Review: BROTHER’S KEEPER by Julie Lee



  • ISBN-10 : 0823444945
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0823444946
  • Holiday House, 2020
  • Starred reviews: Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers’ Weekly, Booklist
  • Junior Library Guild Selection
  • Jane Addams Peace Award Finalist

“The martial and political conflict in 1950 Korea is catalyst and backdrop, and the story of the Pak children’s treacherous flight is compelling. The underlying domestic struggle between Sora and her parents carries equal weight, though.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

The various accolades listed above provide plenty of motivation for reading BROTHER’S KEEPER by Julie Lee. Even so, I’ll add my voice to their praise, in hopes that many more will read this remarkable story.  The subject of the Korean War has had far too many untold stories, but that is especially true from the perspective of Korean families from the North who made their way, against enormous odds, to the southern peninsula in order to reach freedom and basic survival.

I was an avid fan of M*A*S*H- the television series. I read and heard that their technical consultants were sticklers for historic accuracy, but my assumption was that this reflected the expertise of medical and military advisors. In other words, Western points of view. I vividly recall several episodes in which refugees from northern territories and also North Korea were streaming south in the midst of the storyline. Those scenes came to mind while reading a few scenes in this novel. Over the long run of the series, a few more storylines and perspectives of local Koreans came into play, but things were distinctly focused on an American telling. After all, this was a series about American medical services during the Korean “policing action”, the war that was never declared, and so has never actually ended.

With that said, I began reading BROTHER’S KEEPER eagerly, knowing that I’d have much to learn and hopeful that the storytelling would be compelling. I was not disappointed. The story involves the early days of Allied (American) involvement with Communist North Korea (1950-51). Families fearing increasing repression and longing for freedom faced only one alternative- an escape as refugees to the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. The risks involved were immeasurable, especially when the family included three children.

The complexity of the times, places, Korean names and occasional vocabulary, and political circumstances are made navigable by thoughtful design and formatting choices. Chapter labels are dated, a past tense voice feels urgently in-the-moment, and interspersed passages in italic font allow for flashbacks and recollections. These passages were not overdone or utilized as “cheap tricks” for information dumps or shortcuts in the story line. Rather, they served to expand and deepen the reader’s awareness of the conflicted feelings Sora (or noona, older sister of a male person) has for her siblings, culture, education, and especially for her mother. Each step of her threatening and harrowing physical journey is hindered and tangled within the strands of her inner journey. Compounding these specific and societal conflicts are the universal sibling and age-appropriate emotional reactions that young readers will recognize in themselves.

It is an enormous accomplishment when a novel for middle grade readers manages to balance a high-stakes, action-packed plot with an intimate emotional experience. This is even more true when the physical obstacles eventually resolve while the underlying story continues to unfold. Readers gradually recognize what has been at stake all along, discovering a framework through which to view  their own external life experiences as tools for exploring the landscape of their emotions and relationships.

There are dangers, action-packed scenes, and nail-biting conflict aplenty for readers whose tastes lean that way, but there are also political and social issues for readers who take a  more analytic approach to historical novels. The fact that this fictional story was inspired by the author’s mother makes each detail even more heart-pounding. The notes, glossary, and historical event synopses in the back pages add welcome authenticity to a story that can seem nearly impossible to believe.

As an author, I have three goals for success when anyone asks  me, “How are your books doing?”

  • Is anyone reading it (them)?
  • Does the reader feel eager to talk to someone about the book(s)?
  • Has the reader learned anything new, without feeling they were being “taught”?

I don’t know what Julie Lee’s goals are for this book, but as I read BROTHER’S KEEPER i could answer all of the above with YES, YES, and YES.

And, while we’re on the subject of North Korea…

A few years ago I read a contemporary novel set in North Korea for late middle-graders and teens, IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN, by Anne Sibley OBrien.

