A Master Class in Mischief Making
April 25, 2019 § 2 Comments
My daughter delights in mischief. The mischief of others, that is. She, herself, may be intent to uphold a “good as gold” persona, but she wastes no time in reporting on the transgressions of others—classmates, the new puppy across the street, her big brother—with a certain giddy fascination. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Emily devotes large stretches of her imaginary life to contemplating the mischief made by her stuffed sheep and my stuffed bear when we’re not looking. Together, these two plush characters could be Emily’s alter ego. They subsist on a diet of gummy worms and chocolate cake. They jump out of the window in skydiving suits when they’re supposed to be sleeping. While Emily and I were in New York City last week, she claimed to spot them high tailing it down the block with a bunch of stolen balloons, on their way to throw themselves a party for their “fake birthday.”
After beating me to Mordicai Gerstein’s latest graphic novel-picture book hybrid, I am Hermes! (Ages 7-10), Emily was delighted to inform me that there exists no greater Mischief Maker in the History of the World than Hermes, Messenger of the Gods. Judging by the profusion of energy and humor in his 67 pages of comic panels, Gerstein is every bit as entranced with Hermes’ master class in mischief making as is my Emily.
It seemed only fair to allow Emily first dibs at Gerstein’s second “mythological memoir,” seeing as his first—I am Pan!—remains one of her favorite books ever (the god of noise and confusion getting into his own share of trouble). Whereas my son relishes the complexity, nuance, and darkness of George O’Connor’s formidable Olympians series, Emily likes her mythological re-tellings on the irreverent side. She’s in it for the spectacle. As Gerstein himself points out in his latest Afterward, when you start stripping Greek gods down to their silly, jealous, bad-tempered egos, you get something resembling a “family sitcom.” Emily has her popcorn at the ready.
Part of the instant appeal of I am Hermes! stems from its boasting, indulgent, unreliable, but unabashedly entertaining narrator. The winged-footed Hermes is not only the appointed messenger of the gods; he’s also, as he proudly declares on the title page, “god of sports, business, sleep, liars, thieves, and mischief!” How this comes to pass is the focus of the book’s ten mini chapters, beginning with Hermes’ infancy.
Emily wasn’t one page into the book when she was already giggling. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “Look,” she said, bringing the book over to me. “Hermes’ first word is GIMME.” Yes, Hermes comes into the world—at least, by his own telling—with an insatiable appetite, not afraid to use any amount of golden-curled charm to get what he wants. Intrigued by a turtle’s shell, Hermes convinces the animal it “hides your personality,” then takes it for himself. Combining the turtle shell with the horns he talks off a goat, Hermes invents the lyre, “the world’s first musical instrument.” With dimples and music in his toolbox, Hermes goes on to woo his older brother Apollo’s “herd of crumple-horned cows” out from underneath him.
You’d think Hermes’ manipulations might turn us readers against him, but he manages to work his charm on us in the same way he does his doting, unsuspecting parents, who always find him sleeping soundly in his cradle (“my sweet, tired, plum crumble”) or practicing his baby “tawk.” When we notice how one eye opens the second his mother turns her back, or how his speech transforms when he’s out of the house, it’s hard not to want to be in on the joke. We love this mischief maker. He’s not ill-intentioned, exactly. He’s just having so much fun.
Eventually, the jig is up, and Zeus decides to save them all a load of trouble by cutting Hermes’ childhood short. He ages Hermes on the spot, then appoints him messenger of the gods, tasking Hermes’ winged feet to carry the gods’ bidding. The subsequent chapters are devoted to Hermes’ adult life, in which his greed takes a backseat to proving useful to both his Olympian family and the human world. He outwits a pair of giants, distracts a hundred-eye monster, and falls in love and starts a family of his own.
In one of my favorite chapters, Hermes even dispenses some of his own wisdom to a dimwitted shepherd named Aesop, thus birthing Aesop’s Fables. (“Aha! I’ll give you some of my own wisdom! I actually have too much. I’ll give you the gift of telling stories! Stories that impart wisdom. Fables.”)
Lest any girls named Emily worry that, with Hermes’ maturation, the book is in danger of getting too light on mischief, Hermes’ legacy proves to be alive and well in both his son, Pan, and his grand-daughter, Iynx. Since Gerstein already has a book devoted to Pan, this one gives more attention to Pan’s daughter. Hermes tells us with pride: “Iynx was lovely like her mother, Echo, but she also took after me. She loved to play pranks.” Indeed, one of the funniest moments of the book arises when Iynx casts a spell on Zeus, convincing him to fall in love with a giraffe. (Zeus retaliates and turns Iynx permanently into a woodpecker. The moral of that story being don’t mess with the big gods.)
Perhaps my favorite thing about I am Hermes! comes in its final chapter, titled “Me, Retire?” Gerstein tackles (albeit with tongue and cheek) what few mythological texts do: the question of what happens to the Greek gods when Ancient Greece falls and the modern world begins to take shape. Where are these gods today? Hermes may no longer be as motivated by greed, but his ego is still plenty large. While Zeus tells Hermes he’s happy to retire (“I’m bored with being a god. Too much responsibility, not enough appreciation”), and Apollo easily takes to becoming a rock star, Hermes yearns to do something big. Something vital. Over the ages, he experiments with leaving his mark on different modes of delivery—from carrier pigeons to blimps to US postal stamps—until an idea loads more powerful and enduring hits him. And YES, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
What a wealth of offerings exists today for young children to discover Greek mythology (not to mention Norse, Hindu, Egyptian…the list goes on). Whether they lean towards the solemn or the lighthearted, our children have a unique chance to become up close and personal with some of the most significant and pervasive influencers of history, art, literature, even pop culture. It makes me wonder what kind of mischief they will get up to when it comes time to study these things in school…and they’re already inspired.
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Review copy from Holiday House. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!