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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

'Koa's Seed' a tale transplanted to Isles

"Koa's Seed: A Hawaiian Version of an Age-Old Tale" retold by Carolyn Han and illustrated by Kathleen Peterson; BeachHouse Publishing, $14.95; 6 and older

By James Rumford

Carolyn Han, who teaches at Hawai'i Community College on the Big Island, loves stories. She has a passion for collecting them.

She has traveled to China and Yemen writing down stories, before, as she often says, they are lost.

Some of her previous books are "Tales From Within the Clouds," "Nakhi Stories from China," "Why Snails Have Shells," "Minority and Han Folktales from China" and "Yemeni Folktales."

In a new book, "Koa's Seed," she retells an old tale and puts it in a Hawaiian setting.

In her version, she begins with carefully chosen words that evoke a sense of time and place and that lend to the book the magic of poetry:

Long, long ago in Hawai'i, there lived an ali'i, a leader, whose once dark hair had turned the color of bleached shells. It was time, now, for him to appoint a successor. Whenever he was deep in thought, his fierce-looking eyebrows stuck out like tufts of dried sea grass. Although he had many sons and grandsons to choose from, he decided to do something different.

The ali'i gives each of the contenders a seed to plant and a year in which to show their skill as gardeners. One of the contenders is a boy named Koa, who carefully picks his seed and rushes home to plant it in a coconut shell he has pierced with holes and filled with soil. Unfortunately, while everyone else's seeds are soon sprouting and growing into beautiful plants, Koa's seed sends up no shoots. He has failed.

At the end of the year, Koa's mother tries to console the boy. She reminds him of all the love and care he has put into trying to make his seed grow, but Koa will have none of her mothering.

The ali'i calls for all to bring their plants. The ali'i moves among the contenders, smiling and admiring their plants.

His smile vanished when he noticed ... (Koa's) coconut shell. "What's this?" he asked and picked it up in his hand. For a moment it looked as if his thick fingers might crush the coconut shell.

What is important here, and the point I want to make, is that old stories, ones heard over and over again, can always be "dusted off," given new life and set in a new culture, as with "Koa's Seed."

They can also be illustrated with brilliance and technical virtuosity — as is the case with Kathleen Peterson's pastel images for Han's book.

They can, in short, be saved from oblivion.

What Han does is nothing new. Two hundred years ago, the brothers Grimm went around Germany collecting stories. They made it possible for us now to "hear" the tales once told round the hearth fires. They realized, as do ethnographic researchers like Han, that a story lives only as long as the storyteller. Like a language that disappears with its last speaker, a story will die without the human voice.

This is where you come in.

Sure, an old story may rest in peace between the pages of some dusty volume or be glorified in some brilliantly illustrated children's picture book — and this is all to the good — but without your voice, the one you use when reading to a child, the story is only half told.

This is why I have chosen Han's book to write about. She has given you and me the means of being an active participant in reviving an age-old story and making sure that it will live on.

Without the work done by people like Han and without the ancient wisdom of these stories to guide us, I believe that our sense of who we are as human beings would be diminished.

James Rumford of Manoa is an author and illustrator of children's books, and winner of the 2004 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award.