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Author Interview: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanAlmost two years after  Vaddey Ratner made her New York Times bestselling debut with In the Shadow of the Banyan – her fictionalized account of her survival, as a young child, of the Khmer Rouge genocide that took most of her family along with some two million others – her bookish peregrinations continue. I caught up with Ratner during a few days in her suburban Washington, DC, home – just back from her Norwegian book launch in Oslo and heading out to another speaking engagement in Arizona. In between the frenzy of family duties and repacking her suitcase, she graciously answered questions with acuity and alacrity … and alas, not without tears from us both.

Although you arrived in the United States at age 11 not speaking English, you graduated high school as valedictorian and then summa cum laude from Cornell. What was your career after college? In other words, what did you do before you published your first book after age 40?
I never had what you’d call a “career” before the publication of In the Shadow of the Banyan, before I became an author. I was always writing, albeit in anonymity, and in that sense, I guess I’ve always been a writer. In the years right after Cornell, probably the only job worth mentioning was a short stint at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, where I answered the phone and membership inquiries. So in short, I went from being an over-achiever to lying low, under the radar, wanting desperately to write and yet fearing what that meant – a leap back into my traumatic past, the nightmare and complicated history.

Where did that inspiration and drive to be “always writing” originate?
Language itself, that alchemy of illusion and allusion. My ineradicable fascination with storytelling, its magical power to transform and elucidate and even mystify.

I suppose it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer as soon as I became aware of the written language, aware of the existence of books and the universes they contain – in other words, as soon as I learned to read and write, when I was around four or five years old. This was in Khmer, my native tongue. As a small child, I lived and breathed stories, searched for meanings in new words, in the tales I was told and the ones I overheard.

How and when did you decide to write Banyan? And after decades of experience far-removed from Cambodia, was the process of recovering your memories difficult? How did you prepare yourself to relive such horrors in order to write this book?
When I was living in Cambodia from 2005 to 2009, the realization came to me that the story I wanted to tell was larger than me, than my own life. With Banyan, I wanted to pay homage to our humanity that part of us that not only survives but triumphs. I saw this everywhere in Cambodia. I still see it every time I return. Despite living in the shadow of genocide, people there possess a lightness of spirit that’s absolutely inspiring.

There is no way to really prepare oneself to write this kind of book. The tragedy and atrocity were not imagined nightmares but real ordeals I lived through. So to write it, I had to relive it. Every loss I endured as a child, I endured again and again each time I sat down to write. It was a heartbreaking story to tell because I not only had to invoke the past – a country’s violent history – but I had to delve into my family’s personal ordeals—our private tragedies. I mourned every memory I exhumed.

From the perspective of writing as a craft, it was an excruciating first project to take on. I had no formal training as a writer and had not published a single line to be able to confidently call myself a writer by virtue of experience. Still, I knew this was the story I had to write before I could even think about another. No matter how long it would take me, I thought, I would discipline myself to this one endeavor. After all, I’d survived those horrific events, when many in my family had not, so it was the least I could do – devote my life to remembering them. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Vaddey Ratner,” Bloom, March 5, 2014

Readers: Adult

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Author Profile: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan“To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan

While the Vietnam War ended for the United States with the April 1975 military withdrawal, death and destruction continued, moving into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. With the evacuation of U.S. troops, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital (and largest city) Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants to remote areas. In an attempt to create a more equitable society, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of those who were perceived to have power, particularly the wealthy and educated. To destabilize any remaining social structures, they fractured family units. Those who managed to survive were sent to labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his heinous regime claimed almost two million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Vaddey Ratner and her mother survived. No one else in their immediately family lived. Ratner was just five in 1975. Six years later, in 1981, mother and daughter arrived in the U.S. as refugees. Just over three decades later, in August 2012, Vaddey would publish In the Shadow of the Banyan, her fictionalized account of her young life, her missing family, and how she miraculously stayed alive while too many others did not.

In the transcript of a speech that Ratner’s Simon & Schuster editor, Trish Todd, gave at BEA’s 2012 “Editors Buzz Panel” [to watch fast forward to 28:36 for Todd/Banyan], she confesses to initially believing that Banyan “was not a natural fit for me” when Ratner’s agent first pitched Todd the novel. Intending to “honor [the agent’s] submission with a nice rejection and begin my vacation,” Todd – a 30-year veteran of publishing – finished the manuscript without pause (barely moving!) and realized that she “had just read what could be the most important book [she] would ever publish.” She cancelled her vacation and planned how to win the “very big auction” to buy this first novel of a new, untested writer. The rest, as they say…

The laudatory responses quickly followed. Readers made Banyan a New York Times bestseller. Critics agreed. Banyan was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and appeared on eight 2012 best books lists, including Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews. The populist bibles O Magazine and People raved and recommended. The highbrows too applauded and nominated, naming it a 2013 PEN/Hemingway finalist, as well as a finalist for the 2013 Book of the Year Indies Choice Award. Ratner made the media rounds: NPR’s “Morning Edition,” USA Today, and The Washington Post, to name a few. She spoke around the world, at the PEN/Faulkner gala, the United Nations Association, the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and more.

