What this blog’s about:

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bookplate by Edward Ardizzone

Life is a journey fraught with distractions, detours, and setbacks.  Sometimes we can hardly imagine where we’re going, hardly remember where we’ve been.  This blog is my place to share the bright bits I’ve found on my journey. 

A life of reading and looking at art has helped me cultivate a sense of wonder.  Here’s  where I offer many reviews of illustrated and art books for all ages, including lots of children’s books (where some of our best artists are working.)  I focus on books that belong in print — that you can hold in your hands, flip through, and return to again and again.

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the crowded desk of dreams

I love going to art galleries and also finding art in unexpected places.  I share links of interesting websites I’ve found. 

I share insights from my lifelong writing and drawing practice which has helped me get a handle on my slippery identity.

This is also my place to share my musings on living in the intentional community Bridge Meadows, a multi-generational community in Portland, Oregon, that helps families adopt children out of the foster care system. 

So, welcome.  

Your insights and stories are part of this conversation.  Please feel free to join in.  

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~~Joy Corcoran

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Marie’s Atlas by Sophia Wood

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There are so many fantasy novels being written for middle grade and young adult readers that have dystopian themes, that I generally avoid them.  I was intrigued, however by Marie’s Atlas, by Sophia Estelle Wood, a book that promised “mathematical wits and a virtuous character.”  Plus, I admit, I loved the cover.

Marie is the only daughter of scientists who work on archeological digs.  She’s a brilliant girl, in love with math, puzzles, and nature.  Her parents move around from project to project so Marie is a loner and home-schooled.  In Marie’s Atlas, her parents are working in a desert.  Marie has always helped out when her parents find “puzzles” that can’t be solved:

“When she was three years old her mother found her in the closet with a box of unidentified bone fragments that the team had given up on.  Marie had fully assembled the fragments into bones with preschool glue.  Everyone was so amazed that they started to give her some of the difficult pieces to see if she could make sense of them.  Every single puzzle (or “job”) was solved with her nimble fingers, acute mind, and peaceful patience.  From that time on, Marie’s nickname was “Arti,” which was short for “Bone Articulator.”  Instead of having to hire someone to piece fragments together, Marie had filled the position at a young age to formulate ancient creatures’ bones into coherent structures.”

The novel opens with her biggest job yet.  Her parents have found a mysterious box, an impossible artifact from the era they are studying.  Inside it are 987 pieces that all look identical.

“Marie was a girl of exceptional sensory perception.  It was both a blessing and a curse.  At times it seemed like noises, light, or people could be overwhelming.  Other times a texture, taste, or sound could be complete serenity.   Sitting in the quiet of her room, feeling dime-sized pieces of bone and thinking through the textures, colors, and shapes was a time of serenity, a time of peace.”

What she discovers is that the 987 pieces equal a Fibonacci number.

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Marie is able to put together the pieces and finds herself in possession of an enchanted egg.  It releases the power of the entity Atlas who bestows wings upon Marie, and demands she take a quest on which the fate of a whole universe depends.

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Her adventures and victories depend not only on her mathematical prowess, but also on virtues including cooperation, courage, detachment, peace and trust.

The adventures are engaging and the story is compelling.  Worlds depend on the way Marie makes her way through her adventure.  The narration includes what could have happened if Marie had not solved the problems laid before her, but the story doesn’t dwell in despair.  It underscores how using her intelligence and instinct, Marie can conquer whatever challenges lay ahead of her.  She must also learn to trust Atlas, and the personality that emerges from their union.  To me it read like a metaphor for learning to trust one’s self, and the inner guides or intuition we’re all born with.

 

When I finished reading this, I found out the sequel had just become available.  In Cosmos Ignites, Marie and Atlas meet at the ocean and they must take on more tests of character, as well as put to use Marie’s knowledge of fractals, physics, and chemistry.

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Meteor pieces with mysterious chemical properties has been discovered in the ocean.  When Marie sees them, she feels the presence of Atlas within them.  After figuring out how they all fit together, Atlas arrives and the magic begins again.

“She felt her body turn into a beam of particles and shoot across space and time….  She opened her eyes as she reconstituted and realized that she was completely submerged in water.  Marie had to adjust to not breathing air.”

She and Atlas merge together as the personality Cosmos and are on a mission with 3 compass coins that become tattoos on Marie’s arm.  She must figure out the meaning and use of elements through riddles and pass 5 tests of virtue.

The adventure is taken with grace, humor and suspense.

Both of these books are compelling and would be excellent reads for those interested in mathematical theories, and for those who are pretty sure most math is useless in their lives.  While none of us will go on adventures as dramatic as Marie’s trials, the books integrate math, physics, and chemistry into the story in a way that makes her knowledge exciting and enviable.

Not quite practical math, it’s more like fantastical math that adds the element of play that most mathematical teaching doesn’t have.  Maybe we should coin a word like “mathmagical” for it.  I know I learned a lot and enjoyed the fascinating stories, as well as the charming illustrations.

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Sophia Estelle Wood is an author and artist in Salem, Oregon. She has a passion for creativity, mathematics, photography, and art. She ties in her experiences as an engineer, mathematician, artist, and children’s virtue educator into her work. Her goal is to produce educational and character enriching content for her readers.   The website for her books is here.  They are available both in print and as ebooks.

Thanks for reading my blog and may you have a mathmagical day.

 

 

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How to watercolor: In under 3 mins.

Great little video here from Danny Gregory on Felix Scheinberger’s watercolor technique that takes the fear out of it. Follow Danny Gregory’s blog for great tips on art and introductions to Sketchbook Skool:

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People often ask me, “Oooh, you use watercolors! Isn’t that really hard?” Short answer: No, silly. Slightly longer (2:40) answer: watch this video from Felix Scheinberger.

He lays out all you need to know succinctly and clearly. And in German! And it ends with him putting a flame to his painting!

Felix, BTW, is one of the world’s greatest masters of watercoloring. And even though he gives you all the basics in this video, he has sooo much more to teach. It took me over a year to get him, but now he’s finally on the fakulty at Sketchbook Skool. Starting tomorrow!

We have a few seats left but enrollment ends on Friday. Get a brush, some paints, and join us!

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How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness by Toni Bernhard

Earlier this year I served for a month on a grand jury.  A grand jury hears cases presented by city prosecutors to see if there’s really enough evidence to go forward with prosecution.  I heard close to 100 cases in 30 days.  Most of them were traffic violations, but we got some pretty hard violent crime cases, too.  And even the traffic violations were associated with addictions.

How to Wake UpOne of the hardest things about serving on a jury is the mandate to not talk about the cases to anyone.  Because I keep a journal and make art, I had a way of processing the sadness I felt over the human condition.  At the time, I was reading Toni Bernhard’s book How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.  After reading a particularly insightful passage, I made this entry into my journal, adding other bits of wisdom that helped keep me afloat:

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Bernhard began writing about chronic illness after she fell ill on a trip to Paris in 2001.  She was initially diagnosed with an acute viral infection.  Only she never got better.  So for approximately 15 years now, she’s had flu like symptoms, chronic fatigue/Myalgic Encephomyalitis, and is in bed for much of her life.  Before she got sick, she was a law professor at the University of California at Davis, and served as dean of students for 6 years.

She’d been practicing Buddhist since the early 1990s.

How to Wake Up was Bernhard’s second book.  Her first, How to be Sick, A BookCoverSmallbBuddhist Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, was published in 2010 and became one of my go-to books for helping me deal with a chronic illness that I’ve had since I was 16.

When I reviewed that book on my blog, I had the opportunity to email her and ask her if she felt that writing the book helped alleviate symptoms of her illness, since that is my experience with chronic pain:  She wrote:

“I wish I could say ‘yes’ but, unfortunately, unless I’m very disciplined and pace myself, it can make them worse…. That said, I find it so satisfying that I’m willing to feel worse sometimes in order to finish working on a piece that’s important to me. So, the act of creating is healing — to my spirit and my mind — but, unfortunately, not to my body!

