The Trail of a Fairy Tale by John Stickler
As her mother lay dying in a Washington, D.C. nursing home in 1995, my wife spent several weeks working on a eulogy to be read at her pending funeral. Grandmother Han, “Halmoni” in Korean, had led a remarkable life. Born in rural Korea during the last years of the Yi Dynasty, she married at a young age and bore three sons before she was 20. All three died in a measles epidemic. The 35-year Japanese occupation was harsh and the Korean War was worse.
When I met Soma in Seoul in the 1970s she was living with her mother and attending art school. She was the youngest of Halmoni’s nine children and a budding artist. We married and had two boys before moving to the U.S. where she continued her education at the California College of the Arts.
“My mother was a storyteller, ” Soma remembers, “and at bedtime she would recount the old tales her mother had told her as a child to me and my three sisters.” Feeling an urge to further commemorate her life Soma decided to bring one of those stories into print. While we worked together on the text, she painted a series of watercolors to illustrate the folk tale we titled Maya and the Turtle. Sometime in the late 1990s, I began sending out the manuscript and illustrations to children’s book publishers around the U.S. A dozen houses turned it down.
Along the rejection trail, however, one publisher was struck by Soma’s artwork. Mrs. Shen of Shen’s Books realized that her style would be a perfect match for a collection of Korean proverbs submitted by a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. This was more than a coincidence; after Halmoni’s death Soma had begun writing down proverbs that she remembered from her youth as her mother had often quoted old dictums to instruct her children. “Seven falls, eight rises.” Soma had thought such a compendium would make a perfect memorial for Halmoni — and here it came, pre-packaged! She created watercolor illustrations for 20 proverbs, and Tigers, Frogs and Rice Cakes, compiled by Daniel Holt, was published in 1999. The picture book was subsequently recommended for use in California elementary schools by the state Board of Education.
Shen’s Books specialized in topics about the Orient, primarily China and Japan. Perhaps Mrs. Shen recognized a vacuum in the area of Korean subjects and given the success of Tigers commissioned Soma and me to create a non-fiction picture book. Together we produced Land of Morning Calm: Korean Culture Then and Now, published in 2003. In 18 short chapters it examines facets of Korean life, from food and music to tigers and persimmon trees. A second edition was published by Lee and Low in 2014.
As an immigrant herself, Soma watched as the second generation of Korean-Americans was born. (The flow of immigrants began arriving in the U.S. about a decade after the Korean War.) She felt that these children, along with the wave of some 100,000 adopted Korean “orphans,” had lost their cultural legacy. She would say that bereft of that heritage they “had no place to stand.” Her motivation, for these two books and the one to follow, was an attempt to fill that void in their lives.
By 2005 Maya and the Turtle had been turned down by 30 publishers. It sat in a drawer for the next six years, sent out only once to a national competition for unpublished children’s manuscripts. To our delight, but not our surprise, it was one of the finalists, reinforcing our confidence in the merit of the story. It is a parable of filial piety, unwavering devotion to one’s parents, a basic tenet of Confucianism and a popular theme in Korean society. Maya carries that commitment to the extreme with a happy Cinderella ending.
In 2010 I discovered Tuttle Publishing and it dawned on me that Maya would be perfect for their list. Our track record now cast the fairy tale in a new light and their response was positive: Maya was published by Tuttle in 2012 with international distribution.
The summer of 2014 brought a welcome boost in sales when Maya won new recognition, the Morning Calm Medal from South Korea. Each year students at 15 international schools vote on their favorite titles from a list selected by the school librarians. The competition is modeled on an established prize in Japan, the Sakura Medal. Winners are chosen from four age groups, elementary through high school. Maya took the upper elementary category. Titles being read by the students this school year may be found here: https://morningcalmmedal.wordpress.com/nominees/2014-15-nominees/
John Stickler spent 13 years in Korea, pioneering the advertising industry there and reporting news for the CBS radio network. He has written or contributed to nine books so far. His wife Soma Han illustrated the three books mentioned and has exhibited her fine art at galleries in the U.S. and the Far East.