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.
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.
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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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 email@example.com
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