|Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
by Barry Deutsch
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster
For me, the first Battle was in being assigned a book, Keeper, whose author Kathi Appelt had six months earlier provided a gorgeous blurb for my own new book. Some of her Acknowledgment read like some of my Acknowledgment; we share a much-loved editor.
I explained the dilemma and asked my Commander at SLJ for a different set of books to judge.
He wrote to me, “Actually, since the world of children’s book writers isn’t all that huge, we’ve had stuff like that happen in the past,” and he asked me to try to forge ahead, as had judges in previous years. Plus, it was too late in the process to re-assign books.
I wrestled with the problem, my inner librarian springing into action. “Oh, come on,” she said. “We are professionals at this; we judge the book, not the author. “
Yes, my inner writer shot back, but this is really difficult. It will look like I compromised myself if Appelt’s book wins and it will look base and ungenerous to her if it doesn’t.
My inner librarian flared up. “You won’t compromise yourself because you will be transparent, honest, and straightforward. And Kathi Appelt certainly expects no reciprocation for the blurb; it underestimates her to assume that.”
Well, true enough. I, too, have blurbed other authors’ books, and only when I genuinely loved the books, and only because I loved them. No quid pro quo involved. But it’s still so awkward, I moaned. My inner librarian, who is practical, trustworthy, and objective, said, “Oh, shut up.” She grabbed the books, sat down, and started reading.
My inner writer, who is romantic, undisciplined, and dreamy, finally got a grip. She snagged a pencil for note-taking—and we were off.
Keeper is a pleasingly stocky novel, thick and squarish in the hand, with short, strong chapters. August Hall, who seems to perceive the world as though peering over someone’s shoulder—a dog’s, a seagull’s, a merman’s—provides beautiful, mysterious greytone pictures. The art exactly suits the story, which is intimate, a world unto itself, as Appelt describes the Texas gulf coast setting. The writing grabbed my full attention; from the first sentence I knew I was in the hands of a consummate storyteller, even though I am not prone to enjoy fantasy or magical realism or shape-changing.
Keeper is heir to the oral tradition; the narrator’s voice is powerful and always present, creating an exquisite tension between what we know is fiction and our urge to hand over our hearts to it anyway. And this narrative switches easily from the points of view of a girl, a couple of dogs, a cat, a seagull, an elderly gay French grandfatherish neighbor, a young stuttering war-veteran surf-shop owner, and more; it shifts from past to present tense, from lyrical to earthy. As ten-year-old Keeper gets deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation, all the characters’ back stories and the setting itself enrich the drama and give it texture. Keeper’s wish, her desperate need, is to find her mother and, under a blue moon, she does—though it’s not the mother she expected. All three of us, my inner librarian, my inner writer, and my inner tween savored every word, and the many surprises that were gradually revealed.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, a graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, must be the only book ever whose outside front cover made me laugh. “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl,” it proclaims. Thick, shiny, paper painted in shades of coral, brown, black and white—changing to deep purples and grays in the scary night scenes—feel silky to the touch. Every page is vibrant with energetic pictures, dialogue, sound effects—and extremely minimal exposition.
The story plays with genres, tilting them on their sides; using incongruity, it skewers conventions. Seemingly we are in the middle of a Hansel and Gretel pastiche, a fairy tale, in which the characters sprinkle their dialogue with Yiddish words, “A klog iz mir: Woe is me!” as well as expressions like “Yaaaah!” ”Mumph!” and “Aaak!” Mirka, one daughter in a large family of sibs and step-sibs, rebels against the traditional role expected of her in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hereville. Rather than learning such “womanly arts” as knitting, she wants to fight dragons. There is lots of very clever stuff here: visual jokes such as an illustration contained within an exclamation point, table legs morphing into trees, and a deliciously horrid troll.
Wit and irony also abound in the text: a monster pig eats Mirka’s homework, Mirka and her clever, loving stepmother engage in wonderfully funny debates, and some Orthodox traditions are gently poked fun at (“preparing for all that non-working [on Shabbos] takes a lot of work!” and “In Hereville, kids aren’t allowed to have non-Jewish books. So Mirka keeps hers hidden”). I was hugely entertained, even as one tender scene brought tears to my eyes.
So I must choose between Keeper, a story with unusual dimension and rich, accessible language, and Herevillle, a vivacious, graphically ingenious, playful-but-serious yarn. Both examine the nature of courage and love through appealing, original protagonists. Both make thrilling use of language. Both are pleasing to the ear, the hand, the eye, and the funnybone.
But I had to choose, and finally all three of my inner selves agreed upon Keeper, for the lasting resonance of its narrative power.
– Susan Patron
And the Winner of this match is …
Hey, wait! Didn’t this happen before: where an author tried to judge her own book? Oh, yeah. Kristin Cashore wrote Graceling—not Tamora Pierce. And Susan didn’t write Keeper; Kathi Appelt did. They do seem awfully similar, but apparently Kathi didn’t learn her lesson: the gayness of the elderly French grandfatherish neighbor (i.e. the scrotum) goes on the first page, not buried halfway through the novel. I mean, really, how is it going to cause any controversy all the way back there? I’m a Keeper fan so it’s no surprise that I would’ve picked this one, too. It’s a shame it had to go up against Hereville, a book with a winning heroine that deserves a wider audience; I’m so looking forward to future installments. Keeper can’t bring herself to hurt the crabs, but she’s handily beaten Mirka, everyone’s favorite troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl. Next up: the troll . . . I mean, um, Barbie.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt