The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story
For ages 5-8 years. Kokila, 2020 (an imprint of Penguin Random House LLS, New York).
Dayeon says her Grandma is “like a treasure-hunting mermaid. “This age positive picture book set in South Korea provides kids with an inspiring non-stereotypic portrayal of an older woman. Grandma is active, courageous and capable. (Dayeon is pronounced dah-yeon.)
There is a loving intergenerational bond between Grandma and young Dayeon, (pronounced dah-yeon), not uncommon in grandparent/grandchild stories. But all too often picture books portray a child protagonist solving a problem for an older person. Kudos to author Tina Cho for sharing this story with young readers.
Dayeon is a young Korean girl who longs to be a haenyeo like her Grandma. Haenyeo’s are female divers—many are 60 years old or older and some are in their 80s. They deep sea dive off the coast of Korea’s Jeju Island to “pluck treasures from the sea.” Haenyeo are skilled divers who free dive without oxygen. The haenyeo tradition is centuries old and has been passed from generation to generation.
Grandma learned to be a haenyeo from her mother. Although she wants to be a haenyeo like her Grandma, she has a scary memory of the sea and is afraid to dive.
One day as Dayeon and her Grandma watch the sun’s first rays touch the sea, Grandma says that the ocean is calling her and she must dive. Grandma says not to be afraid, that the ocean is their home. Grandma tells Dayeon she will teach her to dive just like her mother taught her.
They practice holding their breath together. Dayeon learns to hold her breath longer, and how to let out her breath. Grandma suits up for a dive. Dayeon puts on a suit, flippers, googles, and a snorkel.
They sing a haenyeo song as they walk to the sea shore where the haenyeo gather. Jess Snow’s playful illustration shows their shadows behind them like mermaid tails.
Grandma and the other haenyeo dive and Dayeon stays on the shore. She plucks shore treasures, and wiggles her toes in a tide pool.
From where she is sitting on the shore Dayeon sees a shell under the water. Grandma’s voice echoes in her head—the ocean is your home and don’t be afraid. She jumps into the water to grab the shell, then takes a deep breath, thinking that maybe she could swim deeper.
When the haenyeo return to shore Dayeon shares the sea treasures she found. Grandma tells her the waves are calling them to come home. She takes Dayeon’s hand and they walk side by side into the ocean to dive as haenyeo together.
This beautiful book has rich colorful artwork by Jess X. Snow and is dedicated to the hardworking haenyeo of South Korea. The end of the book shares the history of Korea’s “granny mermaids.” They work as a team following rules such as diving in groups, checking on each other, and keeping each other safe.
Haenyeo are protectors of the marine environment, respectful of no-harvest seasons and no-diving zones. Today the older haenyeo are training younger women to carry on the tradition.
We see the courage to face fear passed on to a new generation by the older generation. This grandmother also shares a cultural tradition along with the importance of environmental stewardship. Intergenerational learning, older teaching younger, is not uncommon, but it’s wonderful to see it shared in literature for young children.
Review by Sandra L. McGuire, Ed.D.
Related activities for The Ocean Calls:
See amazing photos & video of hanyeo at work on author Tina Cho’s website!
Find the free teacher’s guide for The Ocean Calls (includes story map, coloring sheet & writing prompt)
Find or purchase the book here.
For more perfect picture books visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog!