How I Came to Write This Book

Posted by on Jan 20, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process | Comments Off on How I Came to Write This Book

Writing this novel has been a ten-year journey of research, hard work, conversation, and reflection, especially on the subject of identity. I’m a white American whose own identity was profoundly shaped by moving from New Hampshire to South Korea in 1960, when I was seven years old. Korea, where my parents worked as medical missionaries, was our family’s home base for twenty-one years.


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I speak fluent conversational Korean, spent my junior year of college at a Korean university, and have returned to Korea many times throughout my adulthood. Korea is “home” to me, even as my connection remains that of an outsider-insider. But prior to this book, my sphere of personal knowledge, experience, and interest in Korea had never included the North. Even when I was a child and teenager in South Korea, the country occupying the other half of the peninsula seemed unknowable, foreign and menacing — a feeling exacerbated by the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK, and its 1968 assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung-hee.

Ten years ago, a chance interview question about reunification led to the idea for a novel about two American kids on the run in North Korea. I did some reading and daydreaming, but I felt uncertain about my connection to the material until I met Reverend Peter Yoon, a member of the Council on Korean Studies of Michigan State University. In 2007 he had traveled into the DPRK from China by train and had an hour and a half of video footage of the countryside between Sinuiju and Pyongyang. The images were spellbinding, and to my surprise, they were familiar.

Rural North Korea in 2007 — wide plains filled with rice fields, farmers planting in flooded paddies, people pushing carts and riding bicycles, clunky concrete apartment buildings painted pink and blue — looked exactly like the South Korean countryside of the 1960s where I grew up. I realized the DPRK was not unknowable and foreign; despite its government, it was part of a land I knew and loved. Over the years of research and writing that followed, North Korea came into focus more and more as a place of enormous complexity and contradiction, and most of all a place full of real people.

Indeed, contrary to the popular image of a country shrouded in mystery about which we know almost nothing, I’ve found an extensive amount of information available about the DPRK.


More About Growing Up in Korea:

Of Longing and Belonging (Korean American Story)
Considering North Korea (Korean American Story)

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A Young Reader Responds

Posted by on Nov 26, 2017 in Novel: Press & Reviews | Comments Off on A Young Reader Responds

Thanks to Jade, who sent me this note:

In the Shadow of the Sun is a really good book. One of my favorites. I think the fact that this book takes place in North Korea is one reason why it makes the book good and mysterious in a way. I’m reading your book again! … I know people say never to judge a book by its cover, but I think the cover of your book explains the story pretty well! I like this book because of how you make the girl interested in Korea and the boy is more eh about going to Korea. North Korea! I think this book is suspenseful, sad, and in the end happy.

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“A nail-biter of an adventure”

Posted by on Nov 14, 2017 in Novel: Press & Reviews | Comments Off on “A nail-biter of an adventure”

Thanks to reviewer and middle school librarian Lynn Rutan, in The Booklist Reader:

Looking for a heart-thumping thriller? Anne Sibley O’Brien’s In the Shadow of the Sun (2017) was already a great choice, but then the political situation with North Korea got even worse, heightening its timeliness and intensity.


Twelve-year-old Mia Andrews and her surly older brother Simon—who we learn has been “mad since August”—are touring North Korea with their aid-worker father, who wants the family to see where he works and share some quality time. Mia and Simon find this a very odd vacation destination, and their father is soon arrested. Tension mounts when Mia discovers that a package she received contains a phone with extremely dangerous photographs stored in it.


The siblings set about to save their father and themselves by getting the phone across the Chinese border. Somehow, these teenagers will have to traverse one of the most repressive countries in the world with little money, no allies, and a scant understanding of the language. Throw in Simon’s all-American looks, and this proves an almost-impossible undertaking.


Life-or-death adventure and a nothing-is-as-it-seems plot would be enough to make this a promising read for middle-schoolers. O’Brien, however, supplies a lot more to take away. She juxtaposes Mia’s experiences as a South Korean adoptee in a largely white Connecticut town against her trip experience where she looks like everyone else. She depicts Mia and Simon’s sibling relationship wonderfully: Mia feels, rightly, that Simon dismisses her abilities, thoughts, and potential contributions, so watching Mia’s personal growth and increasing self-confidence becomes all the more satisfying. Interspersed throughout the adventure are the reflections of various North Korean citizens, which help provide a greater understanding of the country and its suffering people.


O’Brien, who grew up in South Korea, has delivered a nail-biter of an adventure that is also outstandingly researched and packed with fascinating information and insights. Buckle your seat belts, this one’s a wild ride!


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Posted by on Nov 11, 2017 in Novel: North Korea, Novel: Tools for Educators | Comments Off on #Empathy4NKoreanPeople 

On considering the humanity of the people of North Korea:

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Review from a Young Reader

Posted by on Sep 19, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Press & Reviews | Comments Off on Review from a Young Reader

Thanks to Amanda Kang, who wrote this review:

In The Shadow Of The Sun by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I am 13 years old going into the 8th grade, and felt that it was a good fit (part of that may have come from the fact that Mia’s character and I have a lot of similarities, being Korean-American, about the same age, having to go to Korean school/한글학교, etc).  In general, I enjoy these kinds of books about semi-hardcore survival (like The Boxcar Children) because it’s exciting to read about people my age staying alive due to their own resourcefulness.


