Tag Archives: Robyn Gioia

Adventure, Intrigue, and Korea, OH MY!

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.

 Author Interview

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.

 

 

Hiroshima Through the Eyes of a Japanese Girl

As a teacher, (and author of Under Siege!) I find books to be a great source of information and an intimate connection to a subject. The subject of historical fiction is one dear to my heart. In a previous Mixed-Up Files post, I talked about using historical fiction in the classroom and how it brings life to an era long-ago. The very nature of historical fiction opens doors for discussion and understanding.

When students study history, we want them to understand the big concept, not just facts and dates. We want them to see the humanity and feel the emotion that was part of an event.

In my interview with author Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of The Last Cherry Blossom, we transport back in time to Hiroshima where we experience the elements of humanity and emotion through the eyes of a Japanese girl.

Please tell us about The Last Cherry Blossom and how you came to write it?

Author Kathleen Burkinshaw

When my daughter was in seventh grade, she came home from school very upset. They were wrapping up WWII in their history class, and she had overheard some students talking about the ‘cool’ mushroom cloud picture. She asked me if I could visit her class and talk about the people under those famous mushroom clouds, people like her Grandma.

I had never discussed my mother’s life in Hiroshima during WWII. My mother was a very private person and she also didn’t want attention drawn to herself. But after my daughter’s request she gave me her consent. She bravely shared more memories of the most horrific day of her life. Memories that she had locked away in her heart because they had been too painful to discuss.

The main reason, my mother agreed (aside from the fact her granddaughter asked her), was that she knew students in seventh grade would be around the same age she was when the bomb dropped. She was 12-years-old. She hoped that students could relate to her story and by sharing her experience, these future voters would realize that the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, should never be repeated.

I received requests to visit other schools the following year. I began to write about my mom and August 6th after teachers requested a book to complement their curriculum.

I told my mom about this request. Later that week, she sent me a copy of her most treasured photo from her childhood. It is the one of her and her Papa (which I’m so grateful that Sky Pony placed it in my Afterword). When I looked at the photo which I remembered from my childhood because it always had a place of honor in our home; I realized there was more to her life than just war and death, she had loving memories as well.

That’s when I knew I needed to start the book months before the bomb. I wanted to show the culture, the mindset, and the daily life in Japan during the war. The main character, Yuriko is trying to figure things out in her own life, dealing with family issues, school, and then dealing with heartbreak. Yet, she finds strength she never thought she had that leads her to a new hopeful beginning. I intended to give the reader the view of the last year of WWII through the eyes of a 12-year-old Japanese girl-something that has not been done before.

How is Hiroshima’s history present in the story?

I used information that my mother gave me about her childhood as well as researching about Hiroshima and Japan during the war. (This was not an easy feat to find information written in English). The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website had some great information.

My family and I visited Hiroshima for the first time in July 2015. Sadly, we went to honor my mom at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. My mom passed away in January of 2015(but she did see the publishing contract and read one of my drafts). I met with some librarians at the Memorial Hall and learned that my mom lived less than two miles away from the epicenter! She had described it as a lot further away, so it was miraculous she survived and lived a healthy 82 years, (except her last few months)! I researched information by viewing the exhibits in the Hiroshima National Peace Museum. Standing on the same spot where my mother had witnessed so much horror and death, broke my heart and I cried through most of the museum. It just made me want to hug my 12-year-old mother, tell her she will have incredible strength, and find hope again.

Lastly, the fact that my mother’s Papa had his own newspaper company in Hiroshima, I could use the information that I had found to give a glimpse into the world and set the tone to the story by what everyday citizens were reading in newspapers and listening to on the radio. In this way, I could give the emotional impact that two paragraphs and a picture in a text book cannot do.

How much of the story is historical fact and how much of the story is fictional?

I would say that 75% of the book is fact either from my mother’s life or the history in Hiroshima and Japan during WWII that I gleaned from my research.

The timeline for events in the main character, Yuriko’s family life is probably the biggest section of fiction because I had to have it fit in the one-year time span. Some of the conversations and smaller side events were also fictionalized.

