Wednesday, March 25, 2015


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 Burn 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!

Saturday, March 21, 2015


Ulaanbaatar, which means "Red Hero," is a sprawling city of 1.8 million (more than half the population of the country), set in a flat valley ringed by mountains, on a vast high plain.

On my first day, I was treated to a nearly 5-mile walking tour of the city (UB), guided by Rick, elementary school principal, and Geoff, middle school English teacher at the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU), my host in Mongolia. On a northern hillside at the Gandantegchenling Monastery, we saw orange- and red-robed monks in residence, and people of all ages turning prayer wheels and lighting candles in the dim, smoky light at the feet of a colossal golden Bodhisattva.

The descendants of Chinggis Khan, whose image is everywhere, are citizens of a new democracy, formed when the Soviets abruptly pulled out 22 years ago. Soviet influence can be seen everywhere in architecture and in the Cyrillic alphabet, which the Russians imposed on written Mongolian. The Trans-Siberian railway runs through the capital, connecting Vladivostok to St. Petersburg.

From my brief glimpse, the country seems deeply rooted in its nomadic, horse-centered, Mongol traditions, Buddhism, and the connection to the natural world found in both, while simultaneously rushing into 21st-century urban capitalism.

In the city center, another monastery is ringed by skyscrapers, with tall cranes and construction sites promising more. Blocks of high-rise apartment buildings fill the skyline and sprout up in the outskirts, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. People from the countryside flock to the city for jobs, but many are still caught on the margins, occupying shanty towns of ger, the traditional nomadic home.

UB has an substantial international population of perhaps 30,000, including employees of Korean construction and American mining, Chinese migrant workers, diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers, and teachers at international schools (there are 3, growing fast) to instruct the children of the well-to-do. Most of ISU's faculty are from Canada, the U.S. and Australia. Downtown UB is full of Korean and Japanese restaurants, has multiple Irish pubs, and there's even a monument to the Beatles funded entirely by Mongolian fans!

My second day I was driven out to Terelj National Park, a pristine mountain wilderness where Mongolians and international tourists spend summer holiday weeks in ger camps. We passed flocks of grazing cattle, sheep, goats and yak, sometimes with a herder on horseback, and a few double-bumped camels. My driver and tour guide, Enkhbold, a 25-year-old native Mongolian, clearly loved the crisp mountain air, the quiet and the endless blue sky as we climbed to a temple perched against a cliff. The temple was closed, but the caretaker kindly unlocked the door and let us in.

Later we visited one of the top tourist sites, a museum housed in a colossal silver-plated statue of Chinggis Khan on his horse. You can climb up into the horse's head for a panoramic view!

Two days of presentations to delightful groups of young people in grades 2-8 were a highlight. Librarian Judith Reid, who issued the invitation for my visit, couldn't have been more gracious and welcoming. About half of ISU's students are Mongolian passport holders; the other half are equal numbers of U.S. and Korean, and a mix of everybody else.

Marion (foreground) and Shelly (background center) had guided their 4th graders through a unit on After Gandhi, made more meaningful by Shelly's experiences of having lived in South Africa at the end of apartheid and through Mandela's election. I was so moved when she told me, "I used your book to share my story."

With 8th graders, we talked about illustrating character for an abstract portrait assignment they were working on.

I feel such a strong connection with the mission of International Baccalaureate schools like this one:
"... to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect... [to] encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right."

Next stop, China!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Itinerary for an Adventure

Saturday night I landed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the first (22-hr!) leg of a trip that will also take me to China and Malaysia.

I was invited to Mongolia for an author visit at the International School of Ulaanbataar where I'll spend two days meeting with students grades preK-8.

Thursday, March 19, I fly to Beijing for a Friday tour of the Mutianlu section of the Great Wall. 

On Saturday I'll travel to Dandong, China, on the banks of the Yalu, directly across the river from Sinuiju, North Korea. While in Dandong I plan to explore the Tiger Mountain section of the Great Wall, particularly exciting as it's the site of the climax of my first YA novel and I'll be following in my characters' footsteps. The top of the Wall offers a panoramic view of the North Korean countryside.

Finally, on Tuesday, March 24, I fly from Dandong to a resort in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, for the EARCOS conference, to present a keynote address and 3 workshops for the 1100 teachers attending from more than 120 schools.

You never know where writing and illustrating children's books might take you!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Diversity on the Shelf Reading Challenge: Books Read 1

Here are my first reads (1/5 of the challenge!), in the order I read them, for the Diversity on the Shelf Reading Challenge, hosted by Alysia at My Little Pocketbooks.

All are written by authors of color and all have main characters of color, who all happen to be girls and young women - not planned!

