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.
As a history buff, I wanted to find a way to get kids excited about learning about the past. I came up with the idea of a Time Travel Program in which children could interact with a famous historical figure in person. Audiences would actually witness me, as a Time Traveling Mad Scientist/Librarian, travel to the past using a spray painted refrigerator box as a “time machine.” I would then bring the famous person back to the present day where audiences would be able to ask them questions about their lives and times before they were returned to their respective historical periods.
The “back in time” scenes would be done by projecting a video on a large screen at the program to be shown after I crawled into the “time machine.” This would give the illusion of time travel.
These Time Travel Programs have been very successful and I have managed to kidnap such figures as Henry David Thoreau, Lewis and Clark, the aviator Richard Byrd, and Patrick Henry. View the below video to see me bring the writer Edgar Allan Poe to my library!
The Story (in 5 sentences or less) : Cooper is a boy that lives with his mom on a farm in New York state where they run an antiquing business out of their barn. But business is slow and money is tight ever since Cooper’s younger brother passed away and his dad left. His life changes when he is given an enchanted metal detector that can talk. Using this magic machine, he begins digging up musket balls in his yard and learns that his house is on the exact location of the Revolutionary War Battle of Newton. Cooper must use his friendship with Mr. Shepard, the local historical museum director, to fight off government bids for their land.
My Take: Somewhere within this prolix, sometimes clumsy book is a much better book. I applaud Osterweil’s premise of a young man delving into antiquing and amateur archaeology. I appreciated the parts where Cooper was on the hunt, digging up artifacts in his back yard and matching them up to local history. Less enjoyable for me were the mystical parts of the book in which he communes with his dead brother, the planet earth, spirit wind, etc. I found that the anthropomorphic objects slowed the pace of the book and were sown awkwardly into the narrative.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to his website, Adam Osterweil “teaches junior high English at Springs School in Springs, New York. His hobbies include kayaking, historical research, and metal detecting.”