However, the description of August 6th is taken from my mom’s account of that day. So much so that when I read excerpts, I can’t help but tear up because I can still hear my mom telling me and crying as if it just happened all over again.

What will students learn from reading The Last Cherry Blossom that will help them relate to this time in history?

Students will learn that there is always another side. My hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again; but to also reveal that the children in Japan (like my mother) had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and hopes for peace as the Allied children had. I want the students to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves. A message, I feel needs to be heard now more than ever.

A discussion guide is available on Kathleen Burkinshaw’s website: http://www.kathleenburkinshaw.com

 

Transporting Students Into the Past With Historical Fiction

What teaches you the perspective of others… the struggles a society may have suffered, the demands of distant cultures, or about an era so far removed from our own, that you are forced to wrap your brain around a different logic?

HISTORICAL FICTION is such a beast. It transports you into the past where life and a culture previously existed. You become part of a world where you walk-the-walk alongside characters dealing with the trials and tribulations of an era long gone.

Creative Commons Read Aloud

When I was in college, we were introduced to Jim Trelease, an educator who stressed that reading aloud builds students’ imaginations and improves listening skills. It also gives them a love of books.

I have read many books aloud to my classes ranging from 4th to 8th grade since my first year of teaching. (In case you aren’t aware, read-alouds are in addition to students’ regular reading and work that is associated with it, not a replacement for it.)

Last school year as a teacher, I used historical fiction to bring life to the social studies curriculum. I correlated our read-alouds to what was going on in their social studies lessons.

I read the section first with my best dramatic voice, and  asked comprehension questions along the way. We stopped, occasionally, for someone to look up a more challenging vocabulary word in the dictionary.  They identified locations on maps; they researched details to know more about a related topic; they ate foods that we read about.

A good portion of the class asked if they could take notes. Before long, everyone was recording in their journals, which supported their required writing and reflection afterwards. As a teacher, I know that annotating their thoughts helps them to develop a stronger understanding of the material and organize the details.

The best part were the discussions sparked by the stories themselves. They were meaningful and thought provoking. Mini-lessons to further understanding were also part of the process.

I collected their journals every week to do a quick check for comprehension and to assign an effort grade. If a student was absent, they picked-up the book and read the pages they had missed. At the end of the book, they took an assessment test. Many reported that our read-alouds with social studies was their favorite subject.

In Blood on the River: Jamestown 1607 by Elisa Carbone, we traced the journey from England to the coast of America on our map. We focused on how the colonists grappled with the hardships of the Jamestown colony as it struggled to survive, discussed their governing laws, and debated how business sponsored the settlement.

We also learned about the introduction of slave labor. When we got to the 13 colonies in social studies, there wasn’t a student in the class who didn’t understand what was involved in starting a new world.

In Under Siege! by (me) Robyn Gioia, we continued our discussion of how European nations were expanding into the New World for resources and the conflict between early colonial groups maneuvering for control.

In the story, my class learned about one of U.S. history’s best kept secrets: the 1702 English attack on the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida (a city later recognized as America’s oldest). Students deal with the angst and hardship of being under siege inside a fort surrounded by a superior enemy. At the heart of the story is survival and loss, war, friendship and adventure.

In Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, we see the colonies through the eyes of a slave girl. There were many discussions on the ownership of peoples and the burdens they bore, the dependence of society on slave labor, the laws governing the colonies, the discourse between factions, and the devastating hardships of war.We continued our read into the next book in the series, Forge, which deals with being a slave and a soldier coupled with the realities of war.

Johnny Tremain, by Ester Forbes, was not used as a read-aloud for the entire class. It was read by one of my literature circles. Those students were quick to jump in with further details about the Revolutionary War during open discussions. Insight into the Sons of Liberty was a favorite topic.

There are many wonderful historical fiction books out there. The problem is narrowing it down to just a few. Interacting with history through read-alouds is an excellent way to build conceptual knowledge and for students to internalize the intricacies of that era long ago.