So, I was delighted that she remained disciplined and has now come out with a third book, How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide.

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In the introduction, Making Peace with Life Upside Down, she writes:

“Many people think it’s somehow their fault when they become chronically ill.  They see it as a personal failing on their part.  We live in a culture that reinforces this view by bombarding us with messages about how, if we’d just eat this food or engage in that exercise, we need never worry about our health.  For many years, I thought that the skillful response to my illness was to mount a militant battle against it.  All I got for my effort was intense mental suffering – on top of the physical suffering I was already experiencing.

“The pivotal moment for me came when I realized that, although I couldn’t force my body to get better, I could heal my mind.  From that moment, I began the process of learning (to reference the title of my first book) “how to be sick,” by which I mean how to develop the skills for living purposefully despite the limitations imposed by chronic illness….

“I vividly remember the first moment when I accepted my life as it is – chronic illness included.  I felt a huge burden lift.  For the first time since I became sick, the conviction that I absolutely need to recover my health in order to ever be happy again was absent. 

“In the space created by that absence, I began writing about chronic illness.”

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness came at a great time for me, since I’m undergoing another major health transition.  Even with acceptance and mindfulness, I fall into deep despair at times.  I question everything I’ve ever done, from not exercising enough (even though when I started weakening I was riding my bike 10 miles a day), to not eating my spinach when I was kid.  Part of the despair comes from not having many real models for accepting the loss of my health.

Bernhard’s writings helps untangle all the feelings that surround chronic pain and illness.  In a chapter on letting go, she lists things not to do, including:

“Do not get hooked into believing you always have to ‘think positively.

“This is known in the counseling profession as the ‘tyranny of positive thinking.’  Are we never supposed to get frustrated or disheartened about out medical conditions?  That would be holding ourselves to an impossible standard.  People in excellent health get frustrated and disheartened at times about their lives, so of course, those of us who are chronically ill do too.  Our ‘unpositive thinking’ moods can be particularly intense, because they’re often triggered by stressful thoughts and emotions that arise because of our health problems. 

“I have days when I’m just plain weary of being sick.  I’ve come to think of this ‘unpositive thinking’ as a natural response to the relentlessness of chronic illness.  I don’t try to force myself into thinking positively at a moment like this.  I wait the feeling out, know that, like all feelings, it’s impermanent.  Some people even tell us that positive thinking can cure disease.  Although the mind and the body are interconnected, I do not believe that visualizing that we’re 100 percent healthy can cure chronic illness – although I’ve received dozens of emails trying to convince me otherwise.”

Sitting with and waiting out dark moods is an important and difficult skill to learn.  Our bodies are fragile and they will eventually break down completely.  There are countless things that can go wrong with anyone at any time.  And even if you’re already struggling with a chronic illness, you will have other things go wrong, too.  It’s hard not to resent that or wish for a better situation or feel that we’ve been singled out for unfair treatment.

How to Live Well offers support for those kinds of thoughts.  There is sorrow in life and we must honor and accept it.  But there are lots of ways of living more fully within the constraints of our situations.  When we accept the life we have, we open up to its opportunities.  There aren’t easy answers or promises of cures in this book, only guidance to live mindfully.  And guidance for treating yourself compassionately:

“… there’s that out-of-touch-with-reality expectation that you should be able to control what goes on in your mind.  Instead of getting impatient (that is, angry or upset) about unwelcome thoughts and emotions, you can work on holding them more lightly – sometimes even with a wry smile as you reflect on your mind’s seemingly nonstop unruliness.  Doing this is a compassionate response to what arises in your mind.”

My husband picked up this book, and about halfway through reading it, we began a great dialog on his feelings about being a caregiver, and how my illness impacts his life.  He ordered a copy for his sister, who, like many, is dealing with aging issues and feeling isolated.

