Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Finding Junie Kim

Oh, Ellen. Finding Junie Kim
May 4th 2021 by HarperCollins 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

**Some Spoilers**

Junie has an older brother, supportive but busy parents, and concerned grandparents, but school has been difficult. She and her friends don't always see eye to eye, and in addition to constant racist bullying on the school bus, there is racist graffiti that appears at school. It all seems like too much, and when Junie becomes really despondent and contemplates taking an overdose of pills, her parents immediately get her help. She goes to a psychiatrist who recommends medication and a therapist. When the first therapist makes Junie fell even worse, her parents let her visit another one. Rachel is a good fit, and talking to her does make Junie feel better. School is still rough, but her friends approach a teacher about forming a Diverse Voices group to help with anti-racism initiatives in their school. Junie offers to help put together a video, and also has an assignment to talk to members of older generations and hear their stories. She starts spending more time with her grandfather, and hearing about his childhood in South Korea. His family had a difficult time, but his father was a well-respected doctor, and compared to other people, they were lucky. For the first time, Junie hears about his experiences during the war, and about immigrating to the US after marrying her grandmother. Her grandmother, who is still an active real estate agent, doesn't want to talk about the past. After a tragedy occurs, her grandmother is more willing to talk, and we hear about her experiences as well. She was not as lucky, and she and her three siblings ended up walking to other cities to try to find their parents. After hearing her grandparents' stories, Junie is more willing and able to stand up to the bullies and start awareness of the treatment of people of color in her school. 
Strengths: This is a fascinating historical account of children's experiences during the Korean War, and would be great read with Lee's Brother's Keeper, which recounts a North Korean experience. Based on the author's own family stories, this is a brutal and eye-opening look at an era of history about which little has been written. The interviews with the grandparents are a great way to get in many details about the historical setting that young readers might not know. I was also very appreciative of the way that Junie's parents handled her depression, making sure that she got medical treatment, helping her as much as they could, and doing all of the things that should be done in a crisis situation. The arc of the story with the grandparents takes a realistic turn, which is also handled well. This is not an easy book to read, but I can see it winning many awards. 
Weaknesses: While this is an important story, I would be reluctant to hand it to elementary school readers unless they had someone with whom they could process the difficult topics addressed. In addition to Junie's suicidal ideation, there are several graphic deaths during the war. Sensitive middle school readers should also just be made aware of what the book contains. 
What I really think: I'm glad that we have books like this, as well as Bajaj's Count Me In, Kelkar's American as Paneer Pie, Khan's Amina's Voice, and McManis and Sorrell's Indian No More, but I would challenge publishers to publish one happy book with a character with a cultural connection for every book where the cultural connection leads to trauma. Both types of stories have a place, but I don't want my students who have cultural connections to think that their lives should include only trauma. This doesn't mean this isn't an important story, but I also want all of my students to see themselves in happier books as well, or in books like this author's wonderfully spooky Spirit Hunters

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