What Will You Be, Sara Mee?

What Will You Be, Sara Mee?

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By: Kate Aver Avraham / Illustrated by: Anne Sibley O'Brien

Will she be an artist? A cook? A writer?

Sara Mee is turning one, and her family and friends gather for her tol, or first-birthday celebration. Food and presents abound, but most exciting of all is the traditional Korean prophecy game, called the toljabee, which predicts what Sara Mee will be when she grows up.

A book for all cultures, What Will You Be, Sara Mee? celebrates siblings, community, and the blending of traditions.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Kate Aver Avraham, author

Kate is a poet, children's author, art enthusiast, and former children's librarian. Her poems have been published in various anthologies, journals, and magazines, and she was a finalist for the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize from Nimrod International Journal. She is also the author of the early chapter book Joey's Way (McElderry). Her most recent children's book, What Will You Be, Sara Mee?, about young Sara Mee's tol, the Korean first-birthday celebration, is inspired by Kate's experience having adopted a child from Korea over twenty years ago.

In addition to writing, Kate is an active advocate of art therapy and is on the board of the Mental Health Client Action Network. She is also the founder of Blue Moon Creations, a non-profit artistic endeavor that aids charities both nationally and internationally.

Read more about Kate.

Anne Sibley O'Brien, illustrator

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.

Returning to the U.S. at age 19, Annie attended Mount Holyoke College where she majored in studio art. She spent her junior year back in Korea at Ewha Women's University in Seoul, where she studied Korean arts, including Oriental painting. During college, she decided that she wanted to pursue a career in children's book illustration. The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea is the 25th picture book she has illustrated, and the 10th she has written.

She has illustrated more than twenty picture books, including 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.


Editorial Reviews:

Publishers Weekly

The collaborators' close connection to their book's theme—Avraham (Joey's Way) has an adopted Korean daughter, and O'Brien grew up in a bicultural family in South Korea—adds authenticity and warmth to this story of a Korean-American girl's first birthday celebration. Sara Mee's extended family and friends gather for a traditional tol, at which items representing various professions are placed before her; the object she first touches designates her future path. The narrator, Sara Mee's cheerful six-year-old brother, Chong, is honored to be a key participant in the ceremony and is thrilled when his sister reaches for a symbolic paintbrush. Chong gives her paper and crayons, and she draws pictures for which he—who at his own tol made a choice that evidently predicted a writing career—supplies the text. Rendered in ink brushline and watercolor, O'Brien's (the Jamaica series) illustrations are welcoming, if not especially memorable; there's no real emotional range beyond genial smiles exhibited among the members of Sara Mee's family. Avraham provides a glossary of Korean words used in the story.

School Library Journal

Sara Mee is about to mark her first birthday - a very special day in her Korean-American family. After she is dressed in the colorful silk hanbok her grandmother made for the occasion, family and friends gather to celebrate with food and presents. The highlight comes when they play the game toljabee, which predicts what Sara Mee will be when she grows up. The story is told by her older brother, Chong, who anxiously awaits the game. He is excited when he is allowed to participate by presenting the game pieces to his sister. Sara Mee reaches for the paintbrush and waves it in the air, and everyone knows she will be an artist. Chong puts a pack of paper with crayons in front of her, and while she draws, he writes words to go with her picture. A glossary identifies the Korean words and their meanings, but there is no pronunciation guide. The illustrations are ink brush line with watercolor and done in vibrant colors. The love among family and friends is evident in these pictures, depicting their joy about this important event.


Older brother Chong descibes a Korean family's preparation for his baby sister Sara Mee's tol, or first birthday celebration. In addition to special food and music, the family plays the game toljabee, in which symbolic items are placed before the child. According to custom, the first item the child grabs predicts his or her future. When Sara Mee picks up the paintbrush, Chong celebrates by making a card, providing words for his sister's scribbles. Watercolor pictures framed with a thick black line focus on Sara Mee, charmingly outfitted in traditional dress, and her very proud, helpful brother. Of particular interest to Korean American families, this festive story also introduces a different cultural birthday tradition to non-Koreans. An author's note personalizes the story and explains a little more; a glossary of terms is appended, but there is no pronunciation guide.

Book Dragon

The story could not be any sweeter. A big brother greets his little sister on the morning of her first birthday, and lovingly explains the happy events of the special day ahead.

Following Korean tradition, the first birthday is an especially auspicious day, filled with loving extended family, surrounded by well-wishing friends, eating lots of fabulous treats ... and deciding your future through a centuries-old prophecy game. The birthday child chooses a single object from a selection of symbolic objects, which can vary from family to family. In Sara Mee’s family, she’s presented with a toy bow-and-arrow set, a paintbrush, little bag of gold coins, a book, a spoon, some yarn, and an ink bottle ... which means, depending on her innocent choice, she could become a soldier, artist, successful in business, scholar, cook, live a long life, or become a writer.

You'll have to read for yourself to see what Sara Mee chooses, of course ... I can't give that secret away ...

As delightful as the picture book is (and certainly I'll be sending copies out as gifts, especially to my Korean American friends with new kids), the one thing that mars the happy title is a problematic Romanization of Korean words. Avraham seems to use the outdated McCune-Reischauer system which turns the word dol (first birthday) erroneously into tol (and so on with other Korean words) throughout the book.

