Wednesday, April 23, 2014


March was a busy month. I spent two weeks in Southeast Asia presenting in international schools. First stop was Bangkok. I had a day and a half to recover from jet lag and see a few of the sights, including the gorgeous Buddhist temple, Wat Po,
where I met some fascinating characters:

One of the most amazing things about being in Thailand was that it was not winter.

March 11 and 12 I visited the beautiful Concordian International School, a tri-lingual (English, Thai and Mandarin) institution for Thai-Chinese students. At the request of librarian Erin Sieck, who wanted to make the connection with the school's mission to create global citizens, I began with a presentation to parents of my "Mirrors and Lenses" talk on using children's books to spark conversations about race. It was a fascinating exercise to translate the American point of view into something that had resonance for these Thai, Chinese and Korean parents seeking to help their children build positive ethnic identities.

The response of parents who stayed to talk to me afterwards demonstrated that the discussion of majority vs. minority racial identities had significant applications in Thailand as well as in the U.S.
In sessions with middle schoolers, I presented titles chosen by teachers for each grade, After Gandhi, Africa is Not a Country, and my graphic novel, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong...

and shared the always popular "Draw an Asian Dragon" exercise.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Katahdin!


Yesterday I attended Reading Roundup in Augusta, Maine, where the Maine Library Association gave me the Katahdin Award, a "lifetime achievement award (which) recognizes an outstanding body of work of children’s literature in Maine."

With Lupine Award winners Maria Padian (l) and Melissa Sweet (r)
 Here's the text of my acceptance:
"Thank you to Laurel Parker, members of the awards committee, and the Maine State Library Association. 
This has been a week of wonders. One week ago today, our daughter gave birth to a baby boy, our first grandson. And now I’m here with all of you, receiving this extraordinary honor. It makes my head spin. 
I must say that I was astonished when I got the call from Laurel Parker. Although my husband and I moved to Maine 34 years ago and all 31 of my books were created on Peaks Island, my content is global, not local, full of diverse children and cultures, many of which have only recently become part of the Maine community. It’s very moving for me to be claimed, by the bestowing of this award, as one of your own. 
All of my work is rooted in the pivotal childhood experience of moving from New England to South Korea, where my parents were hired to serve as medical missionaries. At age seven, I encountered a world strikingly different from the New Hampshire farmhouse and meadows of my early childhood. Not only was I immersed in a new language and new culture, but I witnessed the devastating impact of a war that had ended only 7 years before our arrival. 
My parents’ dream was not to deliver relief or salvation to the 'poor' Koreans, but to learn, work and live with Koreans as colleagues, friends and extended family. As a result, I came to know, not just other words, but in my cells and my bones, other ways of looking at at the world. And most of all, I learned, in my heart, that these “different” people were in fact 'my' people, and I was theirs.  
I realized recently that what I’ve been trying to do, with all my work, is to say to all my readers, 'Look! Here is your family!' 
Our brand-new grandson’s name is Taemin. Our daughter, who was adopted from Korea as a baby, chose it to honor their shared Korean heritage. When Taemin enters kindergarten in Saco, Maine, in the fall of 2019, his class across the nation will be more than 50% children of color. Thank you for honoring books in which he and his classmates can see themselves and for building the library collections that reflect the children of America."
One of the highlights was the two women who came up to congratulate me, who turned out to be Laura (l) and Brooke (r) of Dyer Library in Saco, Maine - my grandson's librarians!

Looking forward to taking Taemin to "Bouncing Babies," their Friday morning reading hour for babies 0-18 months.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Reason...

I haven't been blogging lately:

Taemin Anthony Keough, born April 3 to our daughter Yunhee and her husband Josh.
I'm a grandmother - and besotted!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Announcing the NEW Talking Walls

Talking Walls - Discover Your World, written by Margy Burns Knight and illustrated by me, is coming in February. It's the "Classic Edition" of the two original Talking Walls titles, updated and rewritten for read-aloud effectiveness and compiled into one volume. The book introduces young readers to 26 walls in 22 countries, including every continent except Antarctica.

We're celebrating with a launch party on February 7, 2014:

Maine Charitable Mechanic Association Library
519 Congress St, 2nd floor
Portland, Maine

The first forty educators who register are invited to an hour-long free workshop with the author and illustrator to introduce the new Talking Walls - Discover Your World, and to share examples of how to use the book to meet Common Core standards for informational text, grades K-8: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity.

Each participant will be entered in a drawing to win a free copy of the book at the launch party (see below).

