In a stunning novel debut honored with the Michael J. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults, writer An Na tells the story of a Korean family that immigrates to California in search of a better life, only to find that the American Dream is harder to achieve than they thought. Told through the eyes of Young Ju, who is a preschooler when the book begins and a young woman heading off to college by the time it ends, A Step from Heaven is a moving and sometimes painful tale about cultural differences, family dynamics, and the struggle to survive.
As little Young Ju's plane leaves Korea and climbs high into the sky, she thinks she is headed for heaven. In a way, so do her parents, who believe that America will offer them big opportunities and a more heavenly lifestyle. But life is much harder than they anticipate, and both of Young Ju's parents must work multiple jobs just to make ends meet while they share a house with relatives. Disillusioned and ashamed, Young Ju's father tries to drown the harsh realities of his life in liquor, eventually descending into a pit of alcoholism that turns him emotionally and physically abusive.
Though the family as a unit doesn't adapt well, Young Ju adjusts quickly and soon excels in school. But the shame of her family's poverty and her father's worsening alcoholism leads to several lies and cover-ups that prevent her from ever fully embracing her new life. Caught between two cultures and increasingly isolated by the growing tension within her family, Young Ju eventually finds herself at a crossroads, forced to make a decision that will likely tear her family apart.
A Step from Heaven is an insightful, enriching read that should appeal to teens and young adults on many levels. An Na tells the story through a series of vignettes, using poetic prose and well-drawn characters. And Young Ju's wonderfully engaging voice is a perfect match for the family's evolving reality, ranging from the starry-eyed wonder she has as a toddler to the quiet but hopeful reflectiveness she expresses as a young adult. (Beth Amos)