For a native Korean speaker, such mispronunciation proves jarring. The revised Romanization system for Korean (which is at least a decade old in wide usage) is far more accurate, developed by the National Academy of the Korean Language and officially released by Korea's Ministry of Culture and Tourism--in other words, created by native-speaking Koreans as opposed to two non-Korean, non-native-speaking Americans back in the 1930s, no disrespect intended towards the erudite pair.

Avraham, an adoptive mother of a Korean daughter, gives "special thanks to Dr. Byung-Joon Lim, Professor and Chairman of the Korean language department at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for reading the manuscript and making corrections to the Korean." So Avraham can't be faulted for seeking out a local expert ... but it's strange that a Korean language professor in the 21st century chooses to use an outdated, phonetically inaccurate system.

Kid's Lit

Sara Mee is about to celebrate her first birthday. For Korean Americans, that means that she will participate in a special game called toljabee which will predict what she will be when she grows up. Her older brother Chong can't wait to see what items she will pick from the table. But first there is plenty of preparation for the big day, including special clothes for Sara Mee, great food, and music. When the time for the game comes, Chong is allowed to help set the items before Sara Mee. What will she pick?

Part of the specialness of this book is the depiction of the extended Korean family, some who still live in Korea and others who live in the United States. There are grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more who bring the event and the book to life, filling it with faces and noise. Avraham's text is sprinkled with Korean words and written in a light tone that invites the reader into this family get-together. O'Brien's art is done in ink and watercolor. The smiles on all of the faces as well as the use of bright colors really create a book filled with joy.

A welcome book about Korean Americans and traditions, this book should find a place on library shelves across the country. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Children's Literature

Illustrated with ink brushline with watercolor in a palette of bright contrasts, this is the simply told story of a child's traditional Korean tol or first birthday celebration, complete with the toljabee game that prophecies what the child will be when she grows up. Narrated in the first person voice of young Sara Mee's older brother Chong, the story begins on the morning of the big day, and moves through breakfast, bathtime, the arrival of grandparents, and then the party itself. All the while, family members make predictions based on the baby's play. When the time arrives for the game, Chong is characteristically impatient while little Sara Mee has no idea what's going on. Cultural information is gently delivered along with this story of an affectionate extended Korean-American family celebrating a year of a baby's life. Chong lifts out the precious objects from the "polished cherrywood box that has been in our family for many generations," and the birthday girl's hand "shoots out across the table" in a joyful moment shared by all. The day courses to a comfortable picture book conclusion with the sleeping baby clutching a gift from her brother. Glossary included in backmatter, as well as an author's note on the adoption of her own daughter from Korea.

The Bloomsbury Review

A big brother greets his little sister on the morning of her first birthday and lovingly explains the happy events of the special day ahead. Following Korean tradition, the first birthday is an especially auspicious day, filled with loving extended family, friends, and delicious treats . . . and deciding a baby's future through a centuries-old prophecy game.

Spirituality and Practice

The narrator of this cross-cultural gem is Cho, a five-year-old who is very excited about Sara Mee' s first birthday. In the ancient Korean tradition, family and friends gather to celebrate his sister Sara Mee's birth and to perform a toljabee, a prophecy game designed to help her decide what she wants be when she grows up. Relatives arrive with plates of food. An uncle plays the drums and then the small group watches eagerly as Sara Mee is seated at a table. Cho takes out various items from a cherry wood box and places them in front of her: a toy bow-and-arrow, a paintbrush, a little bag of gold coins, a book, a spoon, some yarn, and a bottle of ink. Each stands for career or vocation. Sara Mee makes her choice and everyone is very pleased.

What Will You Be, Sara Mee? is Kate Aver Avraham's first picture book and it is very timely, given the new emphasis in many places on appreciating the traditions and rituals of people with different ethnic backgrounds. The illustrations are by Anne Sibley O'Brian who captures the familial delight in this Korean celebration. Indigenous People around the world have many similar rituals for children which give them a keen sense of the important role they are destined to play in the community. A baby's first tol enables family and friends to encourage the child in the path she or he has chosen. What Will You Be, Sara Mee? is aimed at children 3–6 years of age.

Teaching Tolerance

Sara Mee celebrates tol, her first-birthday celebration with family and friends. They play an ancient prophecy game, toljabee, to predict Sara Mee's future. What Will You Be Sara Mee? gives readers a beautiful glimpse into Korean culture.

Parents' Press

As Chong greets his baby sister Sara Mee the morning of her first birthday, he asks her, “What will you be, Sara Mee?” It’s a special day for Sara Mee. Her Korean-American family is gathering to celebrate her tol, or her first birthday celebration. There will be food and presents, but most exciting is the traditional Korean game, the toljabee, which will predict what she will be when she grows up. Chong, her older brother, is especially excited to see what Sara Mee will pick from the table. Their halmoni, or grandmother, opens the special family box, and Chong takes out the special items one by one. Avraham’s sweet story builds to a satisfying conclusion, and O’Brien’s illustrations are full of warmth and togetherness. This is a special book for any family celebrating a little one’s special birthday.


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ISBN: 978-1-58089-210-0

ISBN: 978-1-58089-211-7

ISBN: 978-1-60734-194-9 PDF
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 3-6
Page count: 32

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