To register: Email name, school and contact information (subject line: Teacher Workshop) to by February 1, 2014

5:00 - 8:00 LAUNCH PARTY (during First Friday Artwalk)
Mainely Frames
541 Congress Street, Portland, Maine

- Refreshments: Wine & cheese & crackers
- Display of original Talking Walls illustrations
- Books available for purchase and autographing
- "Reconciliation and Forgiveness Wall" - Community activity honoring the life of Nelson Mandela
- Drawing for free copies of the book (for educators who attended the workshop) - 5 winners

Monday, December 23, 2013

To Russia, With Love

Last month at a gathering at the Peaks Island community center, I had the opportunity to meet Oleg Klyuenkov and Lyudmila Romodina, members of an LGBT delegation from Archangel, Russia, to Portland, Maine
Oleg and Lyudmilla described discriminatory laws recently enacted in Russia, and their work supporting gay individuals and families at a center in Archangel. As a followup to their visit, I'm mailing them a package of picture books representing the portrayal of gay families in American literature for young children:

In Monday is One Day, by Arthur Levine, a working parent addresses a child, counting the days until the weekend and special time with "you." The illustrations show different kinds of families, including two dads.
The Family Book by Todd Parr celebrates different shapes, sizes and colors of families in simple language and brilliant, primary-colored art.

One of a pair of board books by Leslea Newman (see also Daddy, Papa and Me), Mommy, Mama and Me is a sweet glimpse into everyday life with two moms.

A Tale of Two Daddies (companion to A Tale of Two Mommies), by Vanita Oelschlager, is a playground conversation between a girl and her friend who asks about the roles of her two fathers.

Beloved writer-illustrator Patricia Polacco used family members as models for In Our Mothers' House, about two moms raising three children by adoption.

 Now whenever I hear news about the treatment of the LGBT community in Russia, I think of Oleg, Lyudmilla, their families, their friends and their clients. I hope for changes that will make them feel safer and more accepted.

In the words of a button from the Marriage Equality in Maine in 2012: "It's only love."

For more recommended books featuring gay and lesbian families, see this list, with links to others.

Friday, December 20, 2013

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.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Power of Mandela

by Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O"Brien

"1962. Cape Town, South Africa
    Robben Island, a wild, rocky outpost seven miles off the coast, was a place of banishment. Nelson Mandela arrived there in the dark belly of a boat, chained to three other men.
    'This is the island! Here you will die!' white prison guards yelled at the four men as they stepped off the boat. They commanded them to jog between lines of armed guards to the prison gatehouse. Mandela knew this moment was crucial. The job of the guards was to break their spirit. As the jailers screamed at them, he and the others kept their pace slow.
     The guards were astonished. They threatened to kill the men if they did not move faster. Mandela replied, 'You have your duty, and we have ours,' and walked with measured dignity to the gates.
     He spent the next 27 years in prison."
In 1998 I traveled to South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe with my friend Meikie, who was raised in Soweto and fled apartheid as a teenager. Our first stop was Capetown, where we boarded a boat for a tour of the Robben Island prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. Many of the tour guides for the prison are former prisoners. We heard accounts of the struggles of the inmates to overcome the tribal divisions between Xhosa and Zulu, and of their efforts to create a "university" by each man sharing the knowledge he carried.


    "At the prison, the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement - black, Indian and 'coloured,' or mixed race - were housed together in one section. At first they spent their days breaking rocks into gravel. Then for thirteen years they mined limestone from a quarry with picks and shovels. They were fed cold corn porridge. They slept in individual cells, on mats on cement floors, surrounded by thick stone walls. Many of the prisoners had life sentences.

     "But Mandela believed he would be freed one day. He knew that his challenge was to survive in both body and spirit, to emerge from prison whole. He and the other leaders began a campaign to improve their conditions. They decided that the most effective way to resist was to adopt completely nonviolent strategies. They organized strikes, refusing to eat or slowing down their work. They treated their guards with respect and when possible befriended them, but they refused to be bullied. At first they demanded long pants instead of the shorts they were given, which only boys wore. Over many years they won better food, more blankets, the chance to have more visitors, to write letters, to study, to receive books. 
     "Meanwhile, they transformed the prison into a place of learning. Stolen newspapers, read in secret by one person, were copied on tiny scraps of paper and passed around. As one man pushed a rock-filled wheelbarrow in the quarry, another walked beside him, telling him what he knew of science or mathematics or philosophy. When books and studies were finally allowed, everything learned was shared with others. Group debates might go on for 30 or 40 days, working out differences among the men and visions of how the country should be run.
      "...The ideas that had been chipped out of the hard prison years became the basis for the government of the new South Africa."

text from After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance by Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O'Brien
The first president of the new democracy didn't create the miracle of a peaceful transition by himself. He worked with and was supported by a broad group of leaders who had endured the same terrible hardships and who together had practiced the skills that would be needed to build a new country. In Mandela's own words, "The restoration of the nation was being planned by the same men, women and children whose bodies and spirits were being broken daily."
Mandela's accomplishments and his status as one of history's greatest leaders can sometimes make him seem like a saint. It's important to remember that his wisdom, his vision, and his commitment to freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation did not come to him easily as the qualities of someone superhuman, but grew as his chosen response to the dehumanization to which he was subjected. 

Mandela offers a model of endurance, personal integrity, dignity and grace, teaching that no matter what comes at us, we are always free to choose our response. On Robben Island, he used the poem "Invictus" to inspire himself and his fellow prisoners to rise above their circumstances.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
from "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley

  illustration from Talking Walls by Margy Burns Knight