Unlike Todd, I took over two years to finally reach the last page of Banyan. Not even the prospect of meeting Ratner in livetime, thanks to a mutual writer friend who insisted I join them for dinner, could get me to finish reading Banyan! Thankfully, the mutual friend’s new book took precedence as dinner conservation. Not until this Bloom deadline loomed could I force myself to actually reach book’s end. Why the frozen hesitation? Because I simply couldn’t let the book go: holding on to the promise of unread chapters was more comforting than racing to the conclusion. I needed only a fraction of the 300 pages to realize that as wrenching and terrifying as the story is, Banyan would surely be one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I would read in years. I wasn’t wrong. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “‘To transform suffering into art’: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan,” Bloom, March 3, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Confession first: I took almost two years to finish this debut novel. Not until an interview deadline loomed (stay tuned!) could I force myself to keep turning the pages until I reached the end. Because I just couldn’t let the book go. As wrenching and terrifying as the story is – the survival of a young child through the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that took most of her family along with some two million others – In the Shadow of the Banyan is surely one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I’ve read in years.

Based on her own family tragedy, Vaddey Ratner‘s novel is a love letter in honor of the poet prince father she lost. Ratner’s fictionalized counterpart is Raami, the oldest daughter of a Cambodian prince who, with his privileged western education and reverence for his ancient culture, found his personal balance in beauty, knowledge, but most especially humanity. These are the unassailable traits that he imbues in his young daughter, but they are also the very elements of his royal background that take him too soon to an unknown grave. Under Khmer Rouge control, the family members disappear – murder, suicide, illness claim their shattered souls – until Raami is left only with her bewildered mother who somehow finds the steely strength to save them both.

In the book trailer available on her website, Ratner hauntingly bears witness: “[Banyan] isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy … I thought it was something much more universal, much more indicative of the human experience: our endeavor to stay alive, our very desire for life.” The book proves to be that remarkable, living gift, providing undeniable testimony that only humanity trumps deprivation, injustice, horror, and even the greatest tragedies.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Untold Story by Monica Ali

Untold StoryMonica Ali’s latest novel which pubbed June 28, 2011, just before what would have been Diana Spencer’s 50th birthday – July 1, 2011 – had “The People’s Princess” lived. In case the cover wasn’t enough of a clue, that date detail matters because Untold Story imagines that Diana left her adoring public not via decorated casket, but was rowed away by a faithful staffer – an Oxford-degreed Foreign Officer turned history professor who was Diana’s Private Secretary! – to restart her new life as an American commoner. “Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales,” opens this Story. That might have been ’nuff said right then and there … but we go on and on and on …

Train-wreck style, Ali resurrects a fragile Diana who undergoes the knife to change her renowned visage just enough, tones down her posh accent, wanders the States carrying the birth certificate of a dead British-born American, has a few meaningless peripatetic flings, and eventually settles somewhere in Middle America in a small town called – wait for it …! – Kensington (egads!).

She’s bought a small house (with a pool), works at an animal shelter, and has made a few close (as possible) friends, although she spends most of her time with a rescue canine named Rufus. She’s more or less gotten over her cutting and starving (she even has an opportunity to share her recovered wisdom with a friend’s troubled adolescent). She longs for her heir-and-a-spare, and keeps a box of clippings about them hidden in the back of her closet. She also has a kind, devoted lover with whom she can share little more than a bed. And then her image-stealing nemesis happens to randomly wander into Kensington, and recognizes her iconic eyes. What’s a distraught ex-royal to do? To run or not to run, that is again the question …

Ali’s debut, the unforgettable Brick Lane (shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize, adapted to celluloid in 2007), was one of those literary landscape-changing titles about the Bangladeshi British community. Not surprisingly, the novel garnered controversy for various unflattering portrayals of the locals, but in this case, even bad press was good press and Ali hit bestselling lists, and collected nominations, prizes, and other hefty accolades.

