Peaks Islander Anne Sibley O’Brien is an esteemed children’s book author and illustrator with numerous titles and awards to her credit. With “In the Shadow of the Sun,” her first novel, she writes for middle-grade readers while keeping to her longstanding themes dealing with multicultural diversity.

“In the Shadow of the Sun” is the story of 12-year-old Mia Andrews, who, along with her older brother, Simon, accompanies her father to North Korea on a special tour. Her father is involved in providing food relief to the starving nation. Mia is South Korean, adopted by the Andrews family as a baby, and returns to the peninsula for the first time on the tour. Her overwhelming observation is that here, “everyone is Korean… Being surrounded by Korean people was surreal… no one noticed her,” unlike back home in Connecticut, where she always gets stared at. In North Korea, it is her father and brother who stand out and garner suspicious looks.

The book is described as a “political escape thriller.” Early in their tour, Mia is presented with a special gift by a North Korean official but told not to open it until they return to America. In the privacy of her hotel room, however, she can’t resist. She opens it to find an elaborate wooden box. Inside the wooden box she finds a North Korean cell phone. Fond of electronic games, she powers it up and starts playing a version of one of her favorite games. Suddenly, the game aborts and photos appear on screen. Horrible photos of oppressive conditions in North Korean work camps, photos of starving and dead people, including children and babies.

Later, while she and her father and brother tour prominent national sites, she takes her brother aside to show him the photos. From a distant remove from the group, they witness the sudden arrest and abduction of their father. Knowing that they are in grave danger, too, they flee.

Thus begins their high-stakes, daring journey to safety. Compounding the difficulty is that the two siblings are estranged, Simon angry at his sister for supposedly ratting him out for a secret trip he took to attend a concert in New York City. He blames her for his having to come on the trip with their father. Simon is surly and dismissive. Usually acquiescent and deferential to her brother, Mia struggles to assert herself. Slowly, she comes to see herself in a new light. She recognizes the power that comes in being the one who blends in, who speaks Korean from years of classes back home, and because of her keen curiosity about the culture and geography of the country, she’s the one who is critical to their survival.

Anne Sibley O’Brien

“In the Shadow of the Sun” is a compelling thriller gauged to young readers, but is also an incisive and insightful portrait of a closed society that is largely unknown to the world. O’Brien uses short, parallel stories interspersed throughout of ordinary North Korean youth, providing quick portraits of the struggles, hardships and fears of living under repressive totalitarian rule. The portraits are fascinating and illuminating, never didactic or disruptive. O’Brien’s book mirrors the best of mainstream fiction in terms of its power to expand worldviews on complex situations and issues.

The story is well researched, but also comes somewhat naturally to O’Brien, as she spent several years growing up South Korea when her parents worked there as medical missionaries. She also has an adopted daughter who is Korean American. She brings her background and her ample gifts as a storyteller to her first novel, creating a stirring, satisfying read.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by Shelf Unbound and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website: