On Korean Books & Culture

Novel References & Recommended Reading

Posted by on Jan 20, 2017 in Novel: North Korea, Novel: Research & Process, On Korean Books & Culture, On Other Resources for Educators | Comments Off on Novel References & Recommended Reading

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.

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Story First: Using Children’s Books to Explore Korean Culture & Identity

Posted by on Aug 30, 2015 in On Events & Presentations , On Korean Books & Culture, On Other Resources for Educators | Comments Off on Story First: Using Children’s Books to Explore Korean Culture & Identity

At the National Association of Korean Schools Teacher's Conference

At the National Association of Korean Schools Teacher’s Conference

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.


Korean schools usually meet on Saturdays or on Sunday afternoons after church, when Korean American families bring their children to study reading, writing and speaking as well as to learn more about Korean culture. The schools also attract families formed by interracial adoption or marriage, and a surprising new trend is non-Korean teens showing up motivated to learn the language based on their love of K-pop and anime!

It’s interesting to note the similarities in the two events: Korean churches as venues; a preponderance among teachers of recent immigrants whose first language is Korean, rather than 2nd- or 3rd-generation members; and opening with the singing of both the “Ae-guk-ga” – the Korean national anthem, and “The Star- Spangled Banner”. These traits seem typical of that segment of the Korean American community whose adult members are foreign-born; it’s Korean-language-based, centers around Protestant churches, and claims both Korean and American allegiance.

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 culture
Preschool – 2nd grade
Bae, Hyun-Ju, New Clothes for New Year’s Day
Park, Linda Sue, Bee-bim Bop!
Schoettler, Joan, Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth
Older Elementary (3rd-6th grade)
Park, Linda Sue, A Single Shard; Seesaw Girl; The Kite Fighters; & Archer’s Quest 
Middle/High School
Kim Dong Hwa, The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven  (graphic novels)

Some recommended books on the Korean American experience
Preschool – 2nd grade
Park, Frances, Good-Bye, 382 Shin Dang Dong
Older Elementary (3rd-6th grade)
Han, Jenny, Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream
Yoo, Paula, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story
Middle/High School
Lee, Marie G., Necessary Roughness & Finding My Voice
Na, An, Wait for Me 
Woo, Sung J., Everything Asian
Yoo, David, Girls for Breakfast
Yoo, Paula, Good Enough 
Questions 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? 
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More Korean Connections

Posted by on Aug 23, 2015 in On Events & Presentations , On Korean Books & Culture | Comments Off on More Korean Connections

At her invitation, I joined my friend, Dr. Agnes Ahn, one of the founders and program coordinators of the Korea Studies Workshop at University of MA Lowell, for a whirlwind trip to Philadelphia this weekend.


Agnes and I keynoted at the National Association of Korean Schools, Mid-Atlantic Chapter meeting. We each shared an overview of our life stories and our work: on Agnes’ mission to get Korea and Korean history into the Common Core, and on my book, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Koreaas a tool to explore Korean history, culture and positive bicultural identity.

The Legend of Hong Kil Dong


 We had a warm and enthusiastic response from this delightful group of people – and a delicious Korean box lunch before we were whisked back to the airport to fly back to Boston.



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Considering North Korea

Posted by on Dec 20, 2013 in On Korean Books & Culture | Comments Off on Considering North Korea

Here’s my latest piece at Korean American Story, about my relationship to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, and the process of learning more about it as I’ve developed my young adult novel-in-progress, In the Shadow of the Sun, which is set there:

“Despite having lived within two hundred or fewer miles of the dividing border for much of my childhood, I only thought of the northern half of the Korean peninsula on occasion. My earliest associations were of spooky, dramatic names like ‘No Man’s Land’ and the ‘Bridge of No Return,’ from our family’s visit to the DMZ soon after our 1960 arrival in Seoul. Several years later, living in Daegu where my father worked in the mission hospital, I scared my 10-year-old self by imagining that my parents were wearing masks, underneath which they were actually North Korean spies. The residents of the other half of a divided Korea were my childhood version of the boogeyman.

“Like most South Koreans, we foreigners got used to the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK. I was in high school at Seoul Foreign School the day in 1968 when thirty-one North Korean commandos came across the DMZ on a mission to assassinate President Park Chung-Hee. They got within half a mile of the Blue House before they were apprehended. The whole city was on alert and there was a charged atmosphere at school, knowing that the infiltrators had been moving through the city within three miles of us. Afterwards, we shared rumors with that excited sense of having been on the edge of the action. One story claimed that when the soldiers came over the mountain range they were disoriented by the brilliant lights of Seoul; they’d been told South Korea had no electricity.”

The piece includes recommendations of books and videos on contemporary North Korea – though there’s nothing yet for young people. I hope to change that.

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Posted by on Oct 14, 2013 in On Korean Books & Culture | Comments Off on Homecoming

My latest essay for KoreanAmericanStory, “Homecoming,” is an account of our June trip to Korea and a retrospective of our family’s life there:

 Community health outreach, Koje Island, 1970s
(Dad in center in cap)

“Kojedo in the late 1960s – especially the northern township of Ha-chung which issued the invitation to the Project to use it as a demonstration site – was one of the poorest areas of South Korea, a place of fierce beauty and physical challenge. When we arrived in 1969 at the Project site (a 7-acre peninsula), there were no paved roads, no telephones and no electricity. We lived the first summer in tents while constructing clinic buildings, staff homes and dormitories of adobe-like bricks, which were occupied by autumn. Heated floors and heavy quilts kept us toasty while sleeping in winter, but the air was sometimes so cold that water in a glass on my parents’ dresser would freeze overnight.


“Forty years later, the island is a poster child for the economic miracle that transformed the nation, boasting Korea’s highest per capita income. The host committee – Baik Hospital, the city of Geoje, and former staff members – puts us up in a gleaming resort hotel on a hillside over a bay, our rooms overlooking one of the shipyards that are the source of much of Kojedo’s current prosperity.”


 Island reunion with friends and former colleagues, 2013
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Back to Camp

Posted by on Aug 19, 2013 in Author's Other Korean Books, On Korean Books & Culture | 4 comments

Once again I spent an August week at Camp Sejong, a Korean culture camp in New Jersey, my fifth time as the Creative Writing teacher. It was such a pleasure to be back in this remarkable, multi-age Korean American community of staff, teachers (including a 13-member delegation from Ewha University in Seoul), teen and young adult counselors (including many former campers), and campers from age 7 to 15.
This year the theme was Life Cycles, with a particular focus on the first and 60th birthdays. In writing sessions, we brainstormed about birthdays, birthdays and adoption (about half the campers are adopted; the other half from 2nd-generation Korean American families), and Korean birthdays.
I shared a book I illustrated, What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, about the tol, the first birthday celebration.
Then we constructed tol go-im – first birthday towers or pillars…
but instead of rice cakes, candy, jujubes or beans, we built the towers with strips of paper in the traditional colors seen in sek dong, the rainbow stripes typically used for children’s clothing.
Campers chose whatever they wanted to include – significant events, people, trips, things they learned, school, connections to Korea, and other aspects of their lives. Each stripe represented a year and each completed pillar the story of a life.
Some used pictures and symbols as well, and one girl even drew her complete fashion history – including hairstyles – from infancy!

Already looking forward to next year’s camp, with the theme of Contemporary Korean Culture, including K-pop and Korean drama. In writing we’ll be creating man-wha, or comics.

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