I myself have only ever been to South Korea, although my grandpa was born in Pyongyang and my dad has been on the other side of the border twice.  I learned some valuable information by reading this book, whether it’s how heavily a family’s fate depends on the time that one of their children flips her card at a performance, how accidentally dropping an important person’s portrait could send you to reeducation camp, or simply how dangerous it is to be associated with someone/something that the North Korean officials do not approve of.  It’s scary, especially at this time.  On the bright side, it’s helpful to know that I could change the meaning of my middle name if I wanted to.  That’s not something many of my friends can do.


Of course, there is also the element of Simon and Mia’s relationship.  I liked how the whole experience of being stuck there brought them closer together, the way they should be as siblings (but who am I kidding?  I never get along with my sister).  It was nice to see how their working together was what saved them in the end.


Anyhow, I am glad that I read this book and will give it four or five stars on goodreads as soon as it’s published (I also don’t think I mentioned that I have never read an advance uncorrected proof before, so this is a first for me).  I believe that it’s really important, especially for people who assume ideas based only on what they hear in the news about places like North Korea (a kid asked me on the playground “why are you reading a communist book?  That’s where Kim Jong-un is from, and we don’t like him”), to read this book and books like it, because then they’ll have a better idea of why these things happen while still reading from an outsider’s perspective.  Speaking of perspectives, I really appreciated those grey sections in between the different chapters, because it is always better to have multiple viewpoints in a complicated story.  I am also glad that those parts–while short–connected to the main story, because otherwise you would just have random parts mixed in with the plot and you wouldn’t get the background of the tertiary/secondary characters that you meet briefly in the narrative.


Because of this book, I now have a better understanding of the more misunderstood side of the country that my family is from, and for that I am grateful.

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Activity Guide from Island Readers & Writers

Posted by on Sep 18, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Tools for Educators, On Events & Presentations , On Other Resources for Educators | Comments Off on Activity Guide from Island Readers & Writers

In October I’ll be traveling from my own Maine island to make author visits at three schools on the islands of Islesboro, North Haven and VinalHaven, hosted by Island Readers & Writers (IRW).

In preparation, IRW has created this wonderful activity guide for In the Shadow of the Sun, including discussion questions, art and writing prompts, companion titles and resources for further exploration.

Here’s one prompt:

Write up a pack list of items you would bring with you on a harrowing trek through the North Korean countryside. Based on Mia and Simon’s experiences, what would be some of the most important supplies to have?


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October 24 Event: “North Korea: The Stories Behind the Conflict”

Posted by on Sep 7, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: North Korea, On Events & Presentations  | Comments Off on October 24 Event: “North Korea: The Stories Behind the Conflict”

Date: Tuesday, October 24 – 6:00pm – 7:00pm

Location: Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library, Portland, Maine

Audience: Adults, Teens

North Korea: The Stories Behind the Conflict

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“To Recognize the Humanity of the Other”: Korean Consulate Book Talk

Posted by on Sep 7, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: North Korea, On Events & Presentations  | Comments Off on “To Recognize the Humanity of the Other”: Korean Consulate Book Talk

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On Thursday, August 24, Consular General Song Jun Ohm hosted a Book Talk featuring In the Shadow of the Sun, at the Korean Consulate in Newton, MassachusettsAn audience representing the Korean American community of Boston, including academics, activists, business people, policy analysts, and others with deep interest in North Korea, were invited to share their expertise and reflections. In his opening remarks, Consul General Ohm said,

As a diplomat, my interest in [Anne’s] novel is about the promotion of understanding Korea and North Korea among Americans… Questions arise such as why North Korea is obsessed with nuclear weapon; why North Korea is attempting to make threats directly to the United States; what is the origin of North Korean hostility to the United States, etc.

I suggest that we need to see the North Korean people as human beings and see them differently and separate from the dictator and his subordinates. This novel provides me with the new and fresh perspective, because South Koreans also need to understand North Koreans better, and that will be possible when they meet by people to people, not when they see solely through news media or official channel.

I gave a short talk about my childhood in South Korea, the inspiration for the novel, the process of writing it, and the ways in which empathy for the people of North Korea gradually became my focus. Wellesley English professor Yu Jin Ko and Reverend Sung-hyuk Kim followed with reflections on themes in the novel, with Professor Ko emphasizing that “to recognize the humanity of the other” must be the basis for reunification. Audience members responded with their own observations on the importance of a “human-centric” approach to North Korea.

I was deeply honored and humbled by the event, and felt buoyed by the foundation of guidance and support as I communicate the themes of the novel to a wider audience. wrote about the event here.

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