I didn't plan this either, but I'm also delighted by the diversity of genres - 1 memoir in verse,  2 realistic novels, 1 biography in verse, and 1 fantasy novel; and the fact that the settings include 4 countries: the U.S., Cambodia, England, and a fantasy China.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This much-lauded memoir in verse starts slow and builds almost imperceptibly in power as a young girl comes into her own, discovering her dream: to be a writer.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddi Ratner

Raami is 7 when the Khmer Rouge take over Phnom Penh and her family is forced from their home into the countryside. Told through Raami's perceptive eyes, the story follows the family through the next four years, with threads of exquisite beauty woven throughout the tapestry of unspeakable horrors perpetuated by Pol Pot's brutal regime.

She Wore Red Trainers by Na'aima Roberts

Ali and Asmirah are teenagers trying to follow deen, the straight path of devout Muslims, when they meet in a working-class community outside London. Their love story, told from alternating points of view, is sweet, conflicted and real, giving the reader a rare opportunity to glimpse contemporary Muslim life from the inside, in all its complexity.

Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Soft, rich sepia-and-white drawings with bits of color illustrate this biography in verse, which follows the singer from her birth in 1915, as Eleanora Fagan, through her difficult, neglected childhood, to her triumph as the 25-year-old Lady Day.

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon
When Ay Ling's father is gone far too long, she leaves her mother to travel to the capital in search of him. The appearance of terrifying demons makes it clear that her quest to save her father playing out on a far larger canvas. Joined by the handsome Chen Yong and his kid brother, Ay Ling journeys to the home of the Immortals and back.


It's not part of this particular challenge because the main character is white, but I also read Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston, about a boy coming of age in 1950s small-town Tennessee and his deep friendship with a black boy, over his father's virulent objections. It's full of rich characters who tug at your heart with their humanness and contradictions, and conveys a palpable sense of menace in both the omnipresent racism and in the expected roles for men of that place and time.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Diversity Reading Challenge

I'm joining the Diversity on the Shelf Reading Challenge: 
(Writing a post on my iPad for the first time, and I can't figure out how to imbed a link... Ah, research results say that feature is not available with the Blogger app?!?)

Setting myself the goal of reading 25+ books - picture books count! - 5th shelf level, starting with these:

What's on your shelf for 2015?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Take Action for Diverse Children's Books

Here's a great report by Charlesbridge Editorial Director Yolanda Scott on the May 14 event, "A Place at the Table."

Yolanda Scott (center) listens to Francisco Stork (right)

Hosted by CBC Diversity, co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons and the Horn Book, and presented in partnership with Children’s Books Boston, the gathering featured six authors (including me) speed-dating by briefly introducing our work at each of six tables, followed by discussion questions with participants about promoting diversity in children's groups. The "diversity" being considered was broad, including race, culture, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and physical and mental ability.

The event
"...brought together participants from a wide variety of fields: we had teachers, principals, librarians, authors, illustrators, publishers, agents, academics, reviewers, bloggers—all united in our desire to promote and develop books that more adequately reflect the demographics and realities of the world in which we live."
The report concludes with the action items generated by participants, concrete steps that can be taken to support diverse children's literature in homes, classrooms, libraries, editorial offices, bookstores, writers groups, blogs and websites, book reviews, awards committees, book clubs, summer reading lists, and more. See if there's an idea or two you can use.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Diverse Kids in Peril

Some of the discussion on what's missing in diverse books has focused on the absence of diverse characters in stories that young readers can't wait to pick up.

I've just read three thrillers starring young people who happen to be of color - one Indian American, one Mexican, and one African American (the last two are biracial with one white parent):

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

Twins Holly and Corey and their best friend/girlfriend Savitri are free-runners whose urban playground is Chicago until a shocking, random act of violence changes their lives forever. Part of the story unfolds in graphic novel format. Savitri's Indian heritage is significant to the plot as her friend Holly gets lost in  the Shadowlands, a world based on the Ramayana myth, and Savitri has to find a way to bring her back.

The Living by Matt de la Pena

"Shy" Espinoza gets hired to work crew on a cruise line for the summer before his senior year of high school. He's on the ship when all hell breaks loose. The over-the-top plot in this page-turner, the first volume of a series, includes an off-the-scale earthquake, tsunamis, a shipwreck, days at sea in a lifeboat, sharks, conspiracies, a pandemic, quite a pile-up of bodies and lots of corrupt bad guys.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Savitri has to save her friend, Shy may need to save his family, his community or even the entire west coast of the U.S., but Gratuity Tucci has to save the entire world - from an alien invasion. With the help of an alien companion, and a cat. The book, which is to be released as a Dreamworks movie later this year, is written in 12-year-old Gratuity's voice, as a series of essays about her experiences. Suspenseful and highly comical, this story also includes some illustrations and passages in graphic novel format.
Get these books into the hands of young readers who love non-stop action.