Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Brother’s Keeper

Julie Lee, Author

Holiday House, Jul. 21, 2020

Pages: 320

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: North Korea, Family life, Communism, Refugees, Freedom, Korean War

Synopsis:

North Korea, 1950. Twelve-year-old Sora Pak and her family live under an iron set of rules: No travel without a permit. No criticism of the government. No absences from communist meetings. Repeat slogans. Don’t trust your neighbors. Don’t speak your mind. You are being watched.

There is no hope for escape…until war breaks out between North and South Korea. Suddenly there is chaos, and everyone is fleeing. The Paks’ plan to get to freedom is simple: they will walk hundreds of miles from their tiny mountain village to the South Korean city of Busan.

But when a bombing changes everything, Sora must get herself and her eight-year-old brother, Youngsoo, to South Korea alone — across rivers, over mountains, around enemy soldiers and border guards, and even through Pyongyang itself, all while staving off frostbite and starvation. Can two children survive three hundred miles of war zone winter?

Why I like this book:

Julie Lee’s Brother’s Keeper is a powerful work of historical fiction that will transport readers to the Korean War in 1950 — also known as the “Forgotten War” — where millions of people lost their lives trying to flee to South Korea. It is a haunting and compelling story of danger, suffering, survival, taking risks and heroism.  It is also a story about family and home.

The setting is vivid and rich in detail. Sora’s family lives in a square-shaped farmhouse with a thatched roof hugging the house like “a mushroom cap.” Their home is surrounded by fields or corn and millet.  All of the homes in her village look the same, but the countryside is lush and the rivers are the center of activity. The communist (under Kim II Sung ) rule with a tight fist and there are rules to follow and neighbors who spy on each other in return for favors.

Sora is a smart, curious and compassionate sister to two younger brothers. She loves school, learning and dreams of going to college and living in America. Sora has a complicated relationship with her mother, who like most Korean women value their sons over their daughters. Sora is angry when Omahni insists that she quit school to watch her baby brother, Jisoo. She also has to learn to cook and care for a household, which will prepare her for marriage. She’s more like her Abahji and shares similar dreams of travel. Youngsoo is a sweet boy who lifts Sora’s spirit with his humor. And he’s always going to catch her a fish. He’s also small and more vulnerable. Protecting him is what she does.

When a bombing separates Sora and Youngsoo from their family, it becomes Sora’s responsibility to keep them alive. Does she return home, or push forward hoping to find her parents? Courageous and resilient, Sora, chooses the treacherous journey south with only a small map of Korea folded in her pocket. Death and danger lurk around every corner. They find abandoned homes overflowing with sleeping refugees; sparse food; lice infestations; frozen rivers that break up while crossing; bombings; broken bridges; sinking canoes; mountains to climb; kidnappers; violence at the Imjin crossing; cardboard houses; and a frightening box car ride to Busan.

Lee’s novel is also based on the harrowing journey her mother made during the Korean War. The author feels that stories like this deserve a place in American history because there aren’t many books about this “Forgotten War” and the resilient Koreans who fled to South Korea.  Many American soldiers lost their lives trying to liberate the country from communism.  This book is a story for teens and adults.

Make sure you check out the backmatter. There is an Author’s Note; photographs of the author’s mother, siblings and parents; a Timeline of the Korean War with historical information; and a glossary of Korean terms.

Julie Lee graduated from Cornell University with a degree in history. After working in market research in Manhattan for more than ten years, she decided to pursue writing full-time. Currently, Julie lives in Georgia with her husband and three children. When she is not spending time with her family, she is working on her next book while pursuing her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Brother’s Keeper is her debut novel. You can visit Julie at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans

Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans

Tina Cho, Author

Keum Jin Song, Illustrator

Little Bee Books, Historical Fiction, Aug. 14, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Korea, Hunger, Compassion, Kindness, Making a difference

Opening: Out in the countryside, across a bridge, to an island blanketed with rice fields, Appa and I ride. We reach a place where mountains become a wall. A wall so high, no one dares to climb. Beyond that wall and across the sea live children just like me, except they do not have enough food to eat.

Synopsis:

Yoori and her father (Appa) travel to the border of South Korea to help with a secret mission to feed the children of North Korea. Appa grew up starving in North Korea before he escaped. They arrive and meet many other volunteers who are eager to help.  They also are met by angry villagers who chant “Don’t feed the enemy.”

There is a lot of work to be done before nightfall. Rice is poured into smaller bags. Under the cover of darkness, large balloons are filled with helium and bags of rice are tied onto each tail. Appa and Yoori give their balloons a little push as they rise into the sky – Up! Up! Up!. It is a good night as 200 balloons are launched into the air and float over the mountains into North Korea. In the morning, hungry children and families will find rice from friends who care.

Why I like this book:

There is so much beauty in Tina Cho’s book. What a powerful fictionalized story based on true stories of South Koreans showing their kindness and compassion towards the starving children and families living under the heartless North Korean regime. Children hear about North Korea on TV, but don’t understand what is happening.

Cho’s language is lyrical with lovely imagery and a gentle rhythm — “I am a little grain of rice. How can I help?” and “The stars and moon hide under the rain clouds as two hundred balloons creep over the mountains like stealthy ninjas to fight hunger in the darkness of the night.” Keum Jin Song’s beautiful illustrations are hopeful and capture many touching moments. They are colorful and dramatic.

