Here be Dragons: Asian myths and fables inspiring recent Young Adult Literature

The Last Mapmaker, Christina Soontornvat (Candlewick, April 2022); An Arrow to the Moon, Emily XR Pan (Little, Brown, April 2022); A Magic Steeped in Poison, Judy I Lin (Feiwel & Friends, March 2022) The Last Mapmaker, Christina Soontornvat (Candlewick, April 2022); An Arrow to the Moon, Emily XR Pan (Little, Brown, April 2022); A Magic Steeped in Poison, Judy I Lin (Feiwel & Friends, March 2022)

The trend of novelists to base stories on mythology and the ancient classics—Greek myths, the Iliad, and Beowolf—has more recently been extended to Asian sources. Young adult and middle grade literature, usually au courant with publishing trends, has also begun to embrace Asian mythology in recent years, with three new novels published just this spring.

Christina Soontornvat’s The Last Mapmaker is the story of a young girl named Sai whose father lives in the slums of a fictitious country called Mangkon, based on Thailand. Sai’s mother passed away years ago and to earn a living Sai becomes the apprentice of the last mapmaker of their region.

 

Paiyoon was the last mapmaker of his kind still working in An Lung. He used old-fashioned mapmaking techniques, drawing coastlines as intricate as a lace collar. This meant that he worked slowly, but in the end, each map was exquisite enough to hang in a museum.

 

This story takes place in an undetermined time before the advent of the automobile, although most of it takes place on a sea voyage that Paiyoon and Sai join because of their mapmaking expertise. They are out to find a lost continent called Sunderland. No one knows for sure what Sunderland will look like—if it even exists—but people in Mangkon are well-versed in the mythological origin of their country and that of the Sunderlands.

 

Long ago, dragons swam along the shores of the Nine Islands. We were a landbound people back then, with no knowledge of the sea. The dragons took pity on us and taught us to make boats and ride the waves. They herded sardines right into our fishermen’s nets. Soon our people began to thrive, and there weren’t enough fish in our seas to feed a growing kingdom and a pod of giant sea serpents. It was time for the dragons to move on. Before they departed, they left us one final gift: a golden egg. When it hatched, out popped a baby girl who grew up to become the first Queen of Mangkon. As for the dragons, they all swam down south and found a new home: the Sunderlands. No one had ever seen these lands, but they must have been a paradise, because the dragons never came back.

 

Emily XR Pan’s new novel, An Arrow to the Moon, takes place not in ancient times like Soontornvat’s, but mainly in the early 1990s before mobile phones were common. Although the book has been marketed as a modern take on Romeo and Juliet, the resemblance to the Chinese folktale of Houyi and Chang’e is much more apparent. Two teens from rival families meet during their senior year of high school in a northeastern part of the United States. Hunter Yee was kicked out of his private school and enrolls in the public school where Luna Chang is a student. The Yee and Chang families are enemies because the fathers are in the same academic field.

Hunter Yee is an archer, just like Houyi in the folktale, while Luna Chang is just as devoted to Hunter as Chang’e was to Houyi when she drank the elixir of immortality and flew up to the moon with the Jade Rabbit. (Pan’s story includes a pet rabbit named Jadey). Hunter’s father gets involved with a gangster in San Francisco after he steals an ancient stone that has magical properties, taking his family and the stone and fleeing California for the East Coast. It’s said this stone was in the Xian tombs where the terracotta soldiers were buried. Hunter’s father had written an academic paper about this, even though it “read like a work of fiction.”

 

The suggestion that Qinshihuang’s imperial alchemists had possibly managed to develop certain elixirs even before the supposed burning of books and burying of scholars. The idea that the emperor had in his possession not only the famous Heshibi, but other pieces of precious stone considered to be additional Mandates of Heaven or divine talismans of protection.

 

The stone plagued Hunter’s father. After he stole it, he didn’t know what to do with it.

 

On some days, he thought he could take the stone into the lab, get some fresh eyes on it, let its presence be shared with fellow researchers. Other days, he thought about dropping it into the ocean. Some fear or instinct—or both—always stayed his hand.

 

When the gangster in San Francisco finally learns the Yees’ whereabouts, he sets out to recapture the stone and take revenge.

 

Judy I Lin’s debut novel, A Magic Steeped in Poison, is —like Soontornvat’s—set in ancient times and includes elements like magic stones and elixirs like Pan’s. Lin sets her story in a country that resembles China and revolves around tea masters and apprentices, called shennong tu and shennong shi, respectively, named after the mythical figure Shennong.

 

Rumors abound about the shennong-shi, for they are few in number, and not everyone understands their abilities. There are some who would call them sorcerers and would rather use the services of the physicians. Calling our abilities superstition, mysticism, or worse.

 

The main character Ning is from a region called Su and has recently lost her mother after unwittingly brewing her a poisonous cup of tea. Her sister Shu also drank this tea and while it wasn’t fatal in her case, she’s nevertheless in bad shape. Ning sets off for the capital city of Jia to compete in a tea ceremony competition in order to win favors with the princess who is said to hold a magical cure-all stone. When Ning meets a boy named Bo in the capital, she doesn’t know if she can trust him and ends up finding out that most of the people in the capital city are also devious.

These three books come at a time in which American public schools are seeing a surge in book bans; diversity can be one of the casualties. Soontornvat has spearheaded a petition from 13,000 young adult and middle grade authors to urge school boards, local governments, and the US Congress to protect students’ rights to read. When you can’t conjure up dragons, you have to do it yourself.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.