Gerald McDermott's Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
The trickster brings light
Along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, Raven - author-illustrator Gerald McDermott tells us - "is the central character in most Native American myths and tales."
He is a Trickster, a magical and powerful character whose defining trait might well be his capriciousness, or whimsy. He likes to wreak havoc and make mischief. He can also be kind, if the mood suits him.
In this creation myth he's kind to humanity, taking advantage of the gods for our benefit.
One day Raven notices "the world was in darkness." He finds mankind toiling in a depressing gloom. So Raven endeavors to search out some light on our behalf.
He finds some emanating from the home of the Sky Chief. But how will he gain entry?
He sees the Sky Chief's beautiful daughter draw water from a source outside the house. Raven turns into a pine needle and drops into the water basket. The girl drinks him, and from this seed becomes pregnant, giving birth to an infant boy who is himself Trickster Raven, in human form.
Raven masquerades as a baby boy until he can find the source of the light, which is the Sun. When the moment is right, he returns to his raven form and steals it.
And that is how you manufacture a children's book hero from an amoral trickster. You make the beneficiaries of his cunning us!
Raven, A Trickster Tale
The real magic of the book emanates from McDermott's art, for which he earned a 1994 Caldecott Honor. He renders Raven - in his various forms - in an opaque gouache, atop images rendered in wispy pastel and colored pencil.
The effect is not unlike when a filmmaker superimposes color on a black and white background, or animation on a photographic one. The effect is to make Raven - even when he's playing a human child - completely visible to the reader as Raven, even as his camouflage tricks the other characters with whom he inhabits the story. Review continues.
The result provides us a rather magical viewpoint, allowing even young readers to always feel in on the joke.
The cover of Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest rather sums it up. Raven, soaring above a pine forest, winks at the reader, as if to say, "Look at all the mischief we can get into together!"
Webmaster's note: Check out another McDermott tale (this one from the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest), Arrow to the Sun. (Reviewed on this site.)
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