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.

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives

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Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch, Authors

Little Brown and Company, Memoir, Apr. 14, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 12 and up

Themes: Pen Pals, Teenagers, U.S. and Zimbabwe, Friendship, Poverty, Friendship

Book Jacket Synopsis: It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin’s class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. Martin was lucky to even receive a pen-pal letter. There were only ten letters, and forty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one. That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

Why I like this book:

  • This is an inspirational  story about a true friendship that begins between two 12-year-old students in 1997 — Caitlin lives in Pennsylvania and Martin lives in the slums of Zimbabwe. They make a pen pal pact that they “will always write back.” Their story is about similarities and contrasts. Their friendship transforms both of their lives and makes them better people.
  • The dual memoir is told in first person with alternating chapters that keep readers turning pages. It also adds more depth to the story because readers have immediate access to their intimate thoughts and feelings as they exchange letters and build trust with one another. Caitlin’s early letters detail arguments with friends, boyfriends, shopping, and family. Martin quickly realizes that Caitlin’s life is one of privilege, so it takes a crisis before Martin finally opens up and reveals his difficult life.
  • Martin is a serious and determined teen who is wants to be the first in his family to get and education. He is at the top of his class and scores very high on national exams. He is a whiz at math and wants to go to college and major in mathematics and finances. He works hard at his studies, but also has a side job to help his family. His story is the most compelling because of all the obstacles he has to overcome to pursue his dreams.
  • I enjoyed watching Caitlin’s growth and change when she realizes the full impact of Martin’s poverty-stricken life. She begins to look at her own life and what matters. She stops hanging with the friends who tease her about her pen pal. She begins to focus on finding ways to help Martin realize his dreams. She turns to her family for help.
  • Caitlin’s parents are amazing. They play a significant role in finding ways to send money to Martin’s family after his father loses his job. They pay for Martin and his sibling’s schooling, help his parents with rent and food, and send care packages. Helping Martin pursue higher education in Zimbabwe and attend a university in America, becomes a family project. Caitlin’s mother is a gem! She works tirelessly with American universities to find a full scholarship for Martin. She and Caitlin work with embassies in both countries. This is a family to admire.
  • I Will Always Write Back is a powerful story about how one person (and family) can make a difference. It is a story about connecting the dots with others less fortunate and realizing that we all have the power to help others less fortunate, whether it is locally or globally. Both Caitlin and Martin opened each other’s eyes to a bigger and better world. Their memoir is an eye-opener and an excellent choice for students in the classroom. Teachers can use their story to discuss the contrast in cultures and encourage students to get involved in service.

Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda are still best friends today. Caitlin, an ER nurse, is married and has young daughters. Martin earned dual degrees in mathematics and economics for Villanova University and an MBA in finance from Duke University.  Over time he saved and purchased a new home for his parents with indoor plumbing, a toilet and their own beds.  His sister is planning to attend college in America.

Liz Welch is an award-winning journalist and memoirist whose critically acclaimed first book, The Kids Are All Right, won an ALA Alex Award. She worked with Caitlin and Martin to bring their story to life.

Brown Girl Dreaming

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Jacqueline Woodson, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Memoir, Aug. 28, 2014

Winner: National Book Award, the 2015 Newbery Honor Book and the 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes:  Jacqueline Woodson, Childhood, Family relationships, Living in the north and south, Finding one’s voice, From girl to author

Pages: 366

Opening“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital/Columbus, Ohio./USA– a country caught/ between Black and White.”

Synopsis: Jacqueline Woodson shares what it is like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s in both Brooklyn, NY and Greenville, SC.  The south is home for Jacqueline and her brother and sister as they spend the summers with their grandparents. Children tease Jacqueline and her siblings about their northern accents. She struggles with the subtle prejudices in the South as her  awareness of the civil rights movement grows. In Greenville there are loving grandparents, friends, and a lot of love. In Brooklyn she’s teased about being a Jehovah Witness and having to follow rules that her  friends don’t understand. And living in the shadow of her sister’s academic performance in school presents another challenge. Jacqueline has difficulty with schoolwork. It is through her poetry and storytelling that a teacher tells  her “You’re a writer.” Jacqueline’s voice begins to grow stronger with each word she pens because she wants to believe.  Readers will find Jacqueline Woodson’s journey to become an author engaging and inspiring.

Every dandelion blown

each Star light, star bright,

The first star I see tonight.

My wish is always the same.

Every fallen eyelash

and first firefly of summer…

The dream remains.

What did you wish for?

To be a writer.”

What I like about this book: Brown Girl Dreaming is a deeply personal and authentic memoir for teens struggling with race, prejudice, absent fathers, and finding their place in the world. Jacqueline Woodson’s determined and uplifting voice is eloquent. Her use of free verse compliments the theme in her memoir.  Her story is lyrical, emotional, and powerful. Each page is a clever, lively or soulful poem about a growing girl’s identity; her struggle with reading, a love of stories, and a desire to become a writer. She gives her readers hope and the sweet taste of what it’s like to follow your dreams.

Jacqueline Woodson is the winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults, the recipient of three Newberry Honors for After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers and Show Way, and a two-time finalist for the National Book Award for Locomotion and Hush.  Other awards include the Coretta Scott King Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Miracle’s Boys. Visit Jacqueline Woodson at her website.