Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with lesson plans, book lists, and learning activities for grades PreK to 12.
To the Discussion Leader
In her first two historical fiction novels for adults, Sheri Holman was praised by reviewers who called her work remarkable, outstanding, dazzling, and brilliant. The New York Times reviewer wrote, "Holman breathes life into the teeming streets of a distant world." She manages to do this again in her first book for younger readers, Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars. This time Holman's distant world is Korea, A.D. 595. Korean history is infused with life as Princess Sondok fills her diary with entries about court customs, her education, and important celebrations, as well as plotting and intrigue within the royal court presided over by her father — a stern role model Sondok admires and loves.
Readers of Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars will meet a determined young woman whose passion for math and science and desire for a first-rate education triumphs at a time when such pursuits where thought to be both unfeminine and too complex. As Holman says, "With more and more young women today excelling in mathematics and the sciences (as well as the arts), Sondok seemed like a wonderful role model and touchstone from the past."
"Will we ever know the truth about the stars? I am too young to venture a theory about our universe. I only know that I want to understand more deeply. I want to know all I can know. Why should it be forbidden?" writes fifteen-year-old Sondok on a message she places in her grandmother's ancestral jar.
It is 595 A.D. in Korea, and Sondok, eldest daughter of the king and heir to the throne, is more interested in astronomy than in the work of weaving and tending the silkworms that her mother and two younger sisters do. Sondok's dream is to have an observatory from which she can study the stars and map the sky. When a learned Chinese ambassador Lord Lin Fang arrives, bringing a new official calendar, Sondok looks forward to discussing astronomy with him. But Lin Fang feels that a woman's place is only in the home and certainly not in the scientific world. He tells Sondok, "Surely you cannot imagine I would converse on such a serious subject with a young lady? It would be unnatural, and wholly against the laws of propriety."
Since the king desires an alliance with China to counter a possible attack from his Korean neighbors, Sondok must respect Lin Fang and bow to his wishes. Sondok is hopeful the ambassador will leave after the New Year celebration, but he stays on and becomes her tutor. Lin Fang exerts considerable influence over the king, convincing him that the Chinese calendar is superior to the Korean one, and also making him believe that he must have a male heir to succeed him.
Sondok feels misunderstood by everyone except her childhood friend Chajang, a member of the King's Flower Princes. Chajang has his own worries as he ponders whether he is suited to serve as one of the king's warriors. When he decides to leave the court and become a Buddhist monk, the king is outraged and imprisons Chajang, sentencing him to death. Sondok, desperate to save her friend's life, vows to give up her astronomy if Chajang is spared. The king relents, and Chajang departs for the monastery.
Meanwhile, Lin Fang has persuaded the king to "set aside" his queen so that he can marry a younger woman who might bear him a son. Sondok's mother must now leave her family and become a Buddhist nun. Sondok is heartbroken and says, "The monastery has swallowed everyone I love." In a final effort to prevent her mother's leaving, Sondok sneaks away to the home of an old mudang who had earlier predicted the queen's fate. Sondok requests a kut to alter her mother's future. The elaborate ceremony takes three days, but the future cannot be changed, and Sondok and her sisters bid a tearful farewell to their mother.
According to Lin Fang's Chinese calendar, a solar eclipse is to occur on the first day of the tenth month. Sondok, who has made careful calculations, knows this is not true, but no one will listen to her. The king prepares to perform his "Calamities-solving ritual" to end the eclipse, and the entire kingdom waits for the sun to disappear. Nothing happens, but Sondok steps in and "saves face" for her father. Lin Fang's power is broken.
Sondok now knows she must continue her astronomy. With new insight she realizes she has learned much in a year, even from the lessons of Lin Fang, and she has found a new harmony within herself. She will be ready to reign if she is given the chance. She writes to her Grandmother, "The planet Kumsong [Venus] is shining in the daytime, Grandmother Legend has it when Kumsong shines by day, a woman is to rule. Can we put our faith in the stars? Do they always speak true? I believe they do."
Thinking About the Book
- Do you think Princess of the Moon and Stars is a good name for Sondok? Why do you think so?
- How is Sondok different from her mother and sisters?
- Why is Sondok so anxious to meet Lord Lin Fang? Why does her opinion change so drastically that she later refers to him as "that cadaverous old ambassador?"
- What New Year's gift does Sondok hope her father will give her? What does she receive instead? How does this make her feel?
- Sondok's friend Chajang tells her, "Desires are our downfall." What does he mean by this? How does this saying come true for Sondok? How does it come true for Chajang?
- How does Lord Lin Fang view women? Does his view differ from that of Sondok's father?
- What does the mudang predict for Sondok and her mother and sisters? How do these prophecies come true?
- What does "to be set aside," mean? Why must Sondok's mother now enter a Buddhist monastery?
- Why does Sondok beg the mudang to perform a kut for her mother? What does Sondok hope will be the result of the kut?
- What do you think is the meaning of the design of Sondok's contest-winning tapestry?
- What does "to save face" mean? How does Sondok save face for her father during the Eclipse that Never Happened?
- Read the Epilogue. Does Sondok ever get her observatory? If so, how does it come about?
- On the tenth day of the first moon, Sondok tells that is it the Year of the Rabbit, and she explains how hours, and years came to be named after the twelve animals that visited Buddha before he left the earth. Find out more about the Korean zodiac. In what year were you born? What is the fortune for persons born in that year? Do you believe it to be true?
- New Year's traditions are important in Sondok's life. Choose one from the list below and explain what it means:
- not using a broom for five days before the New Year (p.31)
- hiding all the shoes on the first night of the New Year (p.34)
- eating a special soup, tuk-tuk on the first night of the New Year (pp.33-34)
- the Lucky Nines (p. 41)
- What good luck traditions or superstitions do you know? Share them with your group.
- In the weaving competition, Sondok and her sisters each weave a tapestry that reflects their personalities. Recall their designs (pp.140-141). If you were to design a picture or banner that reflects your interests and goals, what would it look like? Draw your own banner that includes at least three things that are important to you.
- Choose one of the following and tell what it is and why it's important to Sondok's story:
- mudang kut
- tae kwon do
- um & yang
- Lord Ling Fang's calendar predicts a solar eclipse on the 1st day of the 10th month. What do the people of Sondok's time believe is happening to the sun during an eclipse? How do they prepare for it? How were they able to safely view it? Learn more about eclipses and the myths surrounding them. Try writing your own myth as to what is happening during an eclipse of the sun.
- Another book in the Royal Diaries series, Lady of Ch'iao Kuo by Laurence Yep, tells the story of a brave and intelligent princess who lived in China during the same time as Sondok. Read Lady of Ch'iao Kuo's story. How are these two young royals alike? How are they different? Do you think they could ever be allies? Friends? Why or why not?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.