Mirka, a New Jewish Heroine
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. Story and illustrations by Barry Deutsch.
(Amulet Books, 142 pp. $15.95)
This graphic novel for tweens of all ages—winner of the 2011 Sydney Taylor Book Award and nominated for an Eisner Award—is iconoclastic. After all, who ever heard of “a troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl”?
Unusual for her God-fearing family, Mirka is more interested in fighting dragons than in learning to knit. So when her long-nosed, head-kerchiefed stepmother, Fruma, insists she perfect her knitting so that one day she will be a proper married woman, Mirka logically, if cheekily, responds: IfHashem preordains everything, it is not her fault if she drops stitches.
Which is what makes Herevilleso refreshing. It is a loving portrayal of frumkeit (strict religious observance). Footnotes explain Yiddish terms (Nebs: losers) or halakha (Negiah: rules forbidding contact between unrelated females and males). This level of detail helps readers unfamiliar with religious concepts to understand this fun book. But author Barry Deutsch is also unafraid of exposing bad behavior in a sometimes idealized community: He portrays young black-hatted, tzitzis-wearing boys as bullies.
Mirka is an imaginative free spirit, but her family (she has nine siblings) thinks she is a weirdo who is ruining its reputation. Mirka has unconventional adventures—reading forbidden books about monsters, battling a fat pig, meeting with a witch and, finally, challenging a troll for a sword.
Herevilleoffers lessons about bullying and self-protection, finding love, understanding, comfort and meaning in one’s family and traditions. One of the sweetest illustrations is that of Mirka smelling the baking halla, when she imagines herself basking atop the delicious rounded loaf.
Jake Richmond did a fantastic job on the book’s colors. Most of the pages are framed in rich salmon, with figures dressed in black and white or shades of muted brown and tan. The other dominant color is purple, which frames action that takes place at night.
You have got to love a book in which the quest to kill a troll is interrupted for Shabbos.