A Yiddishe troll fighter

There’s a new Jewish role model in town, and her name’s Mirka.

Barry Deutch author, illustrator 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Barry Deutch author, illustrator 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How many troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox girls live in your neighborhood? If Barry Deutsch, author and illustrator of a new graphic novel, Hereville, has his way, one may be moving in very soon.
Hereville, subtitled “How Mirka Got Her Sword” (Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams), is an out-ofthe- ordinary new kid on the block for young readers – the book features a traditional Jewish milieu and its star is a girl.
Within the pages of the book’s well designed comics format, Deutsch introduces unexpected protagonist Mirka Hirschberg who wants to fight dragons.
She’s a headstrong young adventurer who lives an Orthodox life in a most unorthodox way.
Mirka lives in a brown and blue toned world filled with fantasy. There’s a town witch, a talking pig and a calculating troll, as well as everyday figures just as perplexing and difficult to charm: bullies, doubting siblings and a stepmother who has never lost an argument.
Stirring things up from page one on is Fruma, Mirka’s stepmother, who much to her reluctant stepdaughter’s dismay, wants her to learn “womanly arts, like knitting.” In fact the book’s cover has Mirka standing triumphantly on a giant floating ball of yarn.
“There’s more knitting involved than the average comic book,” admitted Deutsch half seriously in a recent interview. Yet Mirka’s dreams are of wielding a sword, not knitting needles.
She begins her quest for a sword in a world close yet far away from ours, the village of Hereville. Its name, taken from the Yiddish aher or here, suggests a place of today. But through Deutsch’s hand we are welcomed to a place that is oddly anachronistic – no cars, computers or TV – and just insular and wooded enough, just far enough off the expected path that anything can happen.
“I wanted to do a fairy tale where the protagonist wanders into the deep woods,” said Deutsch, who lives in Portland, Oregon. “It’s hard to do that if the story is set in Brooklyn.”
“I wanted to remake St. George and the dragon with a Jew as protagonist,” he said.
DEUTSCH, WHO is Jewish but did not grow up in an Orthodox home, went to great lengths to create a convincing picture of traditional Jewish life.
It’s not simply the ankle-length dress or the hats and hairstyles that he captures, but the currents of an Orthodox household. In Hereville, witches float in air, and pigs may argue, but when it comes time for Shabbat, all thoughts of trolls cease and a different magic takes over.
In a two-page spread illustrating the beginnings of Shabbat in Mirka’s home, Deutsch shows coins dropping into the pushke, a glowing match, the blessing being said over the candles and Mirka, via the fragrance of freshly baked bread, becoming one with a twisted halla.
For background Deutsch read Holy Days by Liz Harris, which chronicles the time the author spent with a Lubavitcher family in Brooklyn. “The book stuck with me,” Deutsch said.
For instance, in one panel Deutsch shows that Orthodox day school dress for girls is not as uniform as one might think. There’s a “rebel girl” with “two buttons open” (until a teacher objects), a “frum girl” with a shirt “always tucked in” and a “popular girl” with “a pretty belt and one button open.”
Adding to Deutsch’s search for accuracy was the original version of his book that was (and still is) available online at http://www.hereville.com/webcomic/.
“There were a number of Orthodox readers who let me know when I got things right or wrong,” he said.
For Hereville, Deutsch was able to draw from his own life. To illustrate a panel that shows Fruma readying for Shabbat, for reference he used a photo of his mother lighting Shabbat candles.
“I wanted the reader to find out about a world that’s different than their own,” he said.
IF THE judgment of the Association of Jewish Libraries is any indicator, Deutsch has succeeded in that quest. In January, it gave Hereville the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award, given to “outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.”
“The book is not in the least bit preachy,” said Heidi Estrin, presidentelect of the AJL, who is a librarian at Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida. “It’s so unusual. It’s not trying to teach a lesson.”
One educational aspect of Hereville, however, is Deutsch’s introduction of Yiddish words and expressions into the dialogue.
In what must be first for Jewish fiction for any age, the book has a scene in which Mirka finds herself in a wild confrontation with a vengeful talking pig.
“A klog iz mir,” she says to herself. The translation is supplied at the bottom of the page: “Woe is me!” A reader will also be introduced to other Yiddish words like, “dreykop,” “cheater,” especially useful if you ever have a battle of wits with a troll, and “pakhdns,” “cowards,” if ever you need a retort when confronted with bullies.
“My Yiddish is improving,” said Deutsch, who plans on including more Yiddish vocabulary in the next two installments of the series.
Estrin, who pointed out that Hereville has also been nominated for a young adult science fiction and fantasy award – the Andre Norton Award, given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association of America – feels that it will see sales outside the Jewish audience. “It’s a crossover book,” she said.
Within the Jewish publishing community, Hereville will need to find its place alongside the popular offerings of Targum and Feldheim, which publish titles popular with Orthodox preteens and teens.
The Jewish graphic novel is a publishing niche that has already seen success with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Ben Katchor’s The Jew of New York and Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat. Perhaps the earliest contributor to the form was Will Eisner, who, already famous for his The Spirit comic books, in 1978 published a graphic novel set in the 1930s Bronx, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.
In a turn of Jewish comic book from generation to generation, Deutsch, while studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, took a comics class with Eisner. “My appreciation for his work has only grown,” he said.
BESIDES GARNERING the acclaim of Jewish librarians, how is Hereville being received? Considering it’s a graphic novel whose main character is not only a girl but also religious, might that prove a problem for some younger readers? “I think Mirka is cool and very different,” said Naomi Shapiro, 14 who attends the Agnon Day School outside of Cleveland, Ohio. She said this was her first graphic novel. “I read it in one day and really liked it. I would definitely give it to a friend.”
Ethan Cummins, who is in sixth grade at Hillel Torah Day School in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, was a bit more restrained. “It’s not the type of book I usually like,” he said. “But it was okay. I liked the illustrator.”
As for the main character being a girl? “It didn’t make any difference,” answered Cummins, whose favorite character was the stepmother Fruma, “because of her arguing.”
“I think that the book’s approach to argument fits in with a long Jewish tradition going back to the Talmud,” said Deutsch. “And what Mirka ends up learning from her stepmother is important.
“Working on Hereville has given me a deeper appreciation of my own culture. Secular Jews have to find their own ways of being Jewish. Hereville has increased my feelings of connection.”