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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Odyssey

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 . . .

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Hmm….as you know I’m a big fan of this book (having, in fact, pointed it out to you a while back:), but it does seem to me that this is still Homer’s story when it comes to plot, characters, setting, etc. I can’t see the comparision to the Hamilton and Singer as they are story collections which to me is something quite different from an epic like this. They selected the stories and developed the connection between them (theme) whereas Hinds is simply retelling. And Hamilton and Singer have remarkable language and voice. Not sure I see Hinds as creating something “original” in this same way. At least not when having to compare it to others we are looking at this year.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think the real problem here is not the length (long epic vs. story collection), but rather our familiarity with the source material. We are very familiar with THE ODYSSEY therefore we expect the author to transform it more in order to make it his own (the way Gidwidtz did with A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and Morris did with THE LEGEND OF THE KING), whereas I’m guessing that most readers of IN THE BEGINNING and ZLATEH THE GOAT are experiencing most, if not all, of those stories for the first time.

    The title page of ZLATEH THE GOAT says that the stories were “Translated from the Yiddish by the author and Elizabeth Shub” while the foreword of IN THE BEGINNING says, “Let us read and enjoy these stories for their poetic beauty and the wondrous vision of the people who created them.” How can you be so sure that they are not “simply retelling?” You really can’t–unless you are familiar with the original source material.

    You say the remarkable language and voice are what further distinguish Hamilton and Singer, but I’m not entirely convinced of your argument. The only story from IN THE BEGINNING that I knew as well as THE ODYSSEY is the biblical creation story, and I have to tell you that it pales–just absolutely pales–next to the language of the King James Version. I say this not to disparage Hamilton (just as I did not ask about the sidebars in GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! to disparage Schlitz), but rather to point out that not only does the language of the Newbery criteria allow for original retellings of traditional literature, but that we also have precedents in the canon itself.

  3. Dodie Ownes says:

    For a bit of background from the author, take a look at an interview with Gareth Hinds in Jan 20, 2010 issue of SLJTeen, when THE ODYSSEY was still a work in progress –

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    “It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own”

    I haven’t read the Hinds yet, but I have a couple of questions here:

    1) “retelling” v. translation. To me, retelling is something completely different from translating from one language to another. This is the difference between, say, a modern English version of Plautus’s “Menaechmi” and Shakespeare’s complete reworking of it as “The Comedy of Errors” or again Rodgers and Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse.”
    So, the question for me is: Is Hinds’ text a translation for children, or a retelling/reworking?

    2) “traditional.” This is, perhaps less an issue, but I have always understood “traditional literature” to essentially mean folklore – that is, stories with no one fixed text. The Odyssey, on the other hand, exists as a single (relatively) stable text with a unique plot, characters, and set of words.
    So, is The Odyssey really traditional literature?

    Again, I haven’t read the Hinds yet – these are just thoughts for general discussion. Would love to hear from those who have read it, and perhaps know a little about Homer’s text.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Very good questions, Mark. My answers . . .

    1. I hesitate to call THE ODYSSEY a translation because, to my knowledge, Hinds did not work from a Greek text in order to change in into an English text (although he did rely on numerous such translations). I believe that Hamilton probably did something similar for IN THE BEGINNING (i.e. work from different versions of English translations in order to fashion her own telling) while Singer had some familiarity with the original language, but most likely embellished it as Monica suggests. Clearly, Hinds greatest original contribution is probably in the illustrations (which we are not considering), but I think a close comparison of the text Hinds’s ODYSSEY will yield the conclusion that by itself the text can be considered an original contribution. To muddle the matter even further, in the interview Dodie provides above, Hinds refers to his work as tellings, adaptations, and abridgements (although the committee, perhaps even the chair, will have the final say in exactly what this is). This is a gray area, and I really cannot fault the person who disagrees with me, but I’m just saying that I cannot find a way to draw a line in the sand so that Hamilton and Singer are Newbery eligible, while Hinds is not.

    2. Well, Wikipedia, that Veritable Bastion of Truth, says this about Homer: The question of the historicity of Homer himself is known as the “Homeric question”: no reliable biographical information has been handed down from classical antiquity,[6] and the poems themselves seem to represent the culmination of many centuries of oral story-telling and a well-developed formulaic system of poetic composition. According to Martin West, “Homer” is “not the name of a historical poet, but a fictitious or constructed name.”[7]

  6. I would be interested in the recommended ages for this book. Hind’s graphic version of Beowulf has been the only book challenged in my elementary library to date. The images were indeed very gory and the challenge committee, with one exception, made the decision that it was not appropriate for our library.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The publisher designates it for 12 and up as do most, if not all, of the review journals. Personally, I would feel comfortable with 4th/5th graders reading it. Only a couple of panels gave me pause–a naked Circe with strategically draped hair. And I suppose there is a little tiny bit of violence, but not much. I was reading the New Teen Titans in 4th/5th grade which featured a very busty and scantily clad superhero (Starfire/Koriand’r) and the requisite action comic violence. So I kind of think THE ODYSSEY is tame by comparison. But I can see how some gatekeepers might get their knickers in a twist. Might be easier for the Printz to consider this one . . .

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Jonathan – let me clarify a bit. Yes, The Odyssey is the *culmination* of a long history of traditional oral literature from Greek civilization, but the text as we now know it exists solely in itself. For comparison, the versions of the German and French folktales that the Grimms wrote down are merely one (hardly definitive) version of a set of folktales that were told before the Grimms and continue to be retold and reshaped.

    The perfect example of what I’m talking about is Hinds’ previous book, a graphic novel of Shakespeare “The Merchant of Venice.” Like the Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Merchant is based on a number of previous (folkloric) works, but nevertheless exists in our culture as a unique piece of its own. So, the question is, would Hinds’ Merchant of Venice (or for that matter one of those GN retellings of classic novels published by Graphic Revolve) would be eligible for the Newbery.

    I don’t have a particular stake in this issue–just curious how we are to define “retelling” and “traditional literature.” Does something become traditional if it becomes old enough? (If so, please note that Grimms=1800s, Shax=1500s, Homer=300-600 BC). Or does it become traditional once it’s been retold a certain amount of times? Just how different from the sources does it have to be to become a “retelling”? I don’t have a clue as to the answers of any of these questions. Perhaps those of you have been on the Newbery committee have insights?

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mark, those are good questions, but I cannot answer them. Each committee has to wrestle with these issues on an annual basis (and different committees make different decisions on different books). If this committee looked at THE ODYSSEY, I imagine this question may have been asked of the chair, who in consultation with the priority consultant and possibly also the executive board, may have made a final ruling. Of course, if nobody on the committee even suggested it (let alone nominated it), then it’s all a moot point. All I can say for sure is that some committees have found examples of traditional literature . . . whatever that may be.

  10. Mark Flowers says:

    Thanks for the info Jonathan – I’d really love to be able to listen in on those discussions :)

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