Tricksters and Their Opposite

By Herbert Kohl

Tricksters and Their Opposite
Illustration: Michelle Silva ©2010 MATT DEMBICKI

Trickster: Native American Tales  

Edited by Matt Dembicki
(Fulcrum Books, 2010)
496 pp., $27.95

By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

By Spoon Jackson
and Judith Tannenbaum
(New Village Press, 2010)
200 pp., $24.95

Trickster grew out of a wonderful and slightly wild idea Matt Dembicki, a graphic novelist and comic book artist, came up with after discovering the range, breadth, and ingenuity of Native American tales. In particular, he fell in love with trickster tales and thought it would be wonderful to pair Native American traditional storytellers with graphic novelists and comic book artists. The result is a delightful, beautiful, rich book that contains 21 tales, each told by a different storyteller and illustrated by a different graphic artist. Amongst the tricksters are raven, rabbit, coyote, raccoon, and alligator; among the tribes represented are the Yup’ik, Cherokee, Choctaw, Penobscot, Creek, and Dine nations. Each tale is rendered in a different style, created through the collaboration between each specific artist and storyteller. I found the results amazing. Each tale comes alive as a complex linguistic-visual experience in which the words and the pictures simply cannot be separated.

For example, “Wolf and the Mink” is told by Elaine Grinnell, a S’klallam elder, and illustrated by graphic novelist Michelle Silva. The first page has a drawing of a mink thinking about how hungry he is. Below the title is a free-floating bubble in which the narrator says: “Well, hello there to everyone. What a story it is! Do you see yourself in this story? It’s about the wolf and the mink.” We are swept into the story, which ends with the narrator expressing the moral: “As the Kallams say, ‘I’tt I’kwan, I’tt I’kwan.’ That means, ‘If you snooze, you lose.’”

This book is a delight to read—for both children and adults. I find it hard to imagine anyone who won’t be charmed, educated, and pleased to have discovered such a treasure.

On a different note, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives is the story of the relationship between Judith Tannenbaum, a writer who teaches at San Quentin State Prison, and Spoon Jackson, who is serving a sentence of life without parole. Jackson and Tannenbaum have been working together since the 1980s; this poetic memoir/diary tells their story and contains examples of their work. The story begins with the temptations encountered while growing up poor and shunned, and explains how Spoon came to murder someone. Through Judith’s teaching, Spoon discovered his poetic voice, his moral compass, and his way of reaching beyond his cell to the world.

What is special about the book is its portrayal of the lifelong commitment the two authors have made to their relationship, to the power of the word to transform reality, and to the struggle for justice and equity. This would be a wonderful junior or senior high school text, providing, as it does, an authentic tale about a collaboration that continues despite the bars, gates, and guards that permanently separate the participants.

Herbert Kohl’s most recent book is The Herb Kohl Reader.