Ellen Oh’s New Middle Grade Novel Is Not a Fantasy

By Ellen Oh

There’s a Korean word that means to suffer through something: chama. Considered a noble attribute, it’s the act of stoically gritting your teeth and enduring the hardship. Some say that Koreans are the world’s champions of chama, a trait shaped through the country’s long history of being invaded and colonized. Remember the stony-faced dad in the movie “Parasite”? That’s chama.

Junie, the Korean-American protagonist of Ellen Oh’s middle grade novel “Finding Junie Kim,” is a shy seventh grader who likes to draw and keep low-key company with her two best friends. But her life is being made miserable by the racist goons at her school — in particular, the odious Tobias, who regularly taunts her as a “dog eater” and a “North Korean commie.” When Junie’s friends decide to form a social justice club to stand up against the bullies, Junie instinctively shrinks from the fight. Pulling herself inward “like a sad turtle,” she withdraws from her friends, keeping her suffering to herself (chama!) and eventually sinking into depression. It’s only when Junie begins spending time with her grandparents, survivors of the Korean War, that she discovers her inner strength and a deeper understanding of friendship, family and courage.

Oh (“Prophecy,” “The Dragon Egg Princess”) is best known for fantasy books, but this novel is firmly rooted in real-life events, from the experiences of Incheon residents at the breakout of the Korean War to the MAGA movement in Junie’s Maryland suburb, which gives the book historical substance as well as an urgency that speaks to this moment of anti-Asian intolerance. I especially appreciate Oh’s choice to make Junie a third-generation Korean-American — a kid who’s grown up speaking English and eating waffles, with parents who themselves were born in the States. While the distinction may not seem important to some readers, one of the hard truths many Asian-Americans have learned in the past year is that assimilation guarantees no exemption from racism. As Junie says of an intolerant classmate, “Even though I was born and raised here, I’ll never be truly American to her.”

Still, the strength of “Finding Junie Kim” doesn’t lie in Junie’s story, which, it must be said, suffers from Junie’s colorless personality, a dearth of humor and some painfully expository dialogue that feels straight out of the guidance counselor’s office. It’s the riveting stories told by Junie’s grandparents that give the novel its power.

Junie’s grandfather shares his heartwrenching memories of his tight-knit town being torn apart in the wake of the North Korean invasion when he was 12. Oh skillfully conveys the complex political situation in a way young readers can understand, while also capturing the atmosphere of chaos, suspicion and violence.

Then there’s the miraculous story of Jinjoo, Junie’s grandmother, who at age 10 led her three siblings on foot through a war zone in search of their missing parents. According to the author’s note, the story is based on the actual experience of Oh’s mother, an adventure so seemingly unbelievable she dismissed it as a tall tale for most of her life. Like Linda Sue Park’s “A Long Walk to Water” and Alan Gratz’s “Refugee,” it will help young readers understand the unfathomable tragedy of being a child trapped in war and also the imperative of never giving up hope — of enduring.

Jinjoo’s story is so gripping I would have preferred less about Junie and more about her grandmother. After all, what reader can resist a good survival yarn? Even the middle school bully in the MAGA hat knows that the brave, scrappy underdogs are the ones worth rooting for.

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