Every Falling Star The amazing memoir of a young boy who escaped the harsh society of North Korea



Abrams/Amulet, United States, Canada and the United Kingdom; Seedbook Co. Ltd, Korea; Nakladatelství JOTA, Czech; Tokuma Shoten, Japan; GRUPO LEYA, EDIÇOES ASA II, Lisboa, Portugal

Film Option, Insight Productions, Dec. 2019

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.  

An Indies Introduce Selection of the American Booksellers Association. 

A Junior Library Guild Selection

2019 Ontario Library Association, Red Maple Award winner

2018 Sakura Medal, nominee

2017 CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People

2017 Notable Books for a Global Society

2016 Parent’s Choice Award winner

2016 Freeman Award, Young Adult Literature

2016 Cyblis Award Winner

Kirkus reviews: A pampered son of the elite survives a nightmarish ordeal in this page-turner of a memoir. Sungju Lee's carefree life, playing with his rare pedigreed dog and watching cartoons, comes to an abrupt end at age 11 when his family is banished to a remote seaside town after his army officer father transgresses in unspecified ways. The mid-1990s famine that eventually killed over 1 million North Koreans soon takes its toll, as each of his parents leaves in search of food and does not return. Teaming up with several friends, Lee travels the country—stealing in markets; fighting other gangs for territory; smoking, drinking, and using opium; getting arrested and imprisoned; finding clients for a madam's "nightflowers"; and losing two of his friends in brutal attacks. Straightforward prose prevents this harrowing tale from overwhelming readers, but at times it may emotionally distance them. Over time the boys shed their faith in the regime but never give up on dreams of reunion with their families. A short foreword offers readers some historical context, but the story's emphasis on the dangers of daily survival mirrors Lee's lack of awareness at the time of larger political events. This fast-paced story will likely compel its readers to learn more about North Korea after finishing it. 



My toy soldier peers over a mound of dirt not far from where my father, abeoji, my mother, eomeoni, and I have just finished our picnic, near the Daedong River in Pyongyang.

                 My father and I are setting up the toy soldiers to reenact one of the decisive battles in which our eternal leader, Kim Il-sung, ousted the Japanese army from our country, Joseon—or, as most in the West know it, North Korea. My father is in charge of the Japanese troops. My own troops are separated, with part of my army standing behind my general. The rest are hidden in a bush near the river. My father’s army is positioned in the middle.

                 I am carrying a wooden pistol that my father carved and painted for me. My mother is play-acting as my army nurse. The blanket on which we had our picnic is now the hospital.

                My father has drawn a thick Hitler-like mustache on his general using my eomeoni’s eyebrow pencil. She’s not happy because he broke the tip. In fact, every time my father and I play war games, he uses—and ruins—her makeup to decorate his toy soldiers.

               “Okay, your general will be our eternal leader, Kim Il-sung,” my mother snaps. She is very testy today. She really wants to defeat my father. “Since we don’t have telephones or walkie-talkies, our troops need a way to communicate with each other. So take these.” She slips some smooth stones into my hand. I know what she is about to say next. She is going to use my father’s own military tactics, which he taught me during other war games, against him. “Designate one of your soldiers to be in charge of relaying your general’s orders to your troops who are trapped on the other side of the Japanese. This soldier must sneak through the forest and, at the big rock,” my mother says, pointing, “lay stones so that your other troops know what the eternal leader wants them to do. The stones are codes. One stone means stand down, it’s too dangerous to attack; two stones mean get ready; three stones mean attack the Japanese when the moon hits the sky at the highest point in the night.”

             I bow to my mother and pick up one of my sergeants. I make him my guerrilla messenger. He will steal through the pine and oak trees, leaving my coded stone orders by the big rock.

             I can feel it in the air. Victory. After all, Joseon always wins. We are the best country on earth!

             I’m six years old.

             Little do I know this military tactic will one day come to save my life.