I wasn't sure what to expect when I placed a hold on Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (tagline: "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl") in anticipation of hosting an author or illustrator on the Sydney Taylor Book Awards blog tour. (I don't know yet whom it will be, but I'm excited and trying to be prepared!)
Hereville is the 2011 gold medal winner in the Sydney Taylor Awards "older readers" (think middle school) category, and it is anything but what I thought it might be. I expected a heavy, perhaps historical fiction, story of the Jewish experience. What I found instead, was a modern, graphic novel, fairytale adventure, offering a prolonged peek into a very insular community - that of the Orthodox Jew. Through Mirka, the book's lively and determined protagonist, the reader sees a young girl who, despite the tenets of her faith that keep her apart from secular and non-Orthodox society, is much like any other young girl - willful and curious, tempered with love for her family and friends, and a grudging respect for her elders.
Of course, the fact that Mirka is an Orthodox Jewish girl cannot be missed. The clothing, religious observances, frequent use of Yiddish words (defined in footnotes), gender segregation, large families and dietary restrictions of the faith are all on display in Hereville, an apropos name, as "here," within the community, is the only place that an Orthodox child is likely to be. But Mirka longs to fight dragons and isn't afraid to occasionally disobey her stepmother, Fruma, in search of adventure. Mirka doesn't ever find dragons, but she does find a witch, a talking pig, and eventually, a way to win her sword - even if it doesn't involve slaying dragons.
Most of the interactions take place between Mirka and her younger brother Zindel, her closest companion in the family, and Fruma, a very wise woman, well-versed in turning both sides of any argument to her own favor, much to Mirka's consternation. The pig serves as a bridge of sorts between the Orthodox world and the world-at-large. It is unclear whether the witch is a fairy tale convention or a metaphor for the larger world, a sometimes dangerous place full of the strange and unfamiliar. Mirka must navigate the magical world of the witch in the wood while managing the growing discontent of family and friends with her occasional decidedly unorthodox behavior.
The illustrations are easy to follow, usually in neatly-defined rectangular panels. Dialogue and text are in white bubbles or boxes in an easy-to-read font. The artwork was created in pen and ink by the author; a colorist later added a tan palette for daytime scenes, and purple hues for Mirka's forays into the night. The faces are simple, yet expressive. There is enough action to satisfy regular graphic novel fans.
In my state of New Jersey, Orthodox Jews are not uncommon. Knowing anyone who truly understands much about their lifestyle is. Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, has opened a window into the Orthodox culture. In Hereville, Barry Deutsch manages to promote cultural understanding (and knitting!) in a graphic novel adventure. It's no wonder that Hereville is this year's winner. A truly unique concept.
A fifteen-page preview of Hereville, the graphic novel, is available here. Hereville began as a web comic in 2008, and may still be found online at Hereville.com.
Think you've got what it takes to be a graphic artist? Check out this video of author/artist, Barry Deutsch, drawing Mirka at 20x normal speed.
About the Sydney Taylor Book Awards:
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) since 1968, the Award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category.