How to Live Well provides gentle reminders to be compassionate to yourself and also to be aware of the measure of peace that resides within you, the space to create yourself and move forward with the life you have.

I highly recommend all of Toni Bernhard’s books.  Her “voice” is soothing and friendly, but not condescending.  Whether or not you’re a Buddhist (I’m not), the wisdom in these books is universal to anyone.  You can also read her blog, hosted by Psychology Today, Turning Straw Into Gold: Life Through a Buddhist Lens.

If you’d like to read my review of How to Be Sick, you can read it here.

Thanks for reading my blog and may you live your days to their fullest.

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Is it 2016 already?

001Who knew I’d be around in this strange and wondrous future?  It’s not quite what the Jetson’s predicted, but there’s a lot of technological and medical advances that I never could have imagined in the 1960s, when I was watching that cartoon.

Time is going by at an amazing pace, but because of what we can record and share, I can listen to any music ever recorded pretty much on demand.  I can read books that are out of print on the Gutenburg Project and other websites dedicated to preserving as much history and human culture as possible.  I can see art from all over the world.

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Time moves forward and backwards.  As I age, my memory strains to remember all it needs to.  Memories swirl around in a sequence all their own.  Regrets and delights from decades ago return in vivid loops.  More and more I feel the need to write these old memories down, to breathe life into them, to make stories of them.

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Blue Girl

I’ve been intimidated for a long time because my memory isn’t accurate at all.  I spent a lot my childhood lost in daydreams, creating an alternative world to the chaotic and abusive family life that was my reality.  For years, I had epilepsy, so my memory took another hit, electric currents knocking the edges and details off of my story.

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But this past year, I began working on the idea that my weaknesses may, in fact, be my strengths.  Without any faith in my memory, I can indulge my imagination.  The things I want to write about are based in my reality, but that reality is only a skeleton.  It’s my imagination that will flesh out those old bones.

Welcome November

This past year, I did a lot of writing.  I wrote every morning except when I was very ill or in a very foul mood. I also kept a visual journal that I carried around with me.  I filled 6 composition books with writing, and 7 visual journals:

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I completed a very very rough draft of a novel.

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I completed one short story which I’m submitting to rejection at various literary magazines.  I’ve drafted a few more stories, but have not finished revising them.

Revising is my goal for 2016.  I need to spend more time at the computer and less time in the notebooks.  I want to get the novel revised enough that others can read it and give feedback.  After that, I want to finish a short story a month.  (Working on short stories is a way to combat writer’s block with the novel.)

I don’t want to put my visual art – drawing, collage, painting – on the back burner.  I want to have two front burners.  We’ll see how it goes.

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I know that one of my biggest enemies is fear.  Fear and resistance are constant hindrances in my work.  I’m going to go back and read Art and Fear, and try to move through that.

I wonder if I’m setting unreasonable goals, but I don’t think so.  And if I have, I don’t care.  My firm New Year’s resolution is to be unreasonable and compulsive about my creative endeavors.

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I let so many things get in the way of what I want to do.  If I just focus on my artistic goals, treat them like a job, I might, in fact, reach them.  I feel that writing and art are important in everyone’s life.  You don’t have to have publications and art shows as goals.  Creating is its own reward.  It deepens your life and helps you process the confusion of this strange thing we call civilization.  It helps you define yourself – or at least realize that definitions are slippery and evolving things.

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Earlier in my life, though, sharing stories and art were main goals.  Life, finances, health changes, and fear have all gotten in the way of that.  For a while, I just told stories, but I kept being enchanted by the turn of a phrase, the metaphor of a story, the way a line is written.  I also need to tell stories in color, shapes and pictures.

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So here I am, ready to hatch dreams and send them flying out into the world.   I have to make the time to do the work – after that, whatever happens, is up to fate.

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Thanks to everyone for reading my blog and leaving great comments.  I hope this year brings you closer to your own goals and that you honor your stories every day.

