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.