When I saw that this picture book has monster in its title and Jon Muth as the illustrator, I immediately took it off our library shelves and decided right then and there that we should include it for our Paranormal theme this January-February.
Little did I know that it was not so much paranormal as a beloved folklore. Known to be a traditional Hasidic legend, commonly read during the Jewish New Year, author Eric A. Kimmel has retold the tale with a fresh voice matched by the luminous and softly-edged watercolor illustrations of Jon Muth.
The makings of a psychopath. Such was the first thought that entered my mind when Gershon was described to be bad-tempered, thoughtless, and without a smidgen of remorse for how much he caused pain to others:
... unlike most people, Gershon never regretted what he did. He never apologized or asked anyone’s forgiveness.
This way of behaving became a habit. Gershon paid no attention to how he treated others and he didn’t care. For he could shed his mistakes and thoughtless acts like a dog sheds hair. Every Friday, Gershon swept them up and tossed them into the cellar.
The interesting part is that Gershon would have this unique ritual, kind of like an ‘annual cleansing’ of sorts. He would bundle up all of his misbehaviors in a sack and toss it mindlessly into the sea during Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year. Now, if only our evil acts could be disposed of so easily – but we know that this isn’t how the world works. What goes around comes around – as is clearly evident in this tale.
Then came the time when Gershon and his wife longed for children. He sought the help of a wonderful rabbi, called a tzaddik who refused to help him pray for a child. The kind rabbi also predicted that if Gershon would be given children, they would be the ones to suffer from his recklessness and his thoughtless ways. Naturally, Gershon refused to listen and demanded, begged, pleaded, cajoled that he and his wife be given a child. And so he got what he asked for – but with a steep price:
The tzaddik took a piece of parchment and wrote upon it with a quill pen. After the ink dried, he folded the parchment in half and gave it to Gershon. “Have your wife wear this around her neck. In one year’s time she will give birth to twins, a boy and a girl. They will be all you desire. They will be with you for five years.”
“And then?” Gershon asked. “What strange prophecy is this? If something is going to harm my children, tell me now so I can protect them.”
“You cannot protect them,” the tzaddik said.
He promised to change his ways (as men always do) to save his children’s lives – but, can men truly change? I’ve been considering this from various standpoints: the humanist, the academic, the scientist, the poet. Turns out, Gershon went on doing unkind things to people he met, unmindful of the damage he caused to the people around him. Now what became of his children, I leave for you to discover.
Reification of Evil. Another thing that made this particular book stand out for me is how evil seems to be reified. Reification is the process in which we endow images/ideations in our minds with their distinct definable separate identities – and we are able to attribute reality to what is essentially a mental construction. The basic act of sweeping away one’s misdeeds, putting them in a sack and throwing them into the sea – is a manifestation of this reification – powerfully symbolic.
It also reminded me of a book that I have reviewed in 2010 entitled Sho and the Demons of the Deep written and painted by Annouchka Gravel Galouchko. While the setting of Sho and the Demons of the Deep is in ancient Japan, the entire concept is the same – with people’s nightmares being cast out into the sea – and taking on a life of its own.
The Author’s Note found at the back of the book also provide the reader with a much more incisive understanding of what the story means – how repentance is defined in Hasidic legends and what are the steps through which one can ‘return’ to one’s true moral nature. Makes for a lively and interesting reading with a class of primary students, and good introduction as well to cross-cultural and religious beliefs and practices.
About the Authors (as taken from the book jacket).
Eric A. Kimmel, whose ancestors came from the same corner of Poland where this tale originated, is the perfect reteller for this haunting and satisfying story. He first heard it from his grandmother when he was six years old, and it has long since been one of his