One of the perks of being a teacher is the authors who grace our school halls, no matter where in the world those halls stand. Korea is such a place, currently front and center in recent events.
First, let me say, as a teacher and author, I appreciate the process: long hours, extensive research, pondering, the wrestling and wavering of ideas, bits of your heart and soul on paper. I value how one’s experiences provide rich content for the stories we create and how those events can touch the lives of students in the classroom. I especially love when students are able to connect to the person behind those words.
Meet author, Anne Sibley O’Brien, and her middle grade novel, In the Shadow of the Sun, an adventure story set in North Korea.
When our school librarian announced an upcoming author visit, I was intrigued to learn that the author, Anne Sibley O’Brien, had grown up in South Korea as a daughter of medical missionaries. A prolific picture book author, Ms. O’Brien’s first novel for middle school kids, In the Shadow of the Sun, unfolds in North Korea, a country currently in the midst of rising tensions around the world.
When my class and I pick up an author’s work, I remind them we are looking inside the mind of another person. We are immersing ourselves into a world that has been created from nothing. If someone else was to tell the same story, it would be voiced from a totally different perspective. In Ms. Obrien’s case, we are not only privilege to her writing acumen, but also bicultural experiences that provide sustenance in the backdrop of a foreign land.
Book Synopsis: North Korea is known as one of the most oppressed countries on Earth, with a dictatorial leader, a starving population, and harsh punishment for rebellion.
Not the best place for a family vacation.
Yet, that’s exactly where Mia Andrews finds herself, on a tour with her aid-worker father and fractious (would irritable be better here?) older brother, Simon. Mia was adopted from South Korea as a baby, and the trip raises tough questions about where she feels she really belongs. Her dad is then arrested for spying, just as forbidden photographs of North Korean slave-labor camps fall into Mia’s hands. The only way to save Dad: get the pictures out of the country. Thus, Mia and Simon set off on a harrowing journey to the border, without food, money, or shelter, in a land where anyone who sees them might turn them in, and getting caught could mean prison — or worse.
In the Shadow of the Sun, Anne Sibley O’Brien
Please tell us about In the Shadow of the Sun and how you came to write it.
Our family arrived in Korea in March 1960, when my parents were hired by the Presbyterian Church to do medical missionary work. I was seven. We lived in Seoul and Daegu and on the island of Geoje, and I attended Ewha Women’s University for my junior year of college. Along the way I became bilingual and bicultural, and that background has influenced the content of some of my books, including the folktale 바보 온달, published as The Princess and the Beggar (now out of print) and my graphic novel of the Korean hero tale, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea.
Those books were both inspired by retellings of traditional Korean stories. In the Shadow of the Sun, however, is a completely original story, and a modern one. The inspiration for the book was a radio interview in which my attention was drawn to the people of North Korea in a way I’d never thought of them before. (More about the story here.) That led to a ten-year process of research and writing, including several remarkable encounters with North Koreans who had defected.
You can find more about my childhood and background, photographs and videos, responses to the novel, and whether I’ve ever visited North Korea, on the novel’s blog, InTheShadowOfTheSunBook.com. There is also an activity guide created by Island Readers and Writers.
How do the events in your book tie into our current events with North Korea?
In the Shadow of the Sun is the first fictional portrayal of contemporary North Korea for young English-speaking readers. When I was writing it, I never anticipated just how much the DPRK would be in the spotlight!
The picture of North Korea that’s presented in the media is such a cartoonish one. I think it’s important to consider not just the government but the people, everyday citizens who have no say in what their leaders do. Of course, my plot is a completely imagined one, but I’ve tried to weave in bits of current North Korean politics and society — and most of all, people — in a way that will give readers a glimpse of what it might be like to live there today. In the Author’s Note, I also recommend other books and films which can add more context. I hope that people might come away from the novel with a sense of the humanity of North Korea’s people.