What a rare topic, incorporating a wide range of important issues, complex characters, a heart-pounding plot, and intense family relationships. O’Brien’s personal history, professional focus, and obvious research combine to create a novel unlike most others. She offers a well-written and page-turning suspense-thriller-entertainment novel for early teens. O’Brien also writes well enough to  allow central character, Mia, to reflect on her cultural and familial identities while learning about harsh realities in modern day North Korea, all without slowing the pace by a single beat.

That central character and voice, Mia, rings true throughout her journey. She transforms, credibly,  from a tightly-packed, self-restrained early teen to discovering, by necessity, that she is more capable, creative, and direct than she would ever have  imagined she could be.
There is no separating this story from the reality of contemporary North Korea, and there shouldn’t be. This novel turns a “trope” or political talking point into a complex reality filled with humanity, intrigue, and mystery.


A Masterful Mixture of Voices from WWII Homefront


by Amy Hest

Candlewick, 9780763660079, 192pp.

Publication Date: August 4, 2020





This middle grade, multi-voiced view of WWII from a Long Island summer getaway achieves a remarkable sense of contemporary relevance. It employs alternating voices with distinctly narrow points of view as the narrators. Eleven-year-old Julie and  her six-years-old sister Martha arrived from the city as summer residents with their writer/father, becoming temporary  next-door neighbors to the family of year-round resident Bruno Ben-Eli. With Julie’s single-minded pursuit of proving herself, young Martha in perpetual search of a mom-figure, and Bruno in a persistent state of worry over his brother-gone-to-war, the yearning in each voice resonates with undercurrents of familiar sibling emotions, pre-teen angst, and the tunnel vision of youth.

That title-worthy baby appears early on in this situation, propelling the threesome’s individual and shared actions and the tone of their storytelling until the final (satisfying) resolution. Each short chapter/voice layers in actual information with unreliable content, weaving a mystery and missions that pull readers along by its artful blend of a middle grade novel structure while providing the accessibility and appeal of a well-written verse novel. Wry humor laced throughout offers welcome release at crucial moments.

Several things in this new offering struck me as  stand outs. I’m not a New Yorker, but have read quite a few books for kids that are set in “the city”, from classics like Tar Beach and Harriet the Spy to modern marvels like Nana in the City and The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, among many others. In each case the city becomes a character, expressing various neighborhood personalities, whether seen through illustrations or in the multi-sensory qualities that emerge from well-written text. Even so, I’ve encountered very few books for kids that are set on Long Island. 

If you have others to suggest, please leave recommendations in the comments.

I’ve often marveled at how very different “the island” seems from “the city”, at least as portrayed in adult books and in movies. This story offers a strong sense of a very particular place and time, so near and yet so far from what many of us view as “New York”. I thoroughly appreciated finding a sense of what life might actually be like in this extension of “the city”.

Also, as the call for presenting diverse characters on the page is finally leading to more books doing just that, a legitimate caveat is to write those diverse characters as simply living life authentically and fully formed, without attaching historical or identity issues to them as if to validate their presence on the page. In this case, Bruno Ben-Eli and his family are never directly labeled as a war-era Jewish-American family, and yet their individual and family lives introduce non-stereotypical characters as fully formed players in these complex relationships.

There’s much to enjoy in this new stateside World War II novel. And it you enjoy this one, try DUKE, the first of Kirby Larson’s Dogs of War series. There’s no dog involved, and the stories are quite distinct, yet the struggles of preteens dealing with timeless troubles and war-centered worries in both invite discussion and comparison.

I reviewed a library copy of THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY.

Voices of Ordinary Heroes of World War II

Voices of Ordinary Heroes:  World War II  History Speaks

by Kelly Milner Halls

Nonfiction, Target age:  8-12

Rockridge Press, 9781647396428, 122pp.

Publication Date: August 6, 2020

Purchase HERE.

HISTORY SPEAKS is the tagline for this second book of new titles offered by Rockridge Press. Each presents well-researched and compelling profiles of twenty individuals during the Second World War, written with a compelling voice and pace. Each individual is described with riveting writing and content, and their wartime choices demand attention and admiration from the intended audience. Each of the twenty short profiles includes fascinating sidebar tidbits related to the person or other aspect of the chapter, informatively captioned archival photographs, and features a brief quotation by the historic individual.

