Anne Sibley O'Brie, author
Anne Sibley O'Brien knew she wanted to be an artist by the time she was seven. Born in Chicago, she moved with her family to New Hampshire on her first birthday. Six years later, her parents were hired as medical missionaries and assigned to serve in South Korea. She was raised bilingual and bicultural, living in the cities of Seoul and Taegu, and on the island of Kojedo.
She has illustrated more than twenty picture books, including I'm New Here, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong, the Jamaica books by Juanita Havill (Houghton Mifflin) and the Talking Walls books by Margy Burns Knight (Tilsbury). Anne lives on Peaks Island in Maine.
Read more about Anne Sibley O'Brien.
When the Maine Humanities Council commissioned me to create a picture book representing Maine's Cambodian American community, I knew that my own experiences and perspective weren't sufficient to tell an authentic story. But if I immersed myself enough in the experiences of contemporary Cambodian people, perhaps such a story might come through me.
I started by reading every survivor memoir I could find, until the outline of life in Cambodia before 1975, the Killing Fields, the escape, and life in a new land became familiar. I talked with several scholars about trauma survival and the sociology of Cambodian Americans. Most significantly, I listened to my friends Veasna and Peng Kem, who spent hours sharing their own memories with me. Many of the details in this story come from their accounts, or were inspired by them.
Filled up with these stories of Cambodia's beauty, culture, and people, and their harrowing trauma, unspeakable loss, and heroic survival, I waited. Many weeks later, a story began to take form, beginning with the image of a girl in a garden picking a tomato and a rose.
I used many reference photos for visual details, especially the portraits in Kari René Hall's Beyond the Killing Fields, a photo-essay of refugees in a Thai-Cambodian border camp in the late 1980s. My art was created with oil paints on gessoed paper, with accents in water-soluble oil crayon.
I look forward to seeing many more children's books about the Cambodian experience told by new generations of Cambodian Americans themselves.
—Anne Sibley O'Brien
About the Maine Humanities Council:
The Maine Humanities Council-a statewide nonprofit organization-enriches the lives of people in Maine through literature, history, philosophy, and culture. Its programs, events, grants, and online resources encourage critical thinking and conversation across social, economic, and cultural boundaries.
Visit MHC at mainehumanities.org.
Because of her close relationship with her grandmother, young Dara is the one who can comfort her when her only surviving brother dies in Cambodia.
Dara's grandmother, Lok Yeay, tells her tales of her happy pre-war life in Cambodia, remembering childhood activities such as climbing trees, eating mangoes and stargazing from the platform in their yard. She makes Cambodian food for the family and for special meals at their Buddhist temple. Oil paintings with oil-crayon accents show the woman’s memories floating in clouds over images of Dara's family and their home in Maine. The swirling lines and relatively dark palette of blacks and orange are suggestive of her longing. There is brief mention of the war and the survivors’ trek to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they made an altar for the Buddha with pictures of family members who had died—just like the one Dara helps her grandmother make when her brother dies. O'Brien (After Gandhi) was commissioned by the Maine Humanities Council to create a picture book reflecting the lives of Cambodian-Americans there, but this moving depiction of the special relationship between a grandmother and a grandchild has broad appeal.
The Cambodian particulars are intriguing, but the satisfaction that a child can also help a grieving adult is what readers will take away from this sympathetic story.
Commissioned by the Maine Humanities Council, O'Brien (the Jamaica books) pens a tale about a Cambodian-American family, beginning with vibrant scenes of food and celebration, as young narrator Dara shares her grandmother's reminiscences about life in her Asian homeland. "[I]n Cambodia, the air is so soft and warm that the stars glow like fireflies," says Lok Yeay. The upbeat mood changes when Lok Yeay recalls "a day the birds stopped singing, a day the soldiers came." Grandmother's story does not go into graphic detail, but recounts that only she, her brother, and her baby daughter survived to walk to freedom in Thailand. A star motif permeates: the siblings use stars to guide their escape, and Dara, which means star, gently leads her grandmother out of grief when the family gets news of her brother's death. Fuzzy-edged oil illustrations add a comfortable, familial feel that softens the story's sadder elements. However, plenty of bright images are interspersed, and the narrative ends on a hopeful note. Many themes are woven into this book, but the value of family stands above the rest.
Dara loves to hear her Lok Yeay (her grandmother) reminisce about her childhood in Cambodia, and they both hope of one day visiting the faraway country and seeing her grandmother's brother, Lok Ta. But not all of Lok Yeay's stories are happy ones; she also tells about losing most of her family in the war and her desperate escape to a refugee camp. When Lok Yeay receives sad news about Lok Ta, Dara calls upon her family's traditions and Lok Yeay's own stories to offer the grieving woman comfort. O'Brien's detailed, affecting text skims over the trauma of Lok Yeay's wartime experience, but young readers will understand the gravity of it just the same. Golden-toned illustrations featuring soft brushstrokes, expressive faces, and warm scenes of Dara's Cambodian American family buoy the story's sadder moments. Commissioned by the Maine Humanitites Council, O'Brien's book includes notes on the author's research, the refugee experience, and Cambodian culture. A loving, intergenerational story about loss and perseverance that feels honest, empowering, and--best of all--hopeful.
Library Media Connection
This moving intergenerational story of survival and loss, beauty and childhood is a result of the Maine Humanities Council project to create picture books from the experiences of Maine's refugee community. Dara's grandmother tells childhood stories of Cambodia, playing hide-and-seek in the moonlight, listening to crickets, eating mangos, and watching the stars. Her grandmother always ends the stories by saying "Someday I will take you to Cambodia to meet Lok Ta and his family." But when she hears that her brother has died, Dara's grandmother takes to her bed in grief. Dara prays to find a way to comfort her grandmother. Dara consoles her grandmother with some of her favorite things and tells her a story of the future-when Dara and she will go to Cambodia to meet the cousins. Beautiful paintings filled with light and dark contrasts suggest the warm and tropical nature of Cambodia in juxtaposition to the icy breaths of the refugees in Maine.
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Page count: 40
8 x 10