The Plot: Junie Kim is a middle schooler who endures bullying and racist incidents because of her Korean heritage. Through an oral history project she learns of her grandparents’ brutal experiences during the Korean War, which gives her a newfound perspective on her present day struggles at school.
My Take: We need diverse books, but we do not need poorly written books. Ellen Oh’s overt messaging that ‘racism is bad and diversity is good’ hamstrings the buried power of fiction and storytelling that requires a more detached touch from the author. My problem is not with this message, but rather in the heavy-handed way that it is conveyed. Early in the book, a series of racist, white characters bully the protagonist, but we are given little insight into their behavior or motivation, leaving the reader only with the bland idea that these people are ‘bad.’
The strongest parts of the story occur in 1950’s South Korea on the outbreak of civil war. Even these points, however, are hobbled by Oh’s insistence on compiling traumatic war crimes that lose their power as they multiply. After a massacre and a few horrific killings, the reader begins to feel that these events serve only to generate some excitement, rather than to imbue the story with meaning.
A good editor could have focused this story in such a way as to show the reader how racism damages us all. Instead we have a book with a loaded message that tries to jolt the reader with violent events. I would recommend readers skip Oh’s novel and reach for a book by Linda Sue Park for a more sensitive approach to Korean culture. I would also recommend Ellen Yang’s Front Desk as a stronger portrayal of racism against Asians.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Ellen Oh is the co-founder of the organization We Need Diverse Books.