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  • Christopher Moon Kim

Book Review: 'The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story' by Tina Cho

Mermaids do exist….

A free diver can swim underwater without the aid of a breathing apparatus. They hold their breath for as long as possible and explore the ocean. There are different communities of free divers around the world. Some of them participate competitively, while others do it as a source of livelihood. One example of the latter is a group of divers who are often called haenyeo. A haenyeo is a free diver on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea. They are mainly elderly women with the capacity to swim up to 30 meters. They catch a variety of sea life, including shellfish and seaweed. Their catch of the day is their life source. They eat it, sell it, and sustain it.

Writer Tina Cho and illustrator Jess X. Snow collaborated to tell a wholesome story that displays love and respect for this Korean tradition in "The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story." This children’s book depicts the daily life of a haenyeo while telling a story of a young girl named Dayeon and her bonding experience with her grandmother. Her grandmother teaches her how to become a haenyeo with lessons about embracing the ocean despite many fears. Dayeon also examines the many joys and beauties in the ocean.

The beauty shines in bold colors of orange, yellow, blue, and purple. The orange and yellow rays of the sun are present on every page. They constantly give a sense of warmth and abundance. This sensation makes the haenyeo lifestyle look welcoming, even though it is laborious. Shades of blue accentuate the freedom and the depth of diving in the water, which looks like home for the women. Purple counterbalances the force of the other colors with a calming sentiment. A sentiment, which is important for the divers to have because of the dangerous nature of their work. To complement the colors, the pictures often celebrate the meaning of community. Multiple scenes have the group of women either huddling together or assisting one another. Of course, there are also scenes of the divers harmoniously swimming with the creatures of the ocean.

A wealth of knowledge is also available in the back of the book. The brief, factual context helps to tell a bigger story that goes beyond a family tradition. Like many other traditional lifestyles around the globe, such as the golden-eagle hunters of Mongolia and mountain climbers of Nepal, the traditional lifestyle of the haenyeo are diligently protected and supported by a few organizations. Their culture is worth preserving. Haenyeo have priceless experience with the ocean and humane fishing. As the author explains, their impact is vital for “indigenous businesswomen and indigenous marine biologists.”

"The Ocean Calls" can instill a sense of pride for tradition, and it can also provide appreciation for marine life. This is worth reading out loud with a child or alone; try whistling like a mermaid: Hoowi!



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