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Charming Pop-Up Toy Book

Toys these days are so flashy and multi-faceted, I sometimes despair that children aren’t getting a chance to exercise their imaginations enough.  Children’s imaginations, however, are more resilient than I give them credit for.  I see they still can create whole worlds with boxes and paper.  However, I’m old enough to long for simpler times, simpler toys.  And I think it’s important to help spark their imaginations as much as possible.

Which is one reason I was delighted to find the book The Small World of Paper Toys, by Gerard Lo Monaco.  It’s a charming pop-up that captures the magic of toys that are powered by imagination.

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It’s beautifully put together.  It opens up from the landscape side and has the feel of a stage.

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The stage is set.

The left page serves as a backdrop for the pop-ups on the right page.  It’s got a little bit of a narrative.

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Fire!  Let’s put out the fire!  Nee-nah, the siren wails.  The brave fire fighters dive in.  Quick the big ladder is being deployed.

I love that the child showing us toys is a girl and she likes firetruck, boats, and doll carriages alike.

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ZZZ…My fireman is tired.  He’s earned his rest in the little cradle next to my doll.

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Tuff, tuff, tuff! What noise the motor makes!  Aboard my eight-speed tractor, I drive Stendhal the big sow to the pigsty.

 

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1, 2, 3, go: it’s a race!  Dog number 1 is the favorite, but the little black one turns out to be a real bullet.

There’s even a movable part where you help lumberjacks saw wood.  And a big mess in the child’s bedroom at the end of the day.

I’ve had such fun conversations after reading this with children about the toys I grew up with and the toys my mother saved from when she was a child.

This book is charming in every way and leads to a sense of nostalgia in the greatest sense of the word.  It’s a great gift to share with a child.   It’s beautifully designed with lots of clean white space so the colors pop.  Mine has been read by several eager children under five and it’s still in great shape.  I expect it to last for years.   It’s published by Little Gestalten, a company that publishes unique books from all over the world.

Here’s a video of the original French Version of the book, posted by the author/artist:

Gérard Lo Monaco is originally from Argentina, and now lives in France.  He was involved in the creation of a circus, a puppet-making company, and a wooden-horse merry-go-round—all of which toured throughout France.   He’s designed album covers and posters and has been awarded a prestigious prize from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris.

Thanks for reading my blog.  My favorite toy when I was under five was little pink pig I swaddled like a baby doll.  What was yours?

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Change Happens: Simona Ciraolo’s Whatever Happened to My Sister?

Childhood is filled with rapid and strange changes.  You’re growing, learning, and competing from the moment you arrive.  You form a bond with a sibling, and then that sibling grows and changes.  It seems you’ll never get a handle on it all.

The slippery nature of sibling relationships is explored in a charming and insightful picture book Whatever Happened to my Sister? by Simona Ciraolo, published by Flying Eye Books.

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It opens with a little girl puzzling over an album of family pictures showing an older and younger sister playing together.

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“I’d had my suspicions for a while that someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her.”

Now she’s stuck with a tall rude sister who never wants to play,

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isn’t interested in cute things,

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and is hanging out with boys.

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This is Ciraolo’s second book.  Her first, Hug Me, showed enormous but subtle sensitivity to the plight of a prickly character.  In this new book, she uses a minimalist narrative to tenderly explore a difficult passage in childhood.

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No, no, and no

My 7 year old friend Karishma was particularly interested in this book because Hug Me is one of her favorites, and because her sister just turned 13.  Karishma has two older sisters and a younger one, so the dynamics between sisters are very much a part of her life.

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The hardest part is that her older sister is no longer predictable.  And things aren’t going to return to the way they were.

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Whatever Happened to my Sister? doesn’t sugar coat the reality of change, but it celebrates the new ways that bonds between sisters can be formed.

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After reading the book, Karishma and I had a great discussion about how much she’s grown in the last year.  This year, she’s reading books to me and understanding more words and concepts.

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She’s taller.  Her relationship with her two year old sister has changed.  Change is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be scary.  Especially when you’ve got good stories to help you out along the way.

Whatever happened to my Sister? is drawn with warmth and charm.  Ciraolo uses a muted palette and expressive crayon lines.  As the story closes, everything brightens and you can almost hear the giggling between sisters.

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You can find out more about author/illustrator Ciraolo here.

And you can see more wonderful books published by Flying Eye here.

You can read Karishma’s and my review of Hug Me here.

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A beautifully bound book with great endpapers

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you like it, share it.

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Hereville is Where It’s At!

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I became aware of the delightful Hereville series by Barry Deutsch through my friend Adrian Wallace.  He drew the backgrounds for Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish, the 3rd book about “yet another 11-year-old time travelling Orthodox Jewish babysitter.”  Mirka is also a troll fighter and meteor conqueror, which is amazing in that she lives in a quiet sheltered Orthodox village.

When Adrian explained to me what it was about, I was intrigued.  When I read the first book, How Mirka Got Her Sword, I was totally hooked.  I read the second, How Mirka Met a Meteorite, and then had to wait for the third to come out. Now it’s here! I love Mirka’s story so much I really wish it was a weekly, or even, should I be so blessed, a daily strip.

Mirka is a feisty, flawed and highly imaginative 11 year old.  That she lives in a sheltered and devout community doesn’t keep her from being a universal character.  She lives in a blended family, with a step-mother and step-siblings.  Sometimes, she fits in.  Sometimes, not so much.  She’s strong-willed but her stepmother Fruma isn’t trying to break Mirka’s spirit so much as to keep focused on the skills she’ll need in life.

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There’s something wonderfully mysterious about Fruma and her support of Mirka, and as the story unfolds, that mystery deepens.  Deutsch is a gifted storyteller who creates adventures that are both original and hair-raising.  And it’s not sword play that gets dear Mirka out of trouble.  In each volume, you feel satisfied with the conclusions, but he’s planted seeds and tweaked curiosity.  You’ll want more.

The setting in an Orthodox community is brilliant.  Deutsch gives us lots of information on how the community works.  The Hirschberg family is large – 8 sisters and 1 brother.  There’s a lot of family dynamics to navigate.  There are bullies to dodge – or to challenge, which is what Mirka chooses.  When her imagination and ego fail her, magic intervenes, and, also, her devotion to Hashem.

In How Mirka Got Her Sword, she encounters real magic for the first time and must outwit – and out knit — a troll.  The key to victory is as surprising as it humorous.

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The first sign that all may not be Orthodox in Hereville

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Mirka is chased by a strange beast after “stealing” a grape

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Deutsch shows a bit of his creative process

 

In How Mirka Met a Meteorite, she unwittingly helps bring a meteorite to life as her twin, then must figure out how to be a better Mirka than her almost perfect impersonator.

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Mirka’s doppelganger has exiled her from her own house

In How Mirka Caught a Fish, published last month by Amulet Books, she faces her greatest challenge – babysitting.  One would think that would be easy enough for a girl who has triumphed over so many adversaries, but she takes her little sister into the forbidden woods and rouses the ire of a fish who is on a mission to bring down Mirka’s whole family.

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A bit of cultural info

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Deutsch can make magic with the simplest objects

 

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A lot is said without words

The artwork is crisp, expressive, and easy to fall into.  Layouts change and engage the reader.  The colors are warm, natural and inviting.  (Jake Richmond did the colors of all three books.)  You get a little more from the story with each re-read.

I think the most impressive thing about this series is that in its own circuitous way, it normalizes a way of life that may seem impenetrable to those of us who live outside it.  Though the adventures are fantastical, the characters seem real.  Their day to day life and the way they deal with each other shows the universal nature of family and community.  Both magic and the Orthodox belief system breathe life into Hereville and, all in all, it seems a wondrous place to live.

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In a world where we’re being fed fear of other cultures almost constantly, this a rare and delightful gift.

I can’t wait for the next one.

You can find Barry Deutch’s Hereville website here for more information on the series and where to buy the books.

You can find more of Adrian Wallace’s work here.

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you like it, consider sharing it.

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