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Five More to Go: Alice Stephens’ FAMOUS ADOPTED PEOPLE

Our newest feature gives Booklist critics the opportunity to shout about a recently published book they adored. They’ll tell us why we should read it, then provide five read-alikes for the title.


 Famous Adopted People, by Alice Stephens

“Everyone, it seems, is telling our story but us,” observes Lisa Pearl, the Korean-born, Bethesda, Maryland-raised transracial adoptee protagonist in Alice Stephens’ recent October debut. The author, who describes herself as being “among the first generation of transnational, interracial adoptees,” takes charge with a novel that’s darkly comic, sharply irreverent, undeniably wise. Step into Villa Umma (Korean for “Mommy”), where Lisa has been kidnapped—no, delivered—after running off to Jeju Island following a shattering fight with her BFF in a Seoul Dunkin’ Donuts. Lisa’s bio-Umma is hardly nostalgic—she’s got no interest in reclaiming 27 lost years but is intent on furthering her Machiavellian plans to place Lisa’s half-brother at the helm of a nuclear-power-to-be. Introducing each chapter with a pixelated propaganda poster overlaid with a quote from “famous adopted people” (Greg Louganis, Debbie Harry, Vincent Chin, and more), Stephens’ “Great Adoption Novel” is an unexpectedly timely, not-to-be-missed, epic wild ride.

As further proof of Stephens’ renegade unique debut, only a single title comes to mind that highlights both transracial adoption and North Korea: In the Shadow of the Sun, a middle-grade novel by (South) Korean-raised Anne Sibley O’Brien. While a notable choice for younger audiences, adults in search of more mature read-alikes might choose from two paths: transracial Korean adoption or surreal North Korea. Here are five more to go, linked to their original Booklist reviews.


The Boy Who Escaped Paradise, by J. M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Lee’s silent protagonist sits in a New York City cell, accused of murder and terrorism, his more notable possessions including four fake passports and nineteen pages of mathematical formulas written in an unidentifiable language. Over the next seven days, the suspect will divulge a quest that originates in North Korea and lands in North America, with stopovers in China, Macau, South Korea, and Mexico, as the protagonist moves through a prison camp, casinos, hotel rooms, action flicks, and international markets—all to fulfill a childhood promise of everlasting care (and love).




The Collective, by Don Lee

Three college friends reunite after graduation. Eric Cho hopes to become a published writer. Jessica Tsai is a feisty artist. Joshua Yoon is a brilliant, angry Korean adoptee, raised as the privileged only child of two liberal Harvard professors. Joshua’s violent, shocking suicide becomes the catalyst for introspection, reevaluation, confrontation, and change.






How I Became a North Korean, by Krys Lee

After the brutal murder of his father and his wrenching separation from his mother and sister, Yongju faces further deprivation despite his privileged upbringing as the only son of one of North Korea’s power elite. Meanwhile, Danny, a misfit immigrant teen in southern California, abandons his father to join his mother in China, while Jangmi, desperate to protect her unborn child, escapes her North Korean village and becomes the purchased wife of a damaged Chinese man with a spoiled daughter. Through an unlikely combination of adversity and serendipity, the three young people will converge in a house of God. Drawing on personal experiences working with North Korean refugees, Lee crafts an extraordinary narrative that combines contemporary testimony with literary achievement.


A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, by Paul Fischer

Long before PSY became an worldwide headliner with “Gangnam Style,” director Shin Sang-Ok and his leading lady Choi Eun-Hee reigned as Korea’s first international megastars. In a South Korea devastated by war, Shin and Choi built Korean cinema to international acclaim. North of the DMZ, Kim Jong-Il, not yet the Supreme Leader, fed his obsession for films. He hatched a ludicrous plan to get North Korea onto the international cinematic stage: first he grabbed Choi, then he took Shin. Reunited as Kim’s ‘guests,’ they had little choice but to help make Dear Leader’s celluloid dreams come true.


Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell

Helen and her brother were adopted as babies from Korea by a willfully culturally illiterate white couple from Milwaukee. Now that her 29-year-old brother is dead, Helen is determined to understand his suicide and buys a one-way ticket from NYC to their childhood home. Helen’s no-filter descriptions of her perplexing life morph into an inventive, disturbing, and noir-ish tragicomic debut.




About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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