Loyal devotion to Brick Lane keeps me adding every Ali title to my shelves. Alas, I have yet to finish her Portuguese-set short story collection Alentejo Blue, or her deadly In the Kitchen. Sticking this Story into my ears is most likely what got me to the end: kudos indeed for narrators Emma Fielding (who assumes the royal voice) and Nicholas Farrell (who alternates between the elegant, saving secretary and the desperate, lifelong photo-snatcher) as they go far in making the implausible at least finishable.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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07-Ghost (vols. 1-4) by Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara, translated by Satsuki Yamashita

07-Ghost 1.4

Since we’re talking four volumes here, allow me attempt to offer a set-up without too many spoilers.

“One thousand years ago,” a boy named Teito Klein (not sure of the kanji for ‘Teito,’ but his last name means “small” auf Deutsch – you’ll find many German-inspired references throughout) is about to reclaim his larger-than-life past. Assumed to be an enslaved orphan who is now an elite teen soldier of the Barsburg Empire, Teito is frequently haunted by mysterious images that bear little resemblance to the slave narrative he’s always been told. A loner at Barsburg’s military academy, Teito accepts (and returns) the devoted friendship of a gentle comrade, Mikage Celestine; depending on the original kanji (not included in the translated manga), ‘mikage,’ in Japanese, can mean ‘beautiful shadow’ – hold on to that etymology, as Mikage will always remain at Teito’s side.

Teito’s dream-like (nightmarish) flashbacks finally begin to make sense when he overhears the Barsburg leaders talking about him – their words trigger a violent memory, and he recognizes Ayanami, the Barsburg Imperial Army’s Chief of Staff, standing over a murdered body. In blind reaction, Teito attacks Ayanami, gets thrown into prison, but escapes with Mikage’s help. He’s rescued and taken to Barsburg Church in District 7 – the “District of God” – where the military cannot touch him. Something about the glorious sanctuary seems familiar … and thus Teito’s quest for the truth begins …

The epic battle of good vs. evil is on. Here’s what Teito initially learns: Seven Ghosts (hence the name) prevent the god of evil, Verloren (meaning ‘the lost’), from world domination. Two kingdoms battle for control, although one needs some major restoring. Three swashbuckling bishops (one of whom has a propensity for hiding porn, ahem) take turns nurturing, teaching, bullying (sort of comically) young Teito as he learns to control the power he never knew he had.

Given the multi-layered rules and engrossing history of this millenially-aged universe, 07-Ghosts is undoubtedly one of the most intricate series I’ve thus far encountered. Apparently slated for 17 total installments, have patience and pay close attention: the numerology and meaning of names alone are noteworthy brain-ticklers. It’s also one of the most graphically gorgeous manga; even when the characters are at rest, nearly every panel overflows with swirling movement (the religious robes alone are better than any haute couture). If you find you can’t wait for the translated paper and ink to hit Stateside, you might check out the subtitled anime which seems to be readily available online. Oh, the powers of google; ask and ye shall be answered.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2005-2007 (Japan), 2012-2013 (United States)
© Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara
Original Japanese edition published by Ichijinsha, Inc., Japan

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The Twin Knights by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Maya Rosewood

Twin NightsIn order to fully enjoy this manga, you first need to read its prequel, Princess Knight (in two volumes in English translation). Come back when you’re finished … this will wait.

For those of you already familiar with the gender-bender tale of the cross-dressing Princess, welcome back to Silverland where now-Queen Sapphire has given birth to twins Daisy (the boy) and Violetta (the girl). Before even their first day has passed, the powers-that-be are already arguing over which royal will be the throne’s successor. With the “entire realm … split into supporters of the Prince versus the Princess,” King Franz realizes, “Oh, right! At times like this I should ask God for a revelation.”

Instead of God, the adorable angel Tink returns earthward: “God is currently away on business, so I came here in his stead.” His decision via bow toss points to Prince Daisy as the noble heir. In a jealous fury, Princess Violetta’s support team kidnap the sleeping baby boy and arrange for him to die out in the wild woods, Snow White-style. An especially maternal deer (who’s granted the ability to become a human by day – she needs hands, after all, to provide proper baby care) rescues the sweet prince and raises him to adulthood.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, the King and Queen dare not reveal their tragic loss to their trusting subjects, and instead raise Princess Violetta as both Prince and Princess. Cross-dressing privileges and consequences both ensue. Gypsies, hunts, henchmen, and yet another pair of royal twins are all necessary to eventually reunite the royal family …

Whimsy aside, just as he questioned in Princess Knight, the legendary Osamu Tezuka doesn’t shy away from challenging subjects here, from gender politics, equality and equity, class issues, to questions of identity, definitions of morality, and more. Even as a half-century has passed since its original Japanese debut, Tezuka’s sociopolitical concerns remain – for better or for worse – as timely as ever.

