Sing to me, O Muse, of that man of many troubles, Odysseus, skilled in all ways of contending, who wandered far after he helped sack the great city of Troy. Sing through me, and tell the story of his suffering, his trials and adventures, and his bloody homecoming.
ZEUS: These mortals do love to blame their sorrows on us, don’t they? But they cause most of their own troubles! Look at Aegisthus, killing King Agamemnon after we warned him not to. What did he expect?
ATHENA: It’s true, Father. He was justly slain by young Orestes. But what of that great man Odysseus? Does he deserve to live out his days trapped and groaning on the island of Ogygia, far from home, held there by the nymph Calypso? What do you have against him, Father?
ZEUS: My child, what strange remarks you let escape your lips. Could I forget that wily hero Odysseus? You know I bear him no grudge–but Poseidon does, hates him for blinding his son Polyphemus the Cyclops.
But come now, let us take up the matter of Odysseus’s return. Poseidon must relent, he cannot thwart the will of all the other gods.
ATHENA: O Father, if it now please the blissful gods that Odysseus should reach his home again, then let Hermes go and tell Calypso to send the hero home.
For my part, I’ll go to Ithaca and see his son, Telemachus. I’ll rouse the boy’s courage to resist the pack of wolves–the shameless suitors who harass his mother, Penelope, and consume his wine and cattle, feasting in Odysseus’s palace.
So begins Gareth Hind’s magnificent–and oh-so-Newbery-worthy–graphic novel adaptation of Homer’s classic. I wanted to push the graphic novel issue last year, and we did have a couple of excellent ones to consider, but neither would have held up well under the Newbery criteria for various reasons. THE STORM IN THE BARN, wonderful as it was, featured such a minimalistic text that was so dependent upon its illustrations that we could not in any way argue that the text alone was a distinguished contribution. STITCHES, on the other hand, had an extremely distinguished written narrative, but faced an impossibly difficult uphill battle, being a book published for adults (with child appeal at the very upper limit of the Newbery range). What we needed was a graphic novel with a substantial and distinguished written narrative for a more recognizably “intended potential audience” of children. Enter Gareth Hinds.
The term “original work” may have several meanings. For purposes of these awards,
it is defined as follows:
- Original work” means that the text was created by this writer and no one else. It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own.
- Further, “original work” means that the text is presented here for the first time and has not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form. Text reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible. Abridgements are not eligible.
I have added the emphasis on the relevant part: Original retellings of traditional literature are, indeed, eligible so long as the words are the author’s own. Of course, there is a difference between something like A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and THE LEGEND OF THE KING (and their recent Newbery antecedents WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON and WHITTINGTON) and books like THE ODYSSEY (and its Newbery antecedents such as IN THE BEGINNING and ZLATEH THE GOAT). In the former, the authors completely transform the story in their retellings, while in the latter, the authors remain true and faithful to the original stories, translating the spirit of the old tales for a new child audience.
In the author’s note at the end, Hinds mentions all the translations he considered as he wrote his own version, and I have listed the first sentence of each of them below for the sake of comparison . . .
FITZGERALD: Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy.
FAGLES: Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
BUTLER: Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.
RIEU: Tell me, Muse, of that resourceful man who was driven to wander far and wide after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy.
LATTIMORE: Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
MERRILL: Tell me, Muse, of the man versatile and resourceful, who wandered many a sea-mile after he ransacked Troy’s holy city.
HINDS: Sing to me, O Muse, of that man of many troubles, Odysseus, skilled in all ways of contending, who wandered far after he helped sack the great city of Troy.
Hinds is able to faithfully recreate the story, to reduce it to words (which we are considering) and pictures (which we are not), without losing its poetic sensibility, and he does so in a way that particularly displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.
Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.
Please note what the Newbery criteria do not say. They do not say that the text has to stand independently of the illustrations. They also do not say that an excellent picture book and/or graphic novel is one in the words and pictures work so cohesively that to imagine one without the other is an obvious sign that it is not a distinguished graphic novel and/or picture book let alone a distinguished contribution to literature as a whole. Deep down in your little black heart, you may believe that but you cannot turn to the Newbery criteria for its justification. What the criteria say, quite simply, is that if we can find evidence of the following literary elements in the text . . .
- Interpretation of the theme or concept
- Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
- Development of a plot
- Delineation of characters
- Delineation of a setting
- Appropriateness of style.
. . . then it may rightly be considered a distinguished contribution to literature. Needless to say, the text of THE ODYSSEY contains all of these elements. The plotting is intricate and complex. The cast of characters is large, but well drawn, and for Odysseus, in particular, our sympathy grows as we learn of his trials and tribulations. The setting and the action scenes are deftly captured by the artwork, but they are supported by the text. As previously mentioned, the style of Hinds’s writing is a good mixture of clarity, brevity, and poetry. And its chock full of great themes: take your pick. I’m sure there are some who would credit Homer more than Hinds, and perhaps that kind of thinking is the biggest obstacle to this text. But if THE ODYSSEY is not worthy of Newbery recognition then perhaps neither are IN THE BEGINNING nor ZLATEH THE GOAT . . .