These books and films emerged as some of the most significant for me as I wrote In the Shadow of the Sun, especially in illuminating the variety of contemporary life experiences of North Korean people. I encourage readers to seek out primary sources, to learn from authentic North Korean voices speaking about their own experiences. (Resources appropriate for younger audiences are marked with an asterisk.)
The Bradt Travel Guide, North Korea * (2003, 2007, and 2014 editions) by Robert Willoughby, the “only major standalone tourist guide to North Korea.” The guidebook Mia brings with her is based on the 2005 reprint of the 2003 edition.
“Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” a filmed interview with Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only person known to have been raised in and to have escaped from a no-release North Korean prison camp. Shin has since admitted that not all details of his account were accurate, in both the film and a book about his experiences — for instance, that he was not born in the camp but sent there with his family as a young child. But observers seem to agree that as his story is similar to accounts of other former adult inmates and guards, it still provides important and accurate information about
the realities of prison camp life.
Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea (Atria, 2015) by Jang Jin-sung, a rare account from the elite perspective of a poet laureate to Kim Jong-il.
Every Falling Star* (Amulet Books, 2016) by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland, a young adult memoir of a boy, born into a privileged family, who spent five years scrounging on the streets as a “flower swallow” before escaping to South Korea.
The Girl with Seven Names (William Collins, 2015) by Hyeonseo Lee, a richly detailed memoir of growing up in a high-status, relatively affluent family and crossing the border into China as a willful teenager, an unwitting defector.
(Ms. Lee, now an activist on behalf of North Korean defectors, has a popular 2013 TED talk.*)
“My Daily Life in North Korea (MYSTERIOUS 7 DAY TRIP)”* (2016), a 14-minute video by “digital nomad” Jacob Laukaitis that takes the viewer along for a typical DPRK tour.
North Korea Confidential (Tuttle, 2015) by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of the astonishing changes that North Korean society is currently undergoing.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) by Barbara Demick, a rare picture of daily life in the northeast and the devastating impact of the 1990s famine, based on interviews with defectors.
“A State of Mind”* (2004), a documentary film that follows two young gymnasts in Pyongyang as they compete for the privilege of performing in the Mass Games.
Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (HMHC, 2015) by Joseph Kim with Stephen Talty, a memoir of a North Korean childhood, from comfort to deprivation to street life, before escaping as a teenager. (See also his TED talk.*)
Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim (Broadway Books, 2015), an account by a Korean American investigative reporter posing as an English teacher at a Pyongyang school run by foreign missionaries.
For details of North Korea tours, I consulted numerous online blogs and photo essays. NKNews.org (by subscription) offers a comprehensive source of news about the DPRK.Read More
Once again I participated in a National Association of Korean Schools teachers conference – the second in a week – this one the New England chapter, in North Andover, MA. (It’s a complete coincidence that I did them back-to-back; this invitation came through another Korean acquaintance.) Annual gatherings like the two I attended offer teachers (mostly volunteers) from across a region the chance to connect and to gain new knowledge, skills and inspiration to improve the effectiveness of their instruction.
My presentation (in Korean again, but this one benefited from last week’s warm-up) focused on using books in Korean language school classrooms to help children absorb culture, strengthening their connection to Korea and their bicultural identities. I featured two of my titles, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, and What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, which I illustrated, as examples of how books can be used, and shared a list of titles, most by Korean American authors, for further exploration.
Some recommended books on Korean culturePreschool – 2nd gradeBae, Hyun-Ju, New Clothes for New Year’s DayPark, Linda Sue, Bee-bim Bop!Schoettler, Joan, Good Fortune in a Wrapping ClothOlder Elementary (3rd-6th grade)Park, Linda Sue, A Single Shard; Seesaw Girl; The Kite Fighters; & Archer’s QuestMiddle/High SchoolKim Dong Hwa, The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven (graphic novels)
Some recommended books on the Korean American experiencePreschool – 2nd gradePark, Frances, Good-Bye, 382 Shin Dang DongOlder Elementary (3rd-6th grade)Han, Jenny, Clara Lee and the Apple Pie DreamYoo, Paula, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee StoryMiddle/High SchoolLee, Marie G., Necessary Roughness & Finding My VoiceNa, An, Wait for MeWoo, Sung J., Everything AsianYoo, David, Girls for BreakfastYoo, Paula, Good EnoughQuestions for discussion:How are the characters like you? Different from you?How was being Korean an asset for the character? A challenge?Did you learn anything cool about Korean culture or about being Korean?
The first group was a class of 6th graders from Daejeon on an overnight retreat near Sejong City, run by the Humanity Recovery Movement Council (Huremo) a nonprofit focusing on personal development through the use of journals – called “love diaries” – to “help children think and plan for themselves and make their dreams come true.”
I talked about my own childhood dream of becoming an artist, and of how growing up in Korea gave me a vision of the common humanity of all people. Then I shared a little of the process of creating my graphic novel, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, and some tricks for enhancing the elements of story when composing comics, such as zoom-in (character), zoom-out (setting), and using diagonals to convey a sense of movement.
What a sweet treat to spend time with such a small group of kids!
“Adopting Yunhee was one journey; raising her was another. My own passion for Korea, which became my second homeland and the source of my second culture and second language, made me determined to give Yunhee a sense of her birth legacy. But how does a white American, even one who grew up in Korea, raise a Korean American – on an island in Maine?“
The essay examines how we attempted to give our daughter not just a sense of where she came from, but also encouragement to voice her experience of growing up as an American of color, and the challenge that posed for us as white parents:
“Talking about race gave Yunhee permission and language to unpack her own observations and experiences, and a structure for understanding the nuances of racial identity in America. At various ages and stages, it helped her find her voice to express her grief, her rage, her confusion (at age six, “Why couldn’t somebody in Korea take care of me?”)… It was essential for me not just to convey that all her thoughts and feelings were welcome, but also to become aware enough of the filter of my own white and non-adopted privilege that I could respect Yunhee’s authority in naming realities as she perceived them. I had to work to not inadvertently discount her observations and difficulties just because I wished they weren’t true.”
Korean American Story is building a fine and useful archive of narratives across the spectrum of Korean American identity, a significant contribution to exploring what it means to be American.
Go take a look.
This relatively new blog has already built a thoughtful and insightful collection of essays and fiction on what it means to be Korean and American, including immigrant, U.S.-born, and adoptee perspectives.Read More
Yesterday I spoke on a panel for an SCBWI New England event on using marketing consultants at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. Lovely to make the trip with Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, and writer-illustrator Cathryn Falwell.
During lunch we got to spend a few minutes viewing the exhibit of Kadir Nelson paintings published in the book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. The illustrations are stunning, and the exhibit far more so, because the actual oil paintings are huge.
Entering the gallery, you encounter the life-size figure of catcher and slugger Josh Gibson, who hit 75 home runs in 1931. The painting (also the book’s cover illustration) is hung so that the ball player and museum visitor meet eye to eye. Gibson has a powerful, almost mythical presence, rendered with extraordinary lifelike detail, from gleaming flesh to fraying fabric around the collar. Brushstrokes in the surrounding sky suggest motion, as if the air around the still figure is vibrating.
The paintings are striking in their strength, depth of color, contrast in light and shadow, and stylistic distortions that make them more expressive and memorable than if they were photo-realistic. As a group, they are a vivid and indelible account, bringing the players of the Negro League alive. An added delight is the display of rough thumbnail sketches.
This summer, the paintings will be on display at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum in Pittsburgh. Three, including the portrait of Josh Gibson, have been purchased by the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan.
The artist is quoted in an exhibition brochure:
“What I found most striking was the story of the Negro League; its overwhelming success despite the daunting odds against it. The spirit of independence, having made something out of nothing at all. Armed with only intellectual and athletic talents, and the sheer will to play the game that they loved so dearly, this group of men assumed control of their destiny. After being pushed out of the game by an overwhelming majority, African-Americans, rather than giving up, formed leagues of their own, successful leagues that lasted almost thirty years.
“Overall, I hope that I have done justice to these somewhat forgotten men and given them the tribute that they deserve. I don’t wish to deify them but rather honor them, portray them as the heroes they were and further solidify their place in history.“