In between “Long, long ago …” and “… happily ever after,” is a story passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, as co-author and illustrator Soma Han writes in her “Author’s Note.” That in itself is a lovely tale indeed …
The mother/daughter bond here is strong, even in death: just before Maya’s mother passes away, she shares with Maya a prophetic dream that Maya, still a child, would someday grow up to be a princess. Maya is lovingly raised by her “father [who] did everything he could to make Maya grow up happy and healthy.” Her most constant companion is a turtle she names Boke-doongi, which means ‘lucky one.’
When illness strikes Maya’s father and he can no longer work, the small family can’t pay for food, much less medicine. Maya decides that she must go to the wealthy nearby village, and offer herself to the centipede monster who comes every year seeking a victim. For her sacrifice, the villagers reward her well, enough to save her father, before she must return to “the cursed place” where she awaits death. But faithful, devoted Boke-doongi will not, of course, allow such a tragedy to happen … and so the turtle seals Maya’s fate, and her filial courage is rewarded by the Emperor of heaven and earth, who tells her, “‘You must meet my son, the Prince …’”
The husband-and-wife team create their second title together (Land of Morning Calm: Korean Culture Then and Now), drawing on Han’s Korean heritage, and Stickler’s 13 years of Korean residency. Han, who is also a painter, sculptor, and mosaic artist, credits her mother and grandmother with the original story of Maya. To the couple’s credit, their version gets a 21st-century update: almost every page has a contextual note explaining something cultural, historical, or just downright tongue-in-cheek (“Why is the Prince riding on a dinosaur? ‘They are very strong,’ the Prince says, ‘and can walk long distances without getting tired.’”); and the multi-culti angle gets celebrated with a strikingly detailed, full spread – the royal couple is indeed flanked by “people from many lands,” many colors, many cultures and backgrounds. Hope springs eternal for world peace …
Like many age-old tales (especially of the Asian variety), the bottom-line lesson is loud and clear: filial piety gets rewarded – bigtime! That used to be a great way to get kids to obey … at least it was long, long ago. But uhmm … what was I saying about 21st-century updates …??!!