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.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

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Kathleen Burkinshaw, Author

Sky Pony Press, Historical Fiction, Aug. 2,  2016

Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 11-13

Themes: Hiroshima, Children of war, WW II, Love, Loss, Traditions

Opening: “Get under your desks — now!” Yakamura-sensei shouted above the lonesome wail of the air raid siren.

Book Synopsis:  Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her five-year-old cousin, Genji, are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage.  And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.

Why I like this book:

Kathleen Burkinshaw’s debut novel is powerfully penned, authentic, emotionally raw and deeply personal. It is a captivating journey about life, love, secrets, pain, loss and hope that will tug at your heart long after you put the novel down.

Even though there are frequent air raid drills and black-out curtains, traditional Japanese life continues with a strong sense of community. The first half of the story focuses on family, cultural traditions, food preparation, ceremony, ritual, and the beautiful cherry blossom and New Year’s festivals. There are family secrets, the angst of adolescence and enduring friendships. Readers will easily fall in step with the pace of life in Japan before it begins to change.

The story is character-driven, with Yuriko narrating. Reader’s will be captivated by Yuriko’s curiosity, spirit, and strong will, which is nurtured by her papa, who publishes the newspaper. Their bond is tight and he tells her bedtime stories of their samurai ancestors and how they are the last branches of their family tree. Yuriko shares secrets and a love of jazz music with her best friend Machiko.

The plot picks up momentum as more soldiers are being sent to war and not returning home. Rumors spread that there isn’t enough scrap metal to build Japanese planes. The Emperor sends out propaganda that the Japanese are beating the Allies in the Pacific.  But, the Americans bomb Nagasaki.  Air raid sirens are going off many times daily. And in a blink of an eye there are war planes flying low overhead.  Sirens sound. There is an eruption of bright light and loud sounds. Yuriko’s world implodes that tragic day.

This is a dark period in humanity’s history 71 years ago. Children will learn that Japanese children shared the same fears as the children in Allied countries during World War II.  Her novel speaks to the enduring will to survive. It is my hope that Burkinshaw’s novel will help readers humanize historical events that have radically changed our world and take them more seriously as they become our future leaders.  The author’s mother shared her story because she felt “the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, is unacceptable.”

Resources: There is a very helpful glossary of Japanese words and expressions that are used throughout the novel, an Author’s Note, and Statistics About Hiroshima.

Kathleen Burkinshaw wrote The Last Cherry Blossom based on her mother’s story of growing up in Hiroshima during World War II. She was twelve years old when the bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945. Visit Kathleen Burkinshaw at her website.

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

Note: Watch for Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which will be celebrated on Jan. 27, 2017. Hashtag: #ReadYourWorld.

The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan

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Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, Sep. 13, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 6-10, Grades 1-5

Pages: 88

Themes: Dog, Lost children, Winter storm, Love, Loss, Friendship

Opening: “I found the boy at dusk. The blizzard was fierce, and it would soon be dark. I could barely see him with the snow blowing sideways. He stood at the edge of the icy pond, shivering.”

Publisher Synopsis: Teddy is a gifted dog. Raised in a cabin by a poet named Sylvan, he grew up listening to sonnets read aloud and the comforting clicking of a keyboard. Although Teddy understands words, Sylvan always told him there are only two kinds of people in the world who can hear Teddy speak: poets and children.

Then one day Teddy learns that Sylvan was right. When Teddy finds Nickel and Flora trapped in a snowstorm, he tells them that he will bring them home—and they understand him. The children are afraid of the howling wind, but not of Teddy’s words. They follow him to a cabin in the woods, where the dog used to live with Sylvan . . . only now his owner is gone.

As they hole up in the cabin for shelter, Teddy is flooded with memories of Sylvan. What will Teddy do when his new friends go home? Can they help one another find what they have lost?

Why I like this book:

Patricia MacLachlan’s book is a magical tale that will warm the hearts of readers from the first page. It is a story about Nickel and Flora, who are rescued during a storm by Teddy, an Irish wolfhound.  It is quiet and cozy story about how they help each other survive loss and find love.

The prose is lyrical and simple for older elementary children. The chapters are short. The beautiful narrative is in Teddy’s voice, as we learn about his great love for his master, Sylvan, who has died. Teddy is in mourning and sleeps in the barn until he finds Nickel and Flora and takes them to Sylvan’s cabin. Nickel is a protective older brother. He takes care of the firewood, shovels snow paths and goes outside with Teddy to the barn.  Nora takes over the food preparation with food is stocked in the cabin. They enjoy being on their own with Teddy in the cabin. It becomes an adventure. And their presence helps Teddy deal with his loss as he shares his beautiful memories of Sylvan and their relationship. The plot and the pacing are perfect for the age group. The message is a bit complex for young children.  The ending is satisfying and uplifting.

This is an endearing read from a wonderful storyteller. Parents will enjoy reading The Poet’s Dog to younger children. However, older children will be able to read it on their own. This is a book worth reading for both young and old alike.

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

For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story

UN International Day of the Girl, Oct. 11, 2016

For the Right to Learn untitledFor the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai’s Story

Rebecca Langston-George, Author

Janna Bock, Illustrator

Capstone Young Readers, Nonfiction PB, Aug. 1, 2015

Suitable for ages: 8-11

Pages: 40

Themes: Malala Yousafzai, Educating girls, Children’s rights, Pakistan, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Courage, Hope

Forward: “This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change….” Dec. 14, 2014, Oslo, Norway

Opening: “Malala’s own education started early. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, ran a school in Mingora, a town surrounded by snowcapped mountains in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. From the time she could walk she visited classes. She even pretended to teach. Malala loved school.”

Synopsis: Few Pakistani families can afford to pay for the children’s education.  Others only paid for their sons’ educations. Mala grew up in a world where women were supposed to be quiet. Many parents believed their daughters should cook and keep house. Mala’s parents believed that girls deserved the same education as boys. She studied hard, could speak and write her native Pashto language and fluent English and Urdu. The Taliban leaders were against educating girls, intimidated school leaders, and ordered her father to close his school. But Malala Yousafzai refused to be silent in Swat Valley. She defied the Taliban’s rules. She spoke out for education for every girl. When schools closed she wrote a blog for the BBC and gave interviews. She was almost killed for her beliefs. This powerful true story of how one brave girl named Malala changed the world proves that one person really can make a difference.

Why I like this book:

Rebecca Langston-George powerfully communicates the story of Mala Yousafzai through her careful choice of words so that students are not frightened by her story, but are inspired. Malala is the voice of the many silenced girls who want to attend school. She is a selfless role model for girls everywhere.

I especially like how the book begins on a positive note with Mala receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and with excerpts from her speech. Readers will immediately feel the power in her words and her commitment to be the voice for equal education.

The setting is very realistic with an emphasis on Pakistani culture, community, family life, and traditions. It gives readers a strong sense of what it is like to live in a country where the rights of women and girls are suppressed. It is a story that needs to be told and can be used as a springboard for students to talk about the inequalities for girls and women worldwide.  Hopefully, readers will appreciate their education and not take it for granted.

Janna Bock’s beautiful illustrations make this story soar. She captures the love of a supportive family, the beauty of the Swat Valley with its lush valleys and beautiful waterfalls, the joy of Mala and the other girls studying together at school, the growing fear as the Taliban force girls and women to wear garments to cover their entire bodies and faces, and the danger everywhere. Bock’s illustrations made this book an emotional story that is filled with courage and hope.

Resources: This book belongs in every school library.  It will spark many lively discussions among students about the education of all students globally. For older students there is a page, “More About Malala’s Story” at the end of the book. It is the perfect book the United Nation’s International Day of the Girl, Oct. 11, 2016. This year’s theme is: Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: A Global Girl Data Movement. It’s just not a day, but a movement where girls get involved. Also check out Day of the Girl – US. And, today the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced.

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 Perfect Picture Books.

Blood Moon by Michelle Isenhoff

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Michelle Isenhoff, Author

CreateSpace, Historical Fiction, Jun. 5, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 14 and up

Themes: Love, Family Relationships, Civil War, Slavery, Abolitionists, Pursuing educational dreams, Hope

Opening: “Brilliant orange sparks streaked across the night sky, snatched by the furious wind and flung onto rooftops to spring up as new geysers of flame. Building by building the fire magnified, towering over the cringing city, devouring the waterfront. Emily raced toward the inferno, compelled by visions of those she loved.”

Synopsis: Charleston lies in ruins and war between the North and South is imminent. Yet, Emily Preston refuses to give up her dream of becoming an artist. She defies her overbearing father and secretly enrolls in an art correspondence course under a male pseudo name, a step toward fulfilling her dream of studying at a Maryland university. When her father discovers her disobedience, he demands she leave Ella Wood to find her own living arrangements. Emily is now free to pursue her education, but she has many hurdles to overcome to support herself and earn her tuition for college. A love-triangle forms, betrayals are uncovered, family secrets abound, and Emily faces loss. Uncertainty looms big in her heart, as war threatens her dreams and the people she cares about most.

Why I love about Blood Moon:

Convincingly penned from beginning to end, Blood Moon is inherently absorbing and skillfully presented, establishing Michelle Isenhoff as an exceptionally talented novelist. Readers who have invested themselves in Isenhoff’s Ella Wood series, will be thrilled with the second volume in her latest sequel, Blood Moon, which continues Emily Preston’s transformation from Southern Belle to a determined young women who will stop at nothing to chase her educational dreams.

Blood Moon is richly textured and impeccably researched as it offers a vivid portrayal of the emotional landscape that bring Emily’s tale to life. It also sheds light on the penetrating truths of South Carolina’s role in the civil war, customs and culture, the suppression of women’s rights and the unforgivable treatment of slaves.

Her characters are vividly drawn and the many period details with which she fleshes out her story never feel forced or melodramatic. Emily, Thad, Jovie, Jack and Uncle Timothy are real. Some are gritty and abusive while others are tender and sweet, but most of all they are very much alive. I could feel the pain of loss, betrayal and hopelessness when Emily’s dreams are shattered and, yet through it all there remains a true bond of friendship and selfless acts of love.

Blood Moon is stunning, wrenching, and inspiring. Isenhoff’s sweeping imagination adds to a multi-layered, compelling, harrowing, and realistic plot. Her deliberate pacing and tension keep readers fully engaged and invested in Blood Moon.  There are many surprises for readers. It is truly an exceptional story and the characters will stay with you long after you finish Blood Moon.

The third volume in the series, Ebb Tide, will be available in the Spring of 2017Ella Wood is  available free to readers on Kindle, Nook, iTunes, and Kobo.  Ella Wood is a sequel to Isenhoff’s middle grade novel, The Candle Star.

Michelle Isenhoff is the author of Ella Wood; The Candle Star, Blood of Pioneers and Beneath the Slashings (Divided Decade Collection); Song of the Mountain and Fire on the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy); Taylor Davis and the Flame of Findul, Taylor Davis and the Clash of Kingdoms; The Color of Freedom; and The Quill Pen. Visit Michelle Isenhoff at her website.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Feb. 17, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Vietnam, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture-shock, Diversity, Intergenerational relationships, Family relationships, Respect, Friendship, Vietnam War, History

Synopsis: Mai is a 12-year-old California girl eager to spend her summer vacation at the beach with her best friends. Instead, her Vietnamese parents have planned her summer for her. They want Mai to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam so she can meet a man who may provide her answers to her husband’s disappearance during the war and find some closure. Her parents also want Mai to learn more about her own roots, meet relatives and develop some bonds. Mai barely understands the language. Trapped in a remote village, Mai must find a balance between her two different worlds if she has any hopes of surviving Vietnam.

Why I like this book:

