Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: Daniel San Souci

San Souci, Daniel. IN THE MOONLIGHT MIST: A KOREAN TALE. Ill. By Eujin Kim Neilan. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Boyds Mills Press, 1999. ISBN 1563977540.
In this Korean story, a humble woodcutter saves a deer from hunters. In return, the deer tells him how to find a heavenly maiden to marry. It instructs the woodcutter to hide her clothes when she bathes in the moonlight to keep her earthbound. But the deer also warns the woodcutter to not give her clothes back until their second child is born. The woodcutter and the maiden marry and have a child, but the wife becomes homesick for heaven. To make her happy again, the woodcutter gives his wife her heavenly clothes back. The heavenly clothes possess the wife. She grabs their baby and returns to heaven. In despair, meets the deer again. This time the deer tells him how to get to heaven to rejoin his wife and daughter. Out of filial love, the woodcutter sends his mother to heaven instead of himself. The heavenly king hears about the woodcutter’s generosity and lets the woodcutter come to heaven where he joyfully rejoins his mother and family.
There is no overwhelmingly ‘bad’ character in this tale. The woodcutter and the heavenly maiden both at times do things that are wrong, such as the woodcutter hiding the maiden’s clothing, or the wife taking the baby back to heaven with her. But they love each other. The wife and her husband both work hard and care for the husband’s mother. In short, the 2 main characters have both human flaws and strengths. There is also a strong good character, though. The heavenly king makes a very short appearance to reward generosity and kindness. There is a universal theme at work here. No good deed goes unrewarded. The heavenly king, or whatever deity or power we believe in, will award us ultimately for our kind acts toward others.

Daniel San Souci maintains the traditional storyteller flow of this tale by telling his story through dialogue primarily, with over half of the text being dialogue. The dragon at the end of the story is a specifically Asian motif, since Asian dragons, unlike European dragons, bring good fortune and good luck. There is also the internationally traditional magic being who grants a wish in return for a favor.

In some rural areas, Koreans still wear the same traditional everyday and dress outfits as in this story, which makes it timeless. The landscapes are also ordinary. Combined with the text, however, Eujin Kim Neilan portrays uniquely Asian settings. The mother’s cook pot, the yard outside the couple’s house, the son’s devotion to his mother, and the rocks rising out of the water are all poignantly Asian. Even the dragon who conveys the woodcutter to heaven is painted as a Korean dragon. Having personally lived there for a few years, I experience a sense of homesickness for Asia when I view Neilan’s paintings.

Best Books:
Adventuring with Books: A Booklist for Pre-K-Grade 6 13th Edition, 2002 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States

Jeanne K. Pettenati, J.D. (Children's Literature)

"The timeless message in this beautifully told story is that God, the "heavenly king," watches over all of us and that those who live for others will ultimately find joy. The illustrations are finely wrought. Faces are quite expressive; some haunting in their sadness. Hands are prominent in the illustrations--reaching, caressing, holding and explaining. The book's universal story is filtered through Korean eyes. It provides a window into the Korean culture and sensibility."

Janice Harrington (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April 1999 (Vol. 52, No. 8))

"The lengthy narrative opens with an extended introductory subplot, but the pace is fairly rapid, and patient readers will be carried along by the magical and romantic elements. Neilan’s acrylic paintings are a strong inducement for readers. The subtle tension between warm and cool colors and the balanced choreography of double-, two-thirds, and single-page spreads combine with eyecatching points of view and compelling compositions to provide a strong sense of movement and drama. Human and animal figures are well-drafted and realistically expressive; brush strokes, almost scraped across the illustrations, add texture and depth. Jacket notes refer to the story as “ancient” and “one of Korea’s most beloved,” but no specific sources are provided."


1. Have a Korean tasting party, Kimchi (pronounced kim-chee) is similar to sauerkraut. Bulgogi (pronounced buhl-go-gee) is similar to a sweet beef teriyaki. Mandu are Korean dumplings, similar to wontons or pierogi. Make sure that the children take only a very small portion of the kimchi, since this dish can be very spicy. All 3 of these common dishes can be purchased from Korean restaurants. Making kimchi is a very complicated and time consuming process, mandu only slightly less complicated, but bulgogi is easy to make in a home kitchen.

2. Yut is a very popular Korean board game. If possible, find a version of Yut and have it and the rules available for your students. For more information on Yut, see this website.

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