Ellen Oh’s New Middle Grade Novel Isn’t Fantasy


Finding Juni Kim
by Ellen Oh

There is a Korean word that means to suffer from something: chama. Considered a great virtue, it is the act of grinding your teeth and enduring difficulty. Some say that Koreans are the champions of the world chama, a trait shaped through the country’s long history of invasion and colonization. Remember the rocky father in the movie “Parasite”? he is chama.

Juni, the Korean-American protagonist of Ellen Oh’s middle-class novel “Finding Joon Kim,” is a shy seventh-grade student who prefers to make and keep low-key company with her two best friends. But her life is being made miserable by the racist goons at her school—specifically, the loathsome Tobias, who regularly taunts her as a “dog eater” and a “North Korean lackey”. When Juni’s friends decide to form a social justice club to stand up to the threats, Juni instinctively withdraws from the fight. Drawing herself inward “like a sad turtle”, she turns away from her friends, keeping her misery to herself (Chama!) and eventually sinks into depression. It’s only when Juni begins to spend time with her Korean War survivors’ grandparents that she discovers her inner strength and a deep sense of friendship, family, and adventure.

Oh (“Prophecies,” “The Dragon Egg Princess”) is best known for fantasy books, but the novel is firmly rooted in real-life events, from the experiences of Incheon residents in the breakout of the Korean War to the MAGA movement. is. The Maryland suburb of Juni, 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 Juni a third-generation Korean-American—a child speaking English and eating waffles, parents who were born in the States themselves. While the distinction may not seem important to some readers, over the past year many Asian-Americans have learned that a hard truth is that assimilation does not guarantee exemption from racism. As Juni says of an intolerant classmate, “Even though I was born and raised here, I would never be truly American for her.”

Still, Juni’s story lacks the strength of “Finding Joon Kim”, which, it must be said, suffers from Juni’s colorless personality, lack of humor and some painfully explanatory dialogue that feels straight out of the guidance counselor’s office. . It is the interesting stories told by Juni’s grandparents that give the novel its power.

Juni’s grandfather ransacked his tight-knit town after the North Korean invasion when he was 12 years old. Oh skillfully captures the complex political situation in a way young readers can understand, while also capturing an atmosphere of chaos. , suspicion and violence.

Then there’s the miraculous story of Juni’s grandmother, Jinju, who at the age of 10 led her three siblings on foot from a war zone in search of their missing parents. According to the author’s note, the story is based on the real experience of Oh’s mother, an adventure so seemingly unbelievable that she dismissed it as a long story 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 to understand the unfathomable tragedy of being a child in war, as well as the imperative of never giving up – of endurance .

Jinju’s story is so gripping that I would have liked less about Juni and more about her grandmother. After all, what reader can resist a good survival thread? Even the middle school bully in the MAGA hat knows that brave, fearful underdogs are the ones who deserve to root.

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