It is baby season in my life. In three years, I've acquired a nephew, a niece, an awesome little girl I consider a niece, and a plethora of pregnant or newly-parenting friends. Coincidentally, I've also started paying attention to kids' books again, and I've noticed something about them that hadn't really occurred to me before—children's books seldom do a good job of taking readers outside their own culture. Sure, there are plenty of stories set in worlds of imagination. And plenty of earnest, training wheel non-fiction that explicitly tells kids about life in other parts of the world. But it's both rare to see (and difficult to do) a fiction story, set outside of mainstream, middle-class culture. Even more rare is a story that pulls off that feat as smoothly and magically as Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, a graphic novel about childhood adventure set in an Orthodox Jewish community somewhere in the United States.
Written and drawn by cartoonist and political blogger Barry Deutsch, How Mirka Got Her Sword is not, strictly speaking, a children's book. Grown-ups will enjoy it, whether or not they're reading it to kids. It is, however, exactly the kind of story I would have loved as a child: All about a clever and brave little girl, who bests a troll in a battle of wits and wins her dream MacGuffin—a sword that will help her fight dragons.
What's more, Mirka is the type of character that six-year-old me would have called "for real." Too often, the heroines of children's books are too Good for their own good. It drove me crazy as a hyperactive, messy, rule-breaking little girl to be presented with story after story in which the girl was the one who was always tidy, who worried about whether the heroes were doing something wrong, or who simply seemed to have no flaws at all. Mirka isn't like that. On the way to greatness, she is dangerously impulsive, lies to her parents, is cruel to the younger brother she loves, and generally makes the kind of mistakes that real kids make. And she learns from those mistakes in a "for real", non-saccharine way.
As an adult, though, I really appreciate that this character exists not in a suburb, gentrified urban enclave, or idealized small town—but in Hereville, a place completely outside my personal experience. Mirka and her family don't dress like most Americans. It's made clear that she speaks Yiddish, not English. And there's a whole section where Mirka sets aside her quest for the experience of the Sabbath. And, rather than feeling like a lesson in multiculturalism, all of this comes across as a simple slice of life. Deutsch drops us into Mirka's world. He explains that world when necessary. But there's no coddling of the reader, and no gape-mouthed pointing or exotification of Mirka.
And no stereotyping, either. In other hands, this could have turned into a story about a strong young woman struggling to fit in in a world that doesn't allow strong women. Instead, it's about a strong young woman who happens to be religious and wear religiously dictated "modest" dress, but whose story and central struggle aren't strictly defined by those things. This is the kind of story that I think of as truly feminist. It passes the Bechdel Test with aplomb. It presents little girls with options beyond "love interest", "the token", or "the responsible sidekick". It shows people as people, not as "MEN" and "WOMEN". But it's not about Feminism. And it takes place in a world that I suspect most people would consider actively anti-feminist. That's part of it's charm. The "for real" world isn't black and white. Deutsch allows Mirka to be a real person. And he allows her community to be every bit as real and layered—both flawed and loved. I sincerely hope that the colon in the title means that we'll be seeing more of both Mirka and Hereville in the future.
Read the full webcomic that the book is based on.