Review by Jakki Licare
Stand up, Yumi Chung!
By Jessica Kim | Cover Illustration by Jennifer Hom
This synopsis contains spoilers
Yumi Chung is enjoying her summer and the fact that she doesn’t have to go to her private school and deal with a bully everyday. So when her mom tells her they can no longer afford her private school because the family’s restaurant isn’t doing well, Yumi is thrilled. Unfortunately, Yumi’s mom still wants her to go to the private school because she believes it will help her get into a good university. To this end, Yumi’s mom signs her up for Hagwon – test-prep school – to help her study for the SSAT. If Yumi can pass the SSAT with a 98% or better then she can get an academic scholarship to her private school.
On her way to the library to study, Yumi discovers a comedy club opening up. When she hears her favorite YouTube comedian, Jasmine Jasper, inside, she can’t resist peeking in. Jasmine sees Yumi and welcomes her to the summer comedy camp. Jasmine thinks Yumi is the no-show camper, Kay. Yumi’s so flustered, she doesn’t correct the mistake and finds herself joining in on an improv exercise. Yumi has a great time at the camp and can’t bring herself to tell Jasmine that she isn’t Kay.
Later, the Hagwon leader meets with Yumi and points out how Yumi often bubbles in the correct answer, but then second guesses herself. She encourages Yumi to be more confident in herself. Another day on her way to the library, Yumi bumps into a comedy camp friend and decides to pretend to be Kay again. After all, the Hagwon leader told her to be more confident, and Yumi has never felt more confident than when she’s pretending to be Kay. Yumi’s camp friends tell her about a new performing arts magnet school. Yumi wants to apply, but doesn’t think her parents will let her.
As Yumi continues going to the camp, she realizes that she should show her parents how important comedy is to her. She decides to trick them into going to the comedy showcase. If they can see how happy she is on stage then maybe they’ll let her apply for the Performing Arts school. But first, she has to prove to them that performing won’t interfere with her academics; so Yumi starts studying.
Yumi joins the campers at a nursing home where they’ll practice performing comedy to a real audience. Yumi’s excited, but her set is a big flop. Jasmine pulls her aside afterwards and tells her not to give up. Just because the jokes didn’t work doesn’t mean they’re failures.
Yumi’s dad builds a karaoke stage to drum up business for their restaurant. She becomes alarmed when she finds out her parents are behind on the rent and that if they don’t raise $6,000 in eight days the restaurant will have to close. Yumi talks to her big sister about the restaurant and after a little slip, her sister finds out that she’s been pretending to be Kay. She scolds Yumi for lying and makes her promise to tell Jasmine the truth.
Yumi goes to tell Jasmine the truth in person, but she chickens out and decides to drop out of the comedy showcase instead. Yumi returns to camp to sneak an apology note into Jasmine’s bag, but before she can, the real Kay shows up. Yumi is caught in her lie and her parents discover that she’s been secretly going to the comedy camp instead of studying. They ground Yumi and take away her phone.
Her parents hold a grand reopening after renovating the restaurant, but they don’t raise enough money. Yumi’s father apologizes to her for not doing better and explains that this is why they want her to study so hard. He doesn’t want her to struggle like he has. She tells him about how important comedy is to her and surprisingly, her dad understands. He loves the stage too. He wanted to be a gasu, a singer, when he was younger, but he couldn’t support his family with singing. He tells her he really wants what’s best for her and that going to a good school is the best thing for her.
When Yumi gets her phone back, she FaceTimes with her camp friends and apologizes for deceiving them. Her new friends accept her apology. As they start joking around, Yumi gets the idea to do an open mic night at the restaurant. Her friends are excited about the idea and encourage her to reach out to Jasmine so she can spread the word through the comedy club.
Yumi goes to the comedy club and apologizes to Jasmine. They work things out and Jasmine agrees to spread the word. Yumi runs home and tells her parents about the open mic night idea. They’re skeptical, but agree to give it a chance. On the night of the show, a lot of people show up, but no one wants to be first up on stage. Yumi raises her hand.
Yumi struggles in the beginning of her set, but with the encouragement of her friends she regains her footing and continues on. She jokes about her ordinary summer of stealing another person’s identity, but at the end of her act she states that she’s learned to be happy with who she is. Everyone applauds and Yumi gets to experience her first comedian high. After they close, the family races to the computer to calculate the night’s revenue. They discover that they made over $7,000, and the restaurant is saved.
A week later, as Yumi is talking to her sister about how excited she is to start improv classes, an email pops up on her phone congratulating her on her academic scholarship. Yumi is okay with going back to her private school because she knows things won’t be the same. She’s confident about who she is now, and this time she won’t hold herself back.
If you’re looking for a book that will make your middle-grade reader chuckle, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! is the perfect pick. Yumi’s funny asides about her daily struggles and her stand-up jokes make this book a laugh-out-loud read. When her mother makes snide comments about her hair and then makes her get a perm that she doesn’t want, Yumi writes out a whole comedy routine about it. Her punchline summarizes the experience perfectly: “Sometimes you just have to brush it off. The comments and the dandruff.”
Not only will Yumi’s funny jokes keep readers giggling throughout the book, but watching her attend improv classes, perform a set, and suffer as her jokes fall flat will show how hard Yumi has to work at being funny. When the punchline to Yumi’s joke about how her parents won’t pay her for every A she gets on her report card, the audience members murmur that her parents are abusive and tiger parents. Yumi is devastated that no one gets the joke, and she’s determined to throw the whole act out until Jasmine explains to her that most jokes start out as failures. When a joke fails it tells you something isn’t working and it’s a comedian’s job to try to fix it, Jasmine explains.
For readers curious to learn how improv comedy works, they can pull up a seat right next to Yumi and learn along with her. I thought it’s especially interesting to see how important teamwork is in improv. One skit that her friends do together flops because they each do their own thing and don’t build off of each other. When they try again, one camper makes a comment about how if he doesn’t get food soon he’ll turn “to the dark side.” One of Yumi’s other friends picks up on this comment and pretends to be Darth Vader. Then Yumi jumps in and lets out a Chewbacca roar. By working together their skit soon fills the auditorium with laughter.
But the main reason I’ll recommend this book to any middle grader is Yumi’s character transformation. In the beginning she can’t even tell her mom she doesn’t want a perm. Then, when the Hagwon leader tells her she needs to be more confident, Yumi finds her confidence not in herself but in pretending to be Kay. By the end of the book, however, she finds the strength to apologize to her friends and Jasmine for pretending to be Kay. She opens up to her father about her dreams, and she’s even able to do a comedy set in front of her parents, making jokes about her summer’s mistakes. Best of all, though, Yumi has the confidence to go back to her old school and is willing to put herself out there.
If you’re looking for a book that will make your kids giggle while teaching them the importance of being comfortable with who they are, then Stand up, Yumi Chung! is a must read to add to your home, classroom, and school library.
Discover more about Jessica Kim and her writing on her website.
Ages 9 – 12
Kokila, Penguin Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-0525554974 (Hardcover); ISBN 978-0525554998 (Paperback)
Read a New Book Month Activity
Stand Up, Yumi Chung! Activity Kit
You can find loads of puzzles, prompts, curriculum extensions, and even a recipe for Korean Bugogi on Jessica Kim’s website here.
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