In the first book, the heroes showcased were all young people, school age standouts who met the challenges of war with courage. In this volume, the focus shifts to adults. Ordinary adults, as the title claims, but ones whose actions and decisions put them at risk in a quest to save others, respond to duty, or resist the course of war. As is true for the first volume, some names might be familiar (Josephine Baker, Oskar Schindler), but most will be a revelation to readers young and old.

Both books provide several brief but effective chapters establishing an overview of World War II for the sake of its intended young learners. In clarifying who, where, how, and why this conflict engaged, along with a summary of its resolution, essential vocabulary is given meaning in context (with text indicators) and key words can be checked in the glossary. This cogent introduction, along with a double page map, allows early readers to anchor each heroic life within the global span of war.

Some heroic acts, like those of U. S. Naval hero Dorie Miller, outshine the most dramatic of Hollywood action movies. Some have been lauded in their homelands while Americans remain unaware of their accomplishments. One example of that is Nadia Popova and the so-called Night Witches, a group of women pilots in USSR whose executed multiple nightly flights in tiny biplanes to drop bombs over Nazi positions, helping to defeat the German invaders.

Some accomplishments involved preserving history, as Vilma Grunwald did just before her death in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and artist Charlotte Salomon, who produced autobiographical paintings from 1940-43, numbered and notated, before her execution in the same camp. They created a legacy that remains a powerful documentation of Nazi atrocities. Duty was the driving force behind many of the stories, including the delivery of backlogged mail to American fighting troops, or decades-long resistance to surrender by Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands.

Each brief profile with its supporting materials feels like a short visit with very human heroes. Some have received well-earned recognition for their fighting, spying, rescues, or other resistance efforts. The stories of some others have only recently surfaced to gain the attention they deserve. Now, thanks to this impressively accessible and appealing set of books, new generations will meet them on the page. Pursuing further information or answers to specific questions is facilitated with an extensive index and resources in back matter.

As someone who has researched, read extensively, and taught the subject of World War II, I appreciated the nuance and variety in the selection of subjects for these profiles. The decisions as to who should land in the spotlight has mindfully provided readers with examples of males and females, with multiple ethnic and racial identities, drawn from positions in entertainment, civilian, and military backgrounds. Many defied the expectations and barriers of society in those days. Some heroism arose from official roles while others were launched by circumstances or personal motivations. In all cases, the courage and consequences of their actions call out to us across time to commend their strength and resilience.

VOICES of YOUNG HEROES- A World War II Book for Kids


Voices of Young Heroes: A World War II Book for Kids

by Kelly Milner Halls

Rockridge Press, 9781646114214, 116pp.

Publication Date: August 4, 2020

With a tagline of “HISTORY SPEAKS”, this new book does just that, with guaranteed appeal for young readers. It features deeply researched but briefly told stories of twenty “kids” who were heroes during World War II. Their stories are presented in digestible short chapters and are written in the confident and appealing style that has made Halls a guru of nonfiction content for middle graders.

Author Halls provides a brief summary of essential World War II facts in the introduction and three opening chapters, which allows even new-to-the-subject readers to anchor the individual profiles within the complexity of a global struggle for freedom and against genocide and tyranny. Even those with deeper background knowledge will appreciate these early notes and a double-page map featuring key details about the war years and death tolls for the countries involved. They provide American readers of any age with an appreciation of the individual stories and the implications about sacrifices made by others outside our more familiar American hero stories.

The nature of the challenges and heroism demonstrated by the featured youth varies widely, spans the globe, and ranges from individuals with world-renown (Anne Frank) to others whose experiences are obscure but no less impressive. The ages of young people portrayed varies from four years old (the youngest survivor of Auschwitz, Michael Bornstein), through early teens (Anne Frank, and Len Chester, a fourteen year old “bugle boy” who served heroically in battles), through late teens and young adults (Stefani “Stefi” Podgorska, who hid thirteen Jewish friends from the Nazis for eight months) and many others. Some stories involved lying about their young ages in order to enlist in service, or to obtain needed identity papers. Some wrote and distributed anti-Nazi leaflets or destroyed propaganda posters and signs or even poisoned troops. Some died in concentration camps or by execution, others survived through most unlikely circumstances (Sergey Aleshkov, who was “adopted” by a Russian Marshal, one of many abandoned and desperate “wolf children” orphaned during the fierce fighting.) Some stories even describe mystery identities only recently revealed.

This barely scratches the surface of the intriguing details revealed throughout the profiles. Each brief biographic portrait includes archival photos of the individual, direct quotations (those “voices”), images of artifacts and scenes related to the story, and each is followed by a “Did you know” boxed insert that relates to some element of that chapter.

I’ve been looking forward to the release of this collection of short profiles for several reasons. Author Halls has countless ardent fans among school age readers, based on her ability to research and reveal content that hits the sweet spot for even the most resistant or reluctant kids. In large part this reflects her own insatiable curiosity, which shines through on the page. I had no doubt she would apply that compelling touch to the research and writing of these profiles, and I was not disappointed.

World War II is a perennial favorite topic, in part because it is often viewed as a battle between GOOD and EVIL. The nuances within each story encourage kids to reflect more deeply on what makes someone a “Hero”, exploring the fear and fierce desperation that may be the driver behind actions in wartime. It indirectly suggests questions end encourages discussion about rigid definitions of right and wrong, as in lying to protect a life, or facing the need to risk your own life or to take a life.

Some of the featured individuals have been the subjects of other books, and the back matter is extensive and accessible. Titles suggested range from complex to verse novel to picture books. A bibliography of articles and links allow curious young readers (and teachers and parents) to launch more extensive investigations. A glossary is helpful, as is the use of bold/color signals for key vocabulary within the chapters. One glance at the useful index will reveal the historical depth behind this work, even though it reads like compelling drama.

I hope this new book will find its way into the hands of many young readers, who will, in turn, share the stories and their “ah-ha” discoveries with others. The individuals in the profiles deserve that attention. A broader discussion of what “heroes” really are deserves that attention. And a nonfiction book this important and appealing deserves that attention.


2020, Covid19 Syttende Mai: From the Cutting Room Floor

It’s September 17, 2020.

Six years ago this was the publication date for my debut novel, ODIN’S PROMISE, in which the holiday plays a pivotal role in the plot. Each year since then I’ve attended a festival or book fair or other event to celebrate Syttende Mai  here in the USA.

In Norway, this is their annual CONSTITUTION DAY, the equivalent of our Fourth of July. Traditional celebrations  there normally involve parades, parties, games, musical groups, picnics… all public gatherings of friends and family.

None of those options are possible while the COVID19 pandemic remains uncontrolled. It’s disappointing, to be sure.

But survivable.

The actual end-date for this necessary distancing can’t yet be predicted, but we know an end will eventually arrive. That was not the case in 1940.

That year in Norway,  May 17  arrived  barely five weeks after the German invasion. Celebrations of Syttende Mai were forbidden. Norway’s national  identity was being erased. In short order, Germany imposed a new flag, outlawed traditions, even required German language rather than Norwegian. Despite hopes (and secret efforts) to free Norway from German control, the years dragged on.

Their struggles extended far longer than this pandemic will.

In several  of my very early versions of what later became ODIN’S PROMISE, a secretive celebration of Syttende Mai on that first occupied holiday forms the concluding scene of the draft. I’ll share it now as a reminder:

Interruptions in tradition may be challenging, but we must not sacrifice our  deepest values and sense of community for the sake of short term disappointments.

I hope you enjoy this Syttende Mai resistance scene.

A village party has been arranged on Syttende Mai under the  premise of celebrating a wedding. Provisions for a party were scarce, some suspicious German soldiers had been diverted, but finally…

Nearly an hour passed before the scattered groups had reassembled near the schoolyard entrance. Blankets and chairs were drawn into a semi-circle around a freshly-set table. Nils and Sonja were seated at the center, with their closest relations to either side. At the table, fine crystal was used. For the rest, cups, mugs, and glasses of every type were quickly passed among the crowd.

Knut was dipping pitcher after pitcher into a vat of clear liquid, passing each to others who spread out through the crowd, pouring small portions into the adults’ cups.

“What are you up to, Knut?” Nils called to his brother, laughing.

“Why do you suppose there were no second helpings of potatoes this year, little brother? We couldn’t let you marry without a toast, and you can’t make a toast without aquavit!”

The crowd, which had relaxed considerably after the departure of the Germans, laughed along. Soon Knut took his place at the table to give a loving toast to his brother and new sister. Then Sonja’s parents spoke in heartwarming detail about their love for both Sonja and Nils.  Lise and Kristia spoke by turns, welcoming Sonja as a sister and praising their hard work and courage to provide this day. With each toast a tiny sip of the potent homemade alcohol was savored.

It had been a long and glorious day, although not without its moments of anxiety. Now the setting sun filled the sky with a cascade of rose, violet, and gold. Spring gusts rippled the scattering clouds creating an image not unlike a rainbow waterfall. At the base of the mountain the luminous sky was reflected on the fjord’s surface.

The time had finally come to serve the celebration cake, that unique creation called an almond wreath cake. Traditionally, as many as fifteen rings of rich almond pastry are stacked in a tower. Rising like a cone, each wreath is slightly smaller than the one below. Delicate icing decorates each ring, with a tiny bride and groom perching at the top. Sometimes small bows or foil trinkets adorn the wreaths, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Always, always, it is decorated with small paper flags of Norway.

Securing ingredients for the cake had been a primary focus of Nils’ many treks across the mountains. Enough sugar and almonds for a small cake would have been a challenge to obtain. In order for every guest to have a serving, “extra” wreaths are baked to accommodate larger crowds. In this case, Nils had barely managed to provide enough supplies for the expected number. When reports leading up to this day suggested so many more guests would arrive, Sonja’s mama managed to make a few additional wreaths, enough so that each guest could at least have a bite.

In the shimmering glow of the setting sun, Mama carried the towering cake covered with tiny flags to the table. All eyes were focused on the cake at first, until someone noticed Papa following several meters behind. He proudly carried a full-sized flag of Norway on a tall standard. Nils and Sonja stood up and placed their hands over their hearts. People slowly rose to their feet in silence.

Years later, those who were there still ask each other if they can remember what that moment was like, how it began. No two people agreed on the details, but all agreed on the result.

Someone began to sing “Ja, Vi Elsker”, the national anthem. When the first verse was finished, the next began. Flags  appeared like lightning bugs, first one, then the next, then a swarm. From nearby homes, from pockets and bootlegs, from under skirts and inside jacket linings, flags arrived as if by magic. Every hand, young or old, large or small, held a flag aloft.

As the final verse rang out, the group stood in silence. A murmur from near the mountain’s rim caught their attention. A silhouette stood next to the school flagpole where the Flag of Norway was slowly rising.

Again, their voices joined in “Ja, Vi Elsker”, this time with the reverence of a hymn. The flag of their homeland rose to the top of the pole, snapping proudly in the gathering evening breeze. The sounds of their voices combined with a view of their flag against the background of a spectacular sunset, merging for a magical moment, creating a memory for a lifetime.

Through the four years of continued German occupation that followed, it was a moment that sustained many. Those who were there carried the story with them across the mountains and valleys of Norway. A traditional Norwegian saying is “Courage is the ability to hold on one moment longer.”  For many who were there and all those who heard the story, memories of that day made it possible to hold on through the long hard days and years ahead.

Stay safe, and well, and STAY HOME. Please.