“The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story” by Tina Cho

Ocean calls

A young girl tells her grandmother: “I want to be a haenyeo just like you. You’re like a treasure-hunting mermaid.” 

The girl, Dayeon, and her grandmother stand side-by-side, arms stretched above their heads as they look to the sun rising above the ocean. The two finish their breakfast, practice their breath holds and suit up, ready for the water.

 

The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story, Tina Cho, Jess X. Snow (illus) (Kokila, August 2020)
The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story, Tina Cho, Jess X Snow (illus) (Kokila, August 2020)

And so begins The Ocean Calls, a gentle picture book that looks at the haenyeo, female freedivers from Jeju Island in South Korea by Tina Cho and illustrated by Jess X Snow. The story is told through the eyes of the young Dayeon, who introduces young readers to the haenyeo. From the ocean shore, Dayeon watches her grandmother.

 

On the sand, the haenyeo tromped, clumsy in their flippers. But as soon as they dove—SPLASH!—they swam like mermaids… Grandma popped out of the water, whistling as she let out her held-in breath. Again and again the haenyeo dove and came back up for air. The sea breeze carried the sound of their whistling.

Ocean calls

Cho’s story illustrates the haenyeo tradition, encompassed in the story of a relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. As Dayeon expresses frustration during a practice breath hold, her grandmother offers the reassuring words of a tradition passed down between generations. “Don’t worry. I learned to be haenyeo from my mother. And now I will teach you.”

Snow’s illustrations are rich in color and detail. She makes use of the early morning setting to work in a palette of purples and blues, with the golden sun glimmering over the water.  Snow captures the free diving elements beautifully: grandmother and granddaughter in their wetsuits and orange flippers as they dive down without any equipment; the camaraderie of the haenyeo who dive together in groups.

An explanation of the haenyeo tradition accompanies the book, as does Cho’s own personal experience observing the haenyeo; it’s clear that this book is an ode to them.


Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.