#tbt: Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee

Good Thursday everyone! I’m going to try something new, and that’s throwback posts! Some of them will be new, but on old books, while others will be from my old blog that some people might not have seen. I figured that today would be a good day to remind everyone about Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee.



Title: Every Falling Star {336 pgs.}

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publication Date: September 13, 2016


Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.

When I requested this book from NetGalley, I basically requested the wrong book. I had several tabs open and forgot which ones I wanted, so I just requested the lot of them. When I received my approval, I thought I was going to read a YA fictional love story.

Constantly reminding myself that all the situations written in this book really happened was a mistake. I had to stop multiple times because I was either crying or irrationally angry. How could a government not care about their people like this? How could these boys – literally, boys, they were barely old enough to be called tweens – survive the harsh streets of a country that doesn’t look out for their own? They had to fight for everything they wanted, even if it was only a piece of bread. 

Sungju’s parents abandoned him at twelve, but not because they wanted to. His father, who we find out is closely tied to the government, moves his family from the fairy tale Pyongyang to Gyeong-Seong, a place of forgotten people. From there, Sungju’s father leaves in order to find better work, but doesn’t return. His mother heads to her sister’s house to find food, but it’s quickly learned that she doesn’t seem to be coming home, either. Instead of death, Sungju chooses to form a gang with his friend Young-bum. From this point on, Sungju’s life becomes one of the streets, a life where he steals what he needs and only watches out for his brothers, the other members of his gang.

I can’t even imagine this kind of life, but Sungju seemed to blend seamlessly into it. He continued to make mistakes, but he learned from them and taught others so that they would not suffer the same consequences. At one point, Sungju and his gang are thrown into a type of jail where they witnessed death each morning and heard unspeakable horrors coming from the girls’ quarters. 

This was one of those parts I had to take a few minutes for myself.

The good news is that Sungju has a better life now. I don’t want to say too much in case people haven’t read about him {I actually Googled him halfway through the book because I wanted to make sure that he received everything his heart desires}, but he’s doing amazing things with his life now. His is a terrible, sad story, but, like those mistakes he made, he learned from his life and now lives in order to make other lives better. One of the most amazing facts I learned about him, though, is that he’s only a year younger than me. Imagine: when I was learning how to do my own laundry and make English muffin pizzas, he was fighting other gangs over food and shelter. It makes you stop and put your life into perspective.

This book choice may have started as a mistake, but it’s the best mistake I’ve made in awhile. I started it on the plane back from Boston, then didn’t pick it up again until this week, and I read the last half of it in one night. You want everything to be okay, and you trick yourself into hoping that maybe this is a YA fictional novel, that maybe everyone gets out okay. Warning: not everyone does, and it’s heartbreaking. 

Please, read this book. If for nothing else, then this: Sungju was twelve in 1996, only twenty years ago. He only finds a new life in 2001, my high school graduation year. These sad stories are still happening in North Korea, and I hope that this book will convince people to read more about what’s happening there. The people there need help, and Sungju is doing what he can do help them. I think that more than anything made a happy ending.

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