy, but the erotic tension is broken by humorous scenes of the village girls listening at the door, and of one of the lascivious old men from the tavern, inspired by the wedding night, trying (and ultimately failing) at sex with his puzzled, sharp-tongued wife. The wit both cuts and sharpens the sweet by contrast, but it is the ultimate scene of the mother wistfully peering out into the night that sounds the haunting, sustained note of longing and nostalgia that flows through this profoundly moving picture of a girl’s path to womanhood. An extensive discussion guide for the entire series, some of it repeated from the first and second books, follows the text.
Kirkus (starred review)
The final — and best — installment of manhwa artist Kim’s moving trilogy chronicling the coming of age of a girl in pastoral Korea, based loosely on his mother’s own youth. As summer comes to a close, the strikingly cinematic opening finds Ehwa bidding a hurried farewell to the handsome wrestler who caught her eye in the previous installment (The Color of Water, 2009). Her lover heads off to work as a fisherman, and Ehwa returns to her mother’s tavern and begins an autumn of discontent. She’s testy to friends and fresh with her mother, but most of all, she’s frustrated by the distance between herself and Duksam. Winter arrives, bringing with it not only Duksam’s unexpected return and plans for a spring wedding but also the artist’s stark, crisp winter landscapes. As Ehwa and her mother prepare for the traditional ceremony, the nuanced nature metaphors and fertile scenery evoke the melancholy of change. This title, more than its predecessors, blends achingly beautiful artwork with a well-paced story — as fully realized, finally, as the heroine the artist has created. (Graphic novel. 14 & up)
Sacramento Book Review
In this concluding volume to the Color trilogy, Kim Dong Hwa takes the relationship between Ehwa and her mother to a new level, for the little girl is now seventeen and a blossoming woman. The women find they have more in common than they thought, as they wait and yearn for their lovers who are far away, wondering when they will return. Nevertheless, Ehwa still has some crucial lessons to learn from her parent. But Hwa must bring the series to a close, and he does so with Ehwa’s betrothal to Duksam, and their beautiful wedding. Her mother says goodbye to the daughter she’s had in her home for so long, and while her lover now returns to her for good, she finds herself once again looking out from her home, waiting, this time for the return of her daughter who she now misses greatly. Hwa’s artwork and scenery continue to astound, while The Color of Heaven does an incredible job of revealing facets of Korean culture rendered in such a beautiful way.
School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up — This manhwa concludes this quietly moving trilogy about Ehwa and her mother. Ehwa is in love with Duksam, who left at the end of The Color of Water (Roaring Brook, 2009) to make his fortune so that he could come back and marry her. Actually, he also left to escape the men who wanted to punish him for destroying the property of the old man who tried to take Ehwa for himself in volume two. Most of this book takes place in the village with the two women pining for their men and talking about men and nature and flowers and trees. Hwa’s black-and-white illustrations are once again stunning, simple at first glance but on closer examination they are amazing in their detail. The Color of Heaven can stand on its own as an enjoyable read, but it is an absolute must for readers who have devoured the earlier volumes. –Andrea Lipinski, New York Public Library
Awards and Recognition
- Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Greatest Graphic Novel for Teens List in 2010 [list]
- Texas Library Association’s Maverick Graphic Novels List
- Booklist’s Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth List in 2010 [list]
Using Graphic Novels in Education: The Color of Earth Trilogy
Using Graphic Novels in Education is an ongoing feature from CBLDF that is designed to allay confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and teachers raise readers. In this column, we examine graphic novels, including those that have been targeted by censors, and provide teaching and discussion suggestions for the use of such books in classrooms. You can view the column for The Color of the Earth Trilogy here.
Case Study: The Color of the Earth
When the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom released their list of the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2011, the second-most challenged book on that list was The Color of Earth, the first book of a critically-acclaimed Korean manwha, or comic book, series. In spite of numerous positive reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, the School Library Journal, and other outlets that praise the book as “richly literate and imaginative” (Booklist) and “a work of great humanity” (Publishers Weekly), the coming-of-age tale is challenged due to nudity, sexual content, and suitability for age group. More…
What should I do if The Color of the Earth is challenged?
Most challenges to comics in libraries come from well-meaning individuals, frequently parents, who find something they believe is objectionable in their local public or school library. These challenges are often difficult and stressful for the library staff who must manage them, but there are resources to help them in the process. Below we’ve identified a number of tips and links to assist libraries to increase the likelihood of keeping challenged comics on the shelves.
1. Make Strong Policies.
Strong selection and challenge review policies are key for protecting access to library materials, including comics. The American Library Association has developed a number of excellent tools to assist school and public libraries in the essential preparation to perform before books are challenged here.
2. Face the Challenge.
What do you do when a comic is challenged? Much of the material in this post can be used to help defend This One Summer against a challenge. The American Library Association has developed these helpful tools to cope with challenges:
- Conducting a Challenge Hearing
- Strategies and Tips for Dealing with Challenges
- Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources
CBLDF can also help by providing assistance with locating review resources, writing letters of support, and facilitating access to experts and resources. Call 800-99-CBLDF or email email@example.com at the first sign of a First Amendment emergency!
3. Report the Challenge.
Another essential step in protecting access to comics is to report challenges when they occur. By reporting challenges, you help the free expression community gather necessary information about what materials are at risk so better tools can be created to assist. To report a challenge to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, call us at 800-99-CBLDF or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also report the challenge to the Kids’ Right to Read Project, a CBLDF-sponsored program from the National Coalition Against Censorship and one of our frequent partners in the fight against censorship. Finally, you can report the challenge to ALA here.
Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2015 by visiting the Rewards Zone, making a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!