This is my favorite kind of story to share with children because it shows average kids doing something to make a difference for others less fortunate. It is a stark reminder that children can make a difference in their community and world. Rice from Heaven is the perfect medium to start a dialogue about a communist state. It belongs in every school library.

Resources: Encourage kids to write about a time they helped someone and how it made them feel. Look for  projects at school or in the community where kids can make a difference. Make sure you read the Author’s Note about participating in a rice balloon project, sponsored by North Korean refugees who live in Seoul. There are interesting facts about Korea (food, customs, lucky numbers), information about the Politics of the Korean Peninsula and facts on North Korea.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Purchased Copy

Every Falling Star: How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

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Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland, Authors

Amulet Books, Memoir, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 11 – 14

Themes: Life in North Korea, History, Family Relationships, Homeless Boys, Street Children, Gangs, Poverty, Loss, Survival, Escape,  Multicultural, Hope

Prologue Opening: My toy soldier peers over a mound of dirt not far from where my father, abeoji, my mother, eomeoni, and I have just finished our picnic, near the Daedong River in Pyongyang.

Synopsis: Every Falling Star is the memoir of Sungju Lee, a North Korean (Joseon) boy who grows up in a privileged military family in Pyongyang.  He dreams of becoming a general in the army. His father is an important military leader, his mother a teacher and his grandfather a doctor. Sungju plays with his toy soldiers and his father joins him to teach him war strategies. His favorite television cartoon is Boy General. His loving  family lives in a large apartment near Kim Il-sung Square. Life is normal and there is plenty of food. Sungju attends school where he listens to the stories about the eternal leader, Kim Il-Sung, studies regular subjects, and learns about the monsters that want to attack his country — the Americans, the Japanese and the South Koreans. He takes taekwondo lessons, attends birthday parties, and goes to the amusement park.

One day Sungju’s father is asked to leave his job because of something he’s done. The family is sent north to Gyeong-seong, where they are to work as laborers in the countryside. Sungju is shocked by his new life and the starvation and death around him. He attends school where he makes friends, but attending is not worth his time. Eventually the family’s money (won) runs out and they fall upon hard times like everyone else. His parents hunt for wild vegetables, roots, small animals in the forests to survive. Sungju sells his books in the market. When his father goes to China to sell valuables and his mother heads to an aunt’s home for food, Sungju is alone. They never return and he is homeless. The twelve-year-old is forced to live in the streets and fend for himself. He survives for four years by joining a gang (kotjebi) and creates a new family with these brothers. Eventually he leads his own gang. Life is dangerous, brutal, and unforgiving. Sungju learns to steal, lie, and fight-to-kill. Everyday he fears arrest, imprisonment and even execution. It is the hope of finding his parents that keeps him alive.

Why I like this book:

  • Sungju Lee’s brave memoir captivated me from start to finish. I know so little about life in contemporary North Korea, and his gripping and powerfully haunting story touched me in a way I won’t forget. This is a true story that humanizes history for readers.
  • Lee and author Susan McClelland vividly depict the sharp contrast between life for the privileged families living in Pyongyang and the grim, deplorable and brutal life for the poor living through the famine outside the city in the 1990s. You understand how children in Pyongyang are brainwashed with propaganda based on myths from birth. You feel the anger, hopelessness and despair of those starving in the countryside and wonder how you would survive an authoritarian government where censorship is rampant and your freedoms are taken away.
  • Readers will observe Sungju’s transformation from a naïve child, loving and dutiful son in Pyongyang, to a resilient, fearless and notorious street gang leader. He uses the military tactics his father teaches him as a child to outsmart his street enemies, merchants and the police. He has rules his gang all agree to live by, like never stealing food from a child. He develops strategies, secret codes and hideouts. He is a leader and becomes hardened. The only heart he shows is towards his loyal gang brothers: Young-bum, Chulho, Min-gook, Unsik, Myeongchul, and Sangchul. They are his family.
  • The story is a page turner, reads like a novel and is packed with action. The pacing is fierce with most of the storytelling focused on Sungju’s street survival. He and his gang are always on the move. They hop trains to other cities, fight with different gangs for control over markets, manipulate merchants, and are chased out-of-town by police. They move on to other cities and repeat their activities. They also suffer personal injury and loss of two of their brothers.
  • Readers will have to wait until the very last chapter to discover how Sungju leaves his street life and is reunited with his family. The ending feels rushed and I wanted to know more about his big escape. After all, it is a risky event. Thankfully, there is an Epilogue at the end that fills in the gaps. Verdict: Teens will find this powerful memoir about adversity and hope, engaging and satisfying.  Every Falling Star belongs in school libraries. Although the publisher lists the book for ages 12-14, the School Library Journal recommends it for middle grade readers, ages 8 -12. Because of the drinking, drugs, stealing and violence in the book, parents should make that call for tweens.

Quote: “But I hadn’t lost everything. I had hope that I would meet my parents again. With this hope, I made a wish whenever I saw a falling star.”

Resources: There is a Brief History of Korea and Prologue at the beginning of the book. There is an Epilogue and Glossary of Korean words at the end.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.