Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Importance of Names

My Name is Sangoel
by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed
Illustrated by Catherine Stock
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2009
review copy provided by the publisher

This is the story of a Sudanese boy who is leaving the refugee camp for America. When he leaves, the Wise One says, "Don't worry. You carry a Dinka name. It is the name of your father and of your ancestors before him....You will always be a Dinka. You will be Sangoel. Even in America."

Everyone Sangoel meets in America mispronounces his name -- the lady who meets them at the airport and takes them to their new apartment, the doctor who checks him, his teacher, the soccer coach. Sangoel corrects them too quietly to be heard and winds up feeling like he has lost his name. Then he has the idea of making a shirt that shows his name in pictures. He draws a sun and a soccer goal, and when he gets to school, he gets his name back: it is pronounced Sun-goal, not San-go-el as an English speaker might parse it.

Names are intensely important. They are the core of our identity. In the real world, I hope every teacher and coach ASKS a child to pronounce an unusual name so that they get it right from the beginning and the child does not have to fight for his or her identity. I'm a little extra sensitive to this issue since I teach in a school where just this year I have learned names from Africa, China, Japan, Korea, India, Iran, Iraq, and Russia.

Related books: Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate is a novel in verse about a refugee from Africa.
My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits is about a Korean girl who struggles to accept her given name.


  1. The Name Jar is one I used this year and also relates to your post. I reviewed it here, Thanks for adding another to my collection.

  2. I'm so happy to learn about this book, since I'm a victim of having everyone mispronounce my name. You're so right about names being the "core of our identity." Thanks :).

  3. Wonderful discovery. And perfect message Mary Lee. I agree, names are so important. We should pronounce it correctly and not changing it so that it becomes easier for us to say it.

  4. Mandy,
    Thanks for reminding me about The Name Jar. That is another great one for this set.

  5. I read this with my third grader; we thought it interesting that WE mispronounced his name until he made the t-shirt. In fact, we had talked about how we weren't sure how to say it at the very beginning.

    We both wished the author had given us a hint back at the start. My son's name is also easy to mispronounce, but so far he finds it a bit amusing, like he has a secret.

  6. Beth,
    I wondered about that, too, but in the end, I liked that I had to learn along with everyone in the book -- it was like being in the story. I think when I read it aloud to my class, I'll read it the way I did the first time and we'll talk about how we have to change our thinking when we get more information from the text...and how that parallels real life situations.

  7. I'm excited to check this book out. I'm currently trying to find picture books that deal with issues of poverty--the refugee situation certainly fits. This reminds me of a book I recently read called What is the What by Dave Eggers.
    As for books about the importance of names, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes comes to mind. Glad to have found your blog!


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