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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Can Mythology or Folklore Win the Newbery Medal?

Every once in a blue moon the Newbery committee recognizes a work of mythology or folklore.  Don’t hold your breath, though, as the last book recognized was IN THE BEGINNING by Virginia Hamilton (1989), and before that WHEN SHLEMIEL WENT TO WARSAW (1969) and ZLATEH THE GOAT (1967), both by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  THE WHITE STAG by Kate Seredy did win the Newbery Medal, but that was way back in 1936.  It’s so rare that most people probably don’t even realize these genres are eligible, but the criteria state that–

 ”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.

If the committee feels so inclined there are a couple of distinguished books to consider from these genres this year.

ehrlich 206x300 Can Mythology or Folklore Win the Newbery Medal?WITH A MIGHTY HAND by Amy Ehrlich is a retelling of the Torah, what Christians know as the first five books of the Old Testament.  Ehrlich has crafted a wonderful free verse version that focuses more on the story and less on the law.

At the beginning, the earth was wild and empty, with darkness

sweeping over the water.

God said, “Let there be light!”  And there was light.

Then God separated the light from the darkness.

God called the light Day.  And the darkness He called Night.

Evening came and morning–the first day.

The decision to render this narrative in free verse is an inspired choice, mirroring the decision to parse out the story from the scripture.  It’s like all the excess fat has been trimmed, both literally and figuratively.  I’ve read these stories numerous times in the King James Version of the Bible, and I’m in love with that stylistic language, and don’t take well to the absence of it, but surprisingly the language here works for me.  Occasionally, I felt like the story had been interpreted to remove the ambiguity, however.  The rape of Dinah, for example, which has historically been called that to justify her brothers’ actions doesn’t read that way to me.  Or the whole cryptic affair between Noah, Ham, and Canaan–the alleged incest and the resulting curse on the grandson.  There may be some differences between Jewish and Christian sources that may account for some of this, but I’m skeptical.  It’s not enough to dampen my enthusiasm for the book, though.

An interesting aside: I’m not sure whether the Caldecott committee will consider this an illustrated book rather than a picture book (probably), but I think the artistic choices in the book are quite interesting, especially in the subversion of the symbolic use of color.  We not only have very dark-skinned Israelites–they neither look Mediterranean nor African, but something in between, perhaps even Arabic–but there’s the depiction of the angelic messengers clothed not in traditional white, but black.  This is the kind of book Betsy Bird wanted THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT to be.

napoli1 238x300 Can Mythology or Folklore Win the Newbery Medal?TREASURY OF EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY by Donna Jo Napoli is a companion volume to her earlier book, TREASURY OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY, that I praised on this blog a couple of years ago.

In the beginning, before there was time, water spread in every direction, though there was no direction really because there was no up, no down; no east, no west; no inside, no outside. This water lay cold and colorless.  A wet nothingness that hummed nnnnnnnun.  Nun, nun.  This was the cosmos, hardly more than empty chaos.  There was but a single entity, so there was no question of order: The cosmos was ordered perforce.   The order of a dot, a circle, a sphere, without beginning or end.  Utter consistency.  Perfect order.

You can see from this opening paragraph that Napoli has crafted a tone that is, at once, colloquial and inviting, on the one hand, and yet retains that stylized mythic quality, on the other.  The Greek myths come from a relatively few number of sources, but Napoli really had her work cut out for her here, tracking down various sources from which to cobble this impressive collection.  Note to publishers: Dare we hope for TREASURY OF NORSE MYTHOLOGY?  Please?

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. marjorie says:

    “Occasionally, I felt like the story had been interpreted to remove the ambiguity, however” — that was my big issue with this book. Made it a non-starter for me.

    • Lisa Silverman says:

      This month’s (December) SLJ contains my letter to the editor concerning this book and there is a response from the reviewer of the book also. My concerns were about the choice of using the word “Yahweh” for God’s name, because the Jewish religion does not practice this, and in fact, it is forbidden. I don’t think you can see the letters to the editor online, but basically, I am stating that I cannot use this book in my Jewish day school, because, in fact, it is unfortunately offensive to many Jews. Author Amy Ehrlich addresses this issue in her end-notes in the book, but she clearly decided not to use the normative terms, “Adonai”, “Elohim”, or “God”. Just saying or reading “Yahweh” is a Christian usage, (and a big no-no for Jews), and that is why it saddened me that I could not buy this book for my school.

      • Joseph Miller says:

        An interesting aside: The Catholic Church doesn’t promote the pronunciation of God’s name either, instead using the ancient practice of substitution. All the Christian hymns and prayers mentioning God’s name have replace it with something else, such as Lord.

  2. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Both WITH A MIGHTY HAND and TREASURY OF EGYPTIAN MYTHOLOGY made the Kirkus Best Books lists. With Booklist Editors’ Choice out, here’s how things stand.

    five lists–

    MR. TIGER GOES WILD
    LOCOMOTIVE
    ELEANOR & PARK
    P.S. BE ELEVEN
    BOXERS/SAINTS
    THE THING ABOUT LUCK

    four lists–

    MR. WUFFLES
    MARCH
    IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE
    THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE
    PARROTS OVER PUERTO RICO
    DOLL BONES
    FLORA & ULYSSES
    FAR FAR AWAY
    ON A BEAM OF LIGHT

    three lists–

    THE DARK
    REALITY BOY
    ROSE UNDER FIRE
    BLUFFTON
    JOURNEY
    ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME
    FLORA & FLAMINGO
    PENNY AND HER MARBLE
    THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER
    A CORNER OF WHITE
    WINGER
    MIDWINTERBLOOD
    THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP
    JINX
    EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION
    A SPLASH OF RED
    PICTURE ME GONE
    COURAGE HAS NO COLOR
    BECOMING BEN FRANKLIN
    HOW TO CATCH A BOGLE
    NAVIGATING EARLY

    two lists–

    THE WAR WITHIN THESE WALLS
    LITTLE RED WRITING
    THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN
    MORE THAN THIS
    DREAM THIEVES
    SEX & VIOLENCE
    SERAFINA’S PROMISE
    SCALY SPOTTED FEATHERED FRILLED
    BUILDING OUR HOUSE
    LOOK UP!
    THE GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL
    HAVE YOU SEEN MY NEW BLUE SOCKS?
    MAD POTTER
    GO: A KIDD’S GUIDE TO GRAPHIC DESIGN
    DIEGO RIVERA
    COUNTING BY 7s
    GHOST HAWK
    THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH
    THE ANIMAL BOOK
    ROOFTOPPERS
    EARTH GIRL
    SEPTEMBER GIRLS
    YAQUI DELAGO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS
    DARIUS & TWIG

  3. fairrosa says:

    Will there be a separate new entry to discuss With a Mighty Hand now that it’s on the final discussions list?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      I’ll leave that to Jonathan…but will invite everyone to let us know which other titles they’d like to see discussed. Thanks!

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Roxanne, when you say it made the final discussion list, you’re talking about Notables, right? I’m not sure we have enough people interested in it to justify another post, so why don’t we just use this one. I can see from your recent blog entry that you did not care for it, but I will say that these stories much like folktales really don’t have lessons, or perhaps what I should say is that you can spin them a dozen different ways to make your own lessons. If you feel the stories aren’t rich enough then perhaps that is a failing on Ehrlich’s part.

    • fairrosa says:

      For some reason I had the impression that there is a “final group of books” to be discussed and With A Mighty Hand is on it. I’m mistaken.

      Jonathan, I actually think the stories are quite rich. And very powerful because of the way Ehrlich selected the details — she created an immediacy that reading the original text (translated, albeit) does not have. I’m more questioning how these stories are meant to be perceived by young people — perhaps as young as 8 years old, right? IF that’s the case, then, what will these young readers take away (as lessons? messages? notions? ideas?) from passages that proclaim one must strike down (to the death) others who are non-believers of this particular God or that no matter how a person acts, his fate (reward or punishment) pretty much depends on whether he happens to be the pre-selected one by a fairly precarious God.

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