Two books, one local, “Taylor-made” for awards

“Gathering Sparks” written by Howard Schwartz and illustrated by Kristina Swarner.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Two absolutely terrific books, “Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword,” a highly original graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, and “Gathering Sparks,” by acclaimed local author, poet and editor Howard Schwartz and illustrated by Kristina Swarner, were among the winners of this year’s Sydney Taylor Book Awards given by the Association of Jewish Libraries. The two books get high marks from both storytelling and artistic points of view.

“Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword” (Amulet Books/Abrams, $15.95) combines the irony of Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) with the energy of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, the Arthurian legends, Harry Potter and a Chagall-like, very Jewish folkloristic perspective. The unique hero is Mirka Hirschberg, an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl, “who doesn’t like to be told “no.” Like a Jewish Cinderella, Mirka has a stepmother, Fruma, who is not “wicked,” but whose teaching Mirka the “womanly arts” is overbearing in a comical way. Mirka has no real objections to being an Orthodox Jewish woman-to- be, but she longs for the kinds of adventures that would seldom cross the mind of most young girls of any age or ethnicity: she wants to find and slay dragons. She becomes bored with her knitting lessons from the pointy-nosed Fruma and impatient with the unwelcome courtship advice from her sisters Rachel and Gittel, or the obnoxious, “you’d better not” warnings from her brother Zindel.

Adding to the quirky melodrama which the spunky, take-no-prisoners Mirka moves through is her eventual adoption of a pig as her trusted pet. Mirka and the pig “meet cute,” and take turns rescuing each other. When Mirka is set upon by two shtetl bullies, she protects both herself and the pig from their assaults. Note: as long as a kosher-keeping Jew does not consume the porky flesh of a pig, there is no halachic prohibition against owning a pig or adopting one as a pet.

Author-illustrator Barry Deutsch brings solid artistic credentials to this brilliantly original book, which is designed for younger readers and fans of the Harry Potter series as well as those seeking a Jewish young woman who can slay dragons and stereotypes.

“Gathering Sparks” (Roaring Book Press, $16.99) brings together the storytelling genius of Howard Schwartz, professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and award- winning artist Kristina Swarner. Like Schwartz, Swarner has also received numerous major book awards for her work.

“Gathering Sparks” is Schwartz’s twelfth children’s book, and it is based on 16-century Jewish teaching about repairing the world. Schwartz deploys his considerable skills as a master-storyteller in “Gathering Sparks,” which begins with a beautifully depicted visit by a grandfather to his grandson. The two go outside on a night when “the moon was full and the sky was filled with stars.” The grandfather and grandson “went out into the yard, where fireflies lit up the dark and crickets chirped with all their might.” Noticing that the sky was “crowded with stars,” the grandson asks, “Where did all the stars come from?”

The grandfather shares a poignant legend, based on the Hasidic teaching of the scattering of God’s divine sparks. “Long ago, the grandfather says, “before the world was created, God sent forth 10 vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light.” The scene is splendidly depicted by illustrator Swarner, with grandfather and grandson lying on the cool green glass, gazing up at a sky ablaze with stars. The grandfather’s spin on the ancient teaching of the shattered vessels containing the divine sparks, is that the vessels were the fleet of ships sent forth by God. “If those vessels had reached their destination, the world would have been perfect. But the further they traveled, the more fragile they became.” When the vessels shattered, the divine sparks were scattered across the sky, “sparks of light throughout the heavens. And that is how the stars came into being.” Against the backdrop of an endless sky filled with countless stars, the grandfather tells his grandson that the lad has a role in gathering those sparks once again. “But how can sparks be gathered?” he asks. The wise grandfather answers, “Every time you do a good deed, one of the sparks is set free. When you plant a tree, a spark rises up. When you help your baby sister, a spark can be seen in her eyes.”

Later in the story, when the grandfather gathers up his grateful grandson and carries him inside to a warm bed, the boy opens his eyes to see “sparks glowing everywhere.” This book is perfect for bedtime reading to grandchildren. This writer has tested it on his in-town grandkids and it works beautifully.