  • Thanhha Lai beautifully crafted a love story between a granddaughter and her grandmother, as they travel to Vietnam together. It is a powerful intergenerational novel for teens.  It is richly textured, emotional, honest and humorous.
  • Lai skillfully shows Vietnam as a land of many contrasts. Her setting is very realistic of Vietnam today.  Lai’s writing touches all the senses so that the reader smells, hears, sees, and feels the unforgiving heat, heavy rain, sticky moisture, nasty mosquito bites, pungent smells, toxic fumes, noises and seas of mopeds on the overcrowded streets of Hanoi.
  • This is touching character-driven story. Mai (Mia) is a head-strong, outspoken, humorous and compassionate protagonist. In the beginning, Mai’s constantly plotting her trip out of Vietnam. Every angry/whiny text message to her mother begins with “I want to come home.” As she settles into the gentle pace of life surrounding her, it is a joy to watch Mai deal with the culture shock and mature. She’s a trooper and her challenges turn into acceptance of her doting family and surroundings. Mai’s fragile grandmother has clung to the old ways and is proper. She is patient, tender, quiet-spoken. Her family is surprised by her strong resolve to track down important leads that may reveal the truth of her husband’s death. Mai’s cousin, Ut, is the complete opposite of Mai. She wears a buzz haircut, crumpled pants and t-shirts, and hangs out with her frogs. They become partners in crime that lead to many hilarious moments.
  • The plot is multi-layered, complicated, courageous and hopeful. Lai delves deeply into Mai’s loneliness, the shock of living in an unfamiliar culture and the courage that it takes for her to handle a difficult situation. There are unexpected surprises and a realistic and satisfying ending.
  • I enjoyed learning about modern Vietnam. The story is so detailed that it feels like you are walking with Mai as she experiences the homeland of her family. I loved this story.

Thanhha Lai is the author of the Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winning Inside Out & Back Again. Click [here] to read my review. She was born in Vietnam and now lives with her family in New York. Visit Lai at her website.

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

Echo

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Pam Munoz Ryan, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Feb. 24, 2015

Winner of the 2016 Newbery Honor

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Harmonica, Music, Destiny, Nazi Germany, Pennsylvania orphans, Mexican-Americans, WW II, Japanese-Americans, Family relationship

Opening: “FIFTY YEARS BEFORE THE WAR TO END ALL wars, a boy played hide-and-seek with his friends in a pear orchard bordered by a dark forest.”

Synopsis: Otto runs into the forbidden forest to hide from his friends. He becomes lost and is rescued by three sisters who are imprisoned in a circle of trees by a witch’s spell. The sisters are musical and they each impart a different tune into Otto’s harmonica. He promises to help free them by carrying their harmony out into the world and passing the harmonica along to other musicians who will add their musical gift. Decades later, the harmonica graces the lives of three children who are living in horrific situations: Friedrich, who has a birthmark and doesn’t fit in 1933 Nazi Germany; Mike and his little brother Frankie, who are finding a way to survive a deplorable orphanage during the depression in Pennsylvania; and Ivy, a Mexican-American girl in California, whose brother is a soldier and her family is caring for a farm left by a Japanese family who is sent to an internment camp.

Each child is already musically talented and they become linked together as destiny places Otto’s  harmonica into their hands. They each recognize that the harmonica is powerful and like no other instrument they’ve heard before. Playing it brings each of them courage, hope and joy during dire times. The thread that binds them together comes together in a magnificent ending.

Why I like this book:

  • Pam Munoz Ryan literally sweeps me off my feet with her thrilling and brilliant storytelling.  Her writing is polished, her narrative inspires one to believe in the power of music to heal and change lives, and her plot is complex.
  • Ryan thinks outside the box as she writes her masterpiece, Echo. Although there is an element of fantasy in Echo, I am delighted that the book is a great work of historical fiction that will engage many teens. It focuses on Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the Great Depression, Mexican-American itinerate farmers, World War II, and the anti-Japanese sentiment in America.
  • The author led me to care about four very different and memorable characters in a very human way. The book begins and ends with a fairy tale with Otto’s encounter with three mysterious sisters. The novel is told in three parts, each devoted to Friedrich, Mike and Ivy’s stories. The children face dire challenges as they struggle to keep their families together: rescuing a father from prison, protecting a brother in an orphanage, and dealing with poverty, discrimination and keeping a family together. The author builds tension and momentum by leaving their stories unfinished, until the story comes full circle.
  • I am a musician, so the idea of a harmonica infused with the melodious spirits of the three sisters  captivated me and I wondered how it would play out in the story. Each of the three children add their own energy and wisdom to the harmonica as they play it and pass it along. The thread that ties their destiny together is revealed at the end in a resounding crescendo that is spellbinding and beautiful. This novel captures my heart and I will read it again.

Pam Munoz Ryan is the author of over thirty books. Her most recent novels include the award-winning The Dreamer and Esperanza Rising. She is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Human and Civil Rights Award and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for multicultural literature. You may visit Ryan at her website.

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