Serious, yes, but Tezuka never forgets he’s in the entertainment business: he’s still laughing throughout, especially at himself. From inserting his own shocked image – “Why the hell is Osamu Tezuka hidin’ out here?” a character demands in the midst of a ferocious battle – to constantly plugging the joys of manga at any opportunity he gets – hiding out reading comics, “cool[ing] off” with comics, and admiring beautifully unblemished hands could only belong to a comic artist. From silly to somber in a single panel, Tezuka proves yet again why he’ll always be the undisputed godfather of manga.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Templar by Jordan Mechner, illustrated by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland, color by Hilary Sycamore and Alex Campbell

TemplarReady for some swashbuckling adventure … with quite a history lesson thrown in? ” [I]t’s all absolutely true,” author Jordan Mechner promises in his entertaining “Preface,” before he adds, “Well, some of it.”

The history portion goes back to late 13th-into-14th-century France to the “shocking downfall of the Knights of the Temple – a scandal that shook the fourteenth century and reverberates to this day,” Mechner explains. “Bizarrely, although it’s well documented for something that happened 700 years ago, it was a piece of history I’d never seen dramatized – not in a movie, not in a novel, not in a video game.” Until now. And how! The powerful Templars, originally formed during the Crusades, were “the Jedi of their time,” but in 1307, in a deft political move, the King of France ordered the mass arrest (and subsequent torture and murder) of 15,000 Templars. International machinations ensued: “The Order of the Temple was shattered, never to rise again.”

Within those facts, Mechner inserts a wildly sensational thriller of love, loyalty, and loss. Templar Knight Martin is one of the few survivors of the King’s massacre. He manages to rally a motley crew of fellow survivors and supporters, and devises an impossible plan to ferret out the Templar’s missing grand treasure. Never mind that he’s forced to begrudgingly accept the help of his long-lost first (and only) love, while somehow maneuvering around the King’s henchmen who never seem to die … come hell or high water (literally), Martin’s got plans …

Six years in the making, culminating from research Mechner began back in 2002, this could-have-been-true graphic tale comes to vivid life thanks to the husband-and-wife artist team of  Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham (one of my favorite kiddie book illustrators ever!), who also energetically made Mechner’s Prince of Persia fly off their panels. Make sure to set aside the afternoon (and more), because once you open the book you won’t stop until you run out of pages, after which you’ll most likely turn to the screen to find out more, more, more (even a Luddite like me has to be thankful for the instant gratification of the internet!). Mechner even obligingly provides you a detailed “Afterword” to keep your adventures going … !

Readers: Adult, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Prophecy [Book 1 of Prophecy Series] by Ellen Oh + Author Interview

As the mother of three young girls, Ellen Oh is constantly on the lookout for good books that showcase female empowerment. She’s found a few here and there – say, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and maybe a few others – but to ask for characters with whom her Korean American daughters might directly identify seemed too tall an order. So the former entertainment lawyer and adjunct college professor decided to write her own: Prophecy, the first of a planned trilogy, debuts this month.

“People feared Kira,” the heart-thumping, fantastical young adult novel begins. With her yellow eyes and unprecedented fighting skills, Kira is hardly the average teenager, much less the picture of modesty and subservience befitting a court royal. Her uncle the King considers her a “freak of nature, and a terrible embarrassment to the royal family,” and yet he must rely on her warrior strength to protect his only son and royal heir.

Throughout a fantasy version of third-century Korea, demons, imps, hobgoblins, and shamans threaten the entire peninsula, falling the seven kingdoms one by one. In Kira’s home kingdom of Hansong, evil forces are moving through the ranks, possessing even once-trusted officials. The horrific events that the great ancestor, the Dragon King, prophesied are proving true: “Seven will become three. Three will become one. One will save us all.”

When and how did the idea for your Prophecy trilogy come to you? Did Kira arrive fully formed like Athena? Or did you struggle to bring her to life?
Kira and [her cousin Prince] Taejo were the easiest characters for me to write, because they did literally spring out of my head, much like Athena – I love that analogy, by the way. I like pretending I’m Zeus! The cousins arrived fully formed, with very specific details about how I wanted them to be. When the idea for Prophecy first came to me, it was about a young prince who is believed to be the hero of a legend. But as the legend progresses, his female cousin – who is also his bodyguard and a far better warrior – turns out to be the true hero. I initially wrote Prophecy from Taejo’s perspective, but he was coming out too whiny and jealous. That changed when the point of view switched over to Kira’s. That’s when the story became more alive, moved faster, and became more relatable, at least to me. Which makes sense because the story was always about Kira – I just had to let her tell it.

Besides the shift in perspective, did the story change in other ways over the various revisions?
I think, overall, the story became more emotional. As a writer, I tend to be oriented more toward action, action, action. Both my agent and editor were really good at making me pause and ask, “Yeah, but what does Kira feel when this happens, or that happens?” I always knew the “how” and “what,” but during the revision process, I had to really work on expressing Kira’s reactions, her emotions.

Besides the obvious fact of your Korean ancestry, why did you choose to set your first novel in ancient Korea? As a fantasy writer, you pretty much have unlimited freedom as to where and when.
I chose ancient Korea for two specific reasons: the first was just practical – I couldn’t find anything like a fantasy adventure story set in ancient Korea in libraries or bookstores; the second was more personal – ancient Korea was such a fascinating, turbulent time with kingdoms changing, collapsing, being taken over, dealing with amazing politics and endless intrigue. But the specific moment I realized I had to write about ancient Korea was when I read a Genghis Khan biography and came to a point in the book when the Mongols invade Korea, and the entire royal court flees to Ganghwa Island (which is at the mouth of the Han River), where the Mongols aren’t able to cross the river to get to them. The Korean leaders are out there laughing, while the poor peasants are getting raped and killed by the Mongols. And then the royals, who’ve been safe and sound in their island fortress, come back to tax the hell out of the peasants and steal all their food. All those layered dynamics between the haves and have-nots were just so visual, interesting, and ultimately inspiring to me. That was feudal society at its best – from my perspective as someone who’s interested in the history – and at its worst – from a human perspective because you really see the worst of what people in power do to their citizens. And through it all, the common peasants endure and survive. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Ellen Oh,” Bookslut.com, January 2013

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Equal of the Sun“Based on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom” seems to be the dominant short-hand description (even on its own back cover) of Anita Amirrezvani‘s historical novel set in 16th-century Persia, now modern Iran. Some might find that description misleading, and expect this to be Princess Pari’s story, told in Pari’s voice. The narrative actually belongs to her chief eunuch and advisor, Javaher, who Amirrezvani reveals in the “Author’s Note” is one of several “invented characters.” Lest you feel deprived, don’t: Javaher makes for an excellent protagonist (especially as voiced by a perennial audible favorite, Simon Vance). He takes immediate control with the very first words – “I swear to you …” – as he declares his unwavering intention to “set down the truth about the princess.” He explains, “As Pari’s closest servant, I not only observed her actions but carried out her orders. I realized that upon my death, everything I know about her would disappear if I failed to document her story.”

Scant documentation survives about Princess Pari who was the favored daughter of Tahmasb Shah (1514-1576), the second ruler of the Safavi dynasty which reigned over one of the most significant Persian empires. In Sun, the few known major events of Pari’s royal existence are a vehicle for Javaher to share his enthralling, detail-laden experiences – and Amirrezvani makes exceptional use her fictional freedom – both inside the carefully-guarded harem and considerably beyond the palace gates.

Javaher joins Pari’s service, personally chosen by the revered, celebrated Shah. In order to prove his loyalty to the same royal court that accused and executed his father on distorted charges, Javaher has shockingly emasculated himself as a young man – much later than his fellow eunuchs who were made so in early boyhood. Javaher is determined to reclaim both his shattered family’s honor … and their former power. When the Shah dies unexpectedly without naming his chosen heir, Pari (and much of the court) knows that as his favored protegé, she is by far the best prepared, most knowing successor … if only she were not a woman. More and more, Pari’s brilliant, dangerous machinations rely on Javaher’s silence, his devotion, his intelligence, and his access to outside connections.

Because this is Javaher’s story, Sun moves beyond his royal service with intriguing subplots that include his personal quest to seek revenge on his father’s accuser, his determination to save his younger sister from their greed-driven aunt, and (with enough detail to make one blush at least a few shades of grey) his surprising romantic liaisons (birth control measures not required). Untethered by recorded facts, Amirrezvani’s fictional hero is a fascinating creation, fully aware of his Machiavellian choices, unbending in his determination to succeed: “If this book were discovered by the wrong man, I could be executed, for I have committed monstrous deeds and made mistakes that I would prefer not to reveal – although what man hasn’t?” he muses. “Man is flawed by his very nature. His ears hear only what they wish; God alone knows the absolute truth.” Amen to that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Maya and the Turtle: A Korean Fairy Tale by Soma Han and John C. Stickler, illustrated by Soma Han

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 …??!!

Readers: Children

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Korean, Korean American