Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Review of Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

If Neil Gaiman wants to make a concept picture book, he doesn’t exactly run into an argument from his publisher about how concept books aren’t that hot right now. Still, you might expect said concept book to be pretty dire, given Gaiman’s work as a horror/fantasy writer. Instead, his Blueberry Girl is warm and upbeat. I present it here as the mother-daughter counterpart to the mother-son book reviewed above, Mama Says. (Sorry, fathers, this just isn’t your year!)

According to the author, the book started out as a personal poem written for the soon-to-be-born daughter of a friend, singer Tori Amos. At that time, the child was affectionately being referred to as “the Blueberry.” Perhaps this explains the book’s intimacy, despite its universal themes and the depiction of more than one girl in Charles Vess’s illustrations. Gaiman recounts that people kept hearing about the poem and asking him for copies, and then Charles Vess saw it and liked it, and the two of put their heads together, deciding they could use it to raise money for causes protecting women and girls, and well—here’s the book!

Blueberry Girl is written as a prayer, but it isn’t addressed to a Judeo-Christian god. Instead it’s addressed to “Ladies of light and ladies of darkness and ladies of never-you-mind.” The illustrator has drawn three women in long robes who might be the Three Fates from Greek mythology, the Maiden-Mother-Crone triple goddess, or even the Queen of Faerie and a couple of her ladies.

Mind you, Gaiman doesn’t seem to be making a point so much as inhabiting his rightful fantasy milieu as he calls on the logical deity for blessing a small girl child. This is the world of metaphor, after all. The blessings themselves are a mixture of the thoughtful and the playful, beginning with “First, may you ladies be kind” (which encourages me to go with that Three Fates interpretation). The second blessing is from a fairy tale, a famous story about fairy gifts, no less: “Keep her from spindles and sleeps at sixteen....” Some of the blessings are more contemporary and long-sighted in nature: “Nightmares at three or bad husbands at thirty, these will not trouble her eyes. Dull days at forty, false friends at fifteen—let her have brave days and truth....” Having worked with high school students, I suspect a lot of girls could use protecting from “false friends at fifteen”!

From a poetry standpoint, the best language here is when the author names the Ladies, which he does two more times for a proper fairy tale thrice.

As lilting as the words, the illustrations show a hopeful girl skipping along treetops, riding an owl, or diving with whales. She is always moving forward, accompanied by a small parade of animals and birds. Framing art at the beginning and end show a woman in a blue dress, first very pregnant and then holding her baby. The art has a loose, Earth Mother sensibility which may strike some as granola-ish, but I hope the book is read by more traditional folks, as well. The joy conveyed by Blueberry Girl is worth sharing with mothers and daughters everywhere.

Now, if you really want a treat, also a preview of the book, watch this YouTube trailer and listen to Neil Gaiman reading the entire text. He has such a lovely, word-loving voice that you may feel a little funny reading Blueberry Girl aloud after hearing him! In case you also want to see more of Charles Vess’s art, go to his website, then scroll down and click on What’s Old: Recent Projects and Paintings.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this recommendation and the link to the trailer. It is beautiful. I think I passed up the book at Borders. I'll want to go back for another look, as the trailer doesn't give the chance to examine the pictures.

Candace Ryan said...

Sounds very intriguing, Kate. I'll have to check it out!