Here’s an example of perfect symmetry in a graphic novel. Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (words and images by Barry Deutsch, with colors by Jake Richmond) begins with Mirka arguing about knitting, and it ends with Mirka arguing about knitting. As it turns out, the ability to argue about knitting can literally save a person’s life. The book’s not even about knitting—it really is about how 11-year-old Mirka gets her sword, with which she wishes to kill dragons—but it’s also about balance, and this story is put together with exquisite balance.
But what do 11-year-olds care about balance? It’s also a smashing modern-day fairy tale, complete with a witch (probably not wicked, possibly of ambiguous ethics), a talking pig (seemingly wicked, but probably just has anger management issues), and a boss monster to be defeated for fabulous reward (troll, likely evil, but lawful evil). Plus, the story talks about bullies, ghosts, homework, and step-families, subjects of great importance and interest to kids.
In one sense, Mirka is a familiar modern protagonist, determined, impulsive, unconstrained by traditional notions of gender, just like Katniss or Princess Anna. She dreams of slaying dragons, and so she dreams of the sword she’ll need for her life’s work. In reality, she stands up to bullies and reasons her way out of difficulties, although her reasoning can reflect her lack of experience.
She’s flawed, too, fighting her siblings when they try to keep her out of trouble. Fighting everyone, really. Mirka really likes to argue. She has a certain genius for arguing, which serves her well, and irritates everyone around her. She doesn’t want to do chores, but she knows chores have to be done. She doesn’t intend to break the rules, unless the rules get in the way of what she really, really wants. In other words, she’s the hero of a fantasy story for kids.
But Mirka is also something that we’ve never seen in speculative fiction’s leading ladies, and that is Orthodox Jewish. Hereville is a town of Orthodox Jews, and the only characters who don’t seem to be Jewish are the witch, the pig, and the troll. So Mirka’s religious upbringing dictates some aspects of her story. For example, Mirka doesn’t even know what a pig is, pigs being unfit for consumption under Jewish law and otherwise nonexistent in Hereville. Eight pages in the middle of the story are occupied with the preparation for and celebration of the Sabbath, and various details, such as the discussion of matchmakers, gender segregation, and hats, may seem foreign (but hopefully interesting) to modern secular kids. The author, Barry Deutsch, also sprinkles a fair amount of Yiddish throughout the text, with footnotes providing fast translation.
Ultimately, though, I think young readers will still identify with Mirka, accepting that she’s like them, and possibly that her community is like theirs. Even if the rules are different, there are still rules, and kids can still bristle under them, and find reasons and ways to break them. Unlike many fictions about religious children, Hereville never gets preachy about its convictions. Mirka is no paragon of devotion. The narrator even tells us, “It’s not that Mirka was an especially chassidishe (religiously observant) girl,” and shows us that, in Mirka’s school, there are “pious” girls, “rebel” girls, and “popular girls.” If Mirka ever once considers God’s plan for her, it’s only in the context of using that information to further her own argument. Submitting to anyone’s will, even a divine being’s, is not part of her plan.
Rather than bogging down the narrative with unnecessary incidences of religion, the story provides just those details that relate to Mirka’s experience, and, by extension, can be understood by it readers in a more universal sense. We don’t all have the experience of pre-tearing toilet paper in advance of a holy day, but most of us know what it’s like to be part of a family and have a role to play in preparing for a family event.
Orthodox Judaism, of the type that is rarely understood, let alone witnessed by outsiders, is just a backdrop. In the foreground, we have this girl—headstrong, precocious, pugnacious—tearing her way through life. She wins some; she loses some. Mostly she wins where it’s important. Mostly she loses when she’s in the wrong.
Argument is an integral part of Jewish culture, which tends to astonish outsiders raised to keep unpopular opinions to themselves, but in Mirka’s world, the ability to argue with precision, wit, creativity, and passion is the hallmark of the winner. It’s a skill taught in the home. Mirka’s stepmother, Fruma, is actually the master, allowing her to parent a blended family of eleven children with precision. And while Mirka may grumble, “That woman cannot resist an argument,” she uses Fruma’s tendencies to her own advantage. More importantly, from Fruma she learns how to argue both sides of an issue, and therefore, to begin seeing from others’ perspectives, even if she’s more apt to forget that ability when it interferes with her own will.
So, here we have a charming story about a girl who breaks the rules, argues verbally, fights physically, and turns stereotypes about reluctant heroes and Orthodox Jews on their ears. Nothing in Hereville is what you expect, unless you expect to read a well-crafted graphic novel with all-ages appeal, set in a world where, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There are three books so far in the Hereville series, and I’m told they just keep getting better. Grab your favorite young reader, head to Hereville, and find out how Mirka gets that sword.