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 | 0 comments

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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Picturing New Neighbors

Posted by on Oct 2, 2015 in Author's Other Korean Books, On Events & Presentations  | 0 comments


Anne Sibley O’Brien Immigration Illustration Exhibit

On September 30, in the midst of torrential rains and flash flooding in the city, I still managed to get in from the island to hang an exhibit of illustrations in the Children’s Room of Portland Public Library.

The exhibit, “Picturing New Neighbors,” features selected original artwork from these four books, all of which feature immigrant children:

My stellar intern, Caitlyn Hubbard, made the whole day work; I never would have made it without her. Thanks, Katie!

The exhibit will be up through November, and will culminate with a November 19th reception and workshop, “‘That’s My Story!’ Images of Immigrant Children in Picture Books,” for teachers, librarians, parents and community members.

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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 | 0 comments

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 | 0 comments

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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When Books & Real Life Overlap

Posted by on Apr 5, 2015 in Author's Korean Connections, Author's Other Korean Books | 2 comments

What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, which I illustrated, was published five years ago. It tells the story of a Korean American baby’s first birthday through the eyes of her older brother, Chong.

One of the most charming aspects of a traditional Korean first birthday, or tol, is the toljabee, in which objects are placed in front of the baby and the one chosen is thought to be a predictor of what the child might become.

Illustration © Anne Sibley O’Brien from WHAT WILL YOU BE, SARA MEE?

Yesterday I got to be part of my grandson’s tol. Taemin was splendid in a first birthday outfit that our daughter Yunhee’s godparents, Marsha Greenberg and Steve Schuit, had brought last year from Korea.


When a table of objects was placed on the floor in front of him, Taemin practically ran to pick up the rice spoon – the sign of a chef-to-be.

What fun when an event you’ve illustrated comes to life!

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Posted by on Mar 31, 2015 in On Travel to Asia | 0 comments

After late winter in Mongolia (30s) and early spring in China (60s), I arrived in Kota Kinabalu (KK), Malaysia, in the state of Sabah on the northwest coast of Borneo, to temperatures in the humid 90s.
The East Asia Region of Overseas Schools (EARCOS) 3-day Teachers’ Conference 2015 was held at the gorgeous Sutera Harbour Resort.
Checking in, I discovered that EARCOS had upgraded keynote speakers to luxurious suites – mine had a view over coconut trees of the marina and the bay! It felt as if I’d landed in paradise.
The resort complex includes two large hotels connected by a boardwalk, dotted with swimming pools, tropical gardens and flowering plants. Enormous breakfast buffets tantalized with platters of fresh papaya, pineapple, watermelon and pomelo, Malay and Indian curries, Chinese dim sum and Korean kimchi, as well as the usual Western options of cereal, eggs, and breads – everything imaginable except pork, in deference to Muslim citizens who comprise more than 60% of the population.


I presented a keynote, “Mirrors & Lenses: Exploring Racial and Cultural Identity,” sharing my story as a “3rd culture kid” (TCK) growing up in Korea, interspersed with some of the latest findings I’ve gleaned from neuroscience on the formation of racial identity and unconscious bias.

Some 1200 teacher delegates attended the conference from 116 English-speaking international schools in 15 countries: Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
It was great to reconnect with teacher and librarian friends I’d made on previous author visits to Seoul Foreign School (my alma mater), Shanghai American School and Brent International School in the Philippines, to make new friends – what fascinating stories these teachers have! – and to have exciting conversations about the possibility of author visits to other schools. I also got to catch up with Peaks Island neighbor and author Laima Sruoginis, who’s spent the last two years teaching high school English at the American International School of Hong Kong.
Teachers enjoyed taking photos with the visiting author to show to their students.

The conference schedule was packed, so I didn’t get a chance to discover the wonders of Sabah, from Mount Kinabalu to tropical rain forests to snorkeling off islands, but a group of us did get to downtown KK for dinner and souvenir shopping: painted masks, sarongs, batik, percussion instruments, and other beautiful crafts.


L to R: With new teacher friends Holly Blair (art teacher in Hong Kong, orig. from Canada); Paulina Cuevas (counselor in China, orig. from Chile); Florence Flesche (5th grade teacher in Hong Kong, orig. from Hong Kong and California).

Browsing with Holly (center) and Lukas Berredo (gender identity advocate & educator in China, orig. from Brazil).

This area of downtown Kota Kinabalu, selling clothing, souvenirs and food, is called the “Filipino Market.”

Laima with pineapple fried rice, at a Thai restaurant on the harbor.

On the last day, there was time for pina coladas by the pool bar and a sunset over the bay, before the closing reception.


L to R: Susan Keller-Mathers and Heather Maldonado of SUNY Buffalo State 
(offered course credit for conference hours, sponsor of my keynote); Paulina 
What a wonderful close to a spectacular trip!


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Posted by on Mar 25, 2015 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, On Travel to Asia | 3 comments

There’s a Chinese folk tale, variously called “Fortunately, Unfortunately,” or “That’s Good! That’s Bad!” A farmer loses his horse – bad fortune! But soon the horse returns, with a stallion – good fortune! The farmer’s son is thrown off the stallion and breaks his leg – bad fortune! But then military officers arrive in the village to conscript every able-bodied man and the farmer’s son isn’t taken because of his leg… And so on.

My five-day solo trip in China felt like a version of this tale. The first piece of seemingly bad fortune was the discovery upon arrival in Beijing that the reservation confirmation receipt for my Chinese hutong inn (a hutong is an alleyway or narrow side street) didn’t have enough information on it for the average Chinese person to be able to tell where it was located. The good fortune was finding one person after another, most of whom didn’t speak any English – and I speak no Chinese – to help piece together the next step of my journey, from airport to express train to subway to street. My final angel of mercy was Peng, who did speak some English and told me to call him Elton. He helped me with my heavy luggage, guiding me down the correct street to the front door of the inn, a welcome sight.

 We exchanged enough information, with the help of my iPad photos, to discover that the city my grandfather grew up in in the early 1900s is Elton’s hometown! To have bumped into each other in one of the largest cities in the world seemed quite remarkable.   

My grandfather, Horace Norman Sibley, center, with his parents and sisters, approx 1906.


The next day was a trip to the Great Wall, which I’ve wanted to see ever since I painted it for the book Talking Walls by Margy Burns Knight.

I’d chosen a tour to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, supposed to be one of the most scenic. I spent the day with an international group of tourists from Pakistan, Canada and the Philippines, our driver, and our guide, a young woman called Eva. Eva is married, with a 2-year-old son, and commutes two hours each way from her suburban apartment, because housing closer to the city center is unaffordable. The tour included some Ming tombs, a jade factory, lunch in a restaurant at the foot of the mountain (about an hour northeast of Beijing), and finally, the Wall! 

Our tour group at the Ming Tombs.

No photos can do justice to the scale and sheer magnificence of the Great Wall. Seeing the height and steepness of these rocky mountains, it stuns the mind to think of the engineering feat that created this Wonder of the World – and of the millions of lives lost in its construction. The Wall is so high up that almost everyone opts for the cable car or chairlift up – with the option of a tobbagan ride down! It’s a real physical workout, just ascending and descending the stairs and walkways on top of the Wall itself.   

Saturday I flew to Dandong, on the northern banks of the Yalu River, which forms the border between China and North Korea. In addition to growing up in South Korea, for the last eight years I’ve been working on a young adult novel set in North Korea. (The day I was leaving on this trip, I received some very exciting news about this novel – TBA in a future post!) I wanted to travel to this part of China to trace the steps of my fictional characters, who in the book’s climax end up on a section of the Great Wall, called Hu Shan (Tiger Mountain), not far from Dandong. 


I was tremendously excited to discover upon arrival that my 6th floor hotel room looked out over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and the North Korean city of Sinuiju, barely visible in the smoggy mist: 

At night, Dandong is aglow in neon, while across the river Sinuiju shows only a few pinpricks of light.




Dandong is where I really entered the Chinese tale mentioned above: On my first day, I explored transportation options to Hu Shan, successfully locating the train station, the local bus station across from it, and the exact bus that would take me to the Wall, using a combination of Pictionary and Charades. Unfortunately, when I got there the next morning, I found that the next bus didn’t leave for 2 hours. Fortunately, there were two Chinese men who were also going that direction, so the bus station official hailed us a taxi. Unfortunately, when we got to Hu Shan, we discovered that the Great Wall was closed for the day! Though I indicated I’d like to get out anyway to walk around, the taxi driver just sped by, giving me reassuring gestures. Fortunately, it turned out that the two other passengers were looking for an up-close view of the DPRK, and we ended up on a speedboat, cruising down the river into North Korean waters!



A North Korean village on an island in the Yalu River. We are traveling between the island and mainland DPRK – clearly in North Korean waters. The woman herding goats waved and smiled when I called hello to her in Korean.

When I did finally get out of the taxi on the way back to Hu Shan, the entrance to the Wall was indeed closed; inside, a grounds crew was gathering and burning brush. Exploring around the edges on my own – including scrambling up one steep slope, hanging onto branches to keep from slipping in the sandy soil – I stumbled upon paths and views that I never would have found if I’d been on top of the Wall. 


And on the south side, there is no gate!  

I was able to climb part way up the Wall, just as I’d imagined, and sit to paint a panoramic view of the North Korean countryside. 

All in all, an amazing adventure, full of good fortune!

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