I'm happy to have Elliott Kurta back for another book review. Since he's enjoying the opportunity to read and review a variety of books, you can look forward to more of his reviews in the future.
I Escaped North Korea is an informative book about the struggles North Koreans faced during 2007. Dae-hyun, the protagonist, is only fourteen when his father is arrested and his mother journeys to Pyongyang to save her husband. Dae-hyun realizes his mother isn’t coming back, so he tries to survive by stealing coal and food. Soon, Dae-hyun longs to leave his country and journey to China, where there is hot running water and readily available food. He’s offered a job which would pay well and send him to China--at the cost of endangering his life. He accepts the job and is charged with delivering medicine across the frozen Yalu river. Once in China, Dae-hyun finds he doesn’t want to leave, even if he’d be staying as an illegal citizen and an orphan. While looking for other work, Dae-hyun stumbles upon a minister who offers to send him to Mongolia in order to obtain political asylum—thus beginning the journey of his life and for his life.
Throughout their first novel together, Ellie Crowe and Scott Peters provide an ideal example of ‘show, don’t tell’. Unlike most middle-school books, information is not presented in a manner that tells readers what they should think. Instead, they will come to their own conclusions about life in North Korea as they read about Dae-hyun going to school and being asked to share a personal failure in a class exercise. However, I Escaped North Korea is not overly graphic, except for two minor expletives in the first twenty pages. While themes such as corrupt governments, violent and cruel police officers, and starving families are present throughout this historical narrative, Dae-hyun also experiences the kindness of strangers. From the kotjebi or orphan Ki-moon who helps Dae-hyun find food and shares his stolen goods to the South Korean minister who brings Dae-hyun on a journey to seek political asylum, Dae-hyun’s journey is spectacular.
Seeing North Korea through Dae-hyun’s eyes makes the struggles of citizens in another country personal for the reader. With an average of four pages per chapter, I Escaped North Korea will ensnare reluctant readers from the first page with increasingly high-stakes action.
Even with all the captivating action present, I Escaped North Korea is still a heartfelt and emotional novel. The brevity of the novel does not take away from its descriptions, like when Dae-hyun describes how his father’s crimes have brought his family ‘low’. Even though most readers will not be able to relate to Dae-hyun as he’s chased across a frozen river, when they read the sentence below they will find themselves running alongside him.
"With a sickening snap, the ice beneath his feet moved.
He pictured the water beneath the splitting surface. Black. Cold. Deadly.
'Dae!' Ki-moon screamed…”
On top of the facts presented in this book, at the end there is a sheet of additional information and a brief appendix with a study guide and more books to read. After the study guide, there is an afterword that further explains the route to Mongolia and what life is like in North Korea. There’s even a website link at the back of the book that directs to study questions for each chapter and a coloring sheet of North Korea and surrounding countries.
For 8–12-year-old reluctant readers, this book will serve as a great introduction to the historical fiction genre. The short chapters of this book are both engaging and informative. Be prepared for a barrage of questions after your child, friend, sibling, or students breathlessly finish reading I Escaped North Korea. For another, equally thrilling read, check out the rest of the I Escaped nine-book series, which ranges from surviving the brutal Salem Witch Trials to escaping the ruthless pirates of the Caribbean.
Elliott is a prolific reader of various genres who is more than happy to share his opinions on books. In his free time, he enjoys writing, reading, and running. He is an 8th grade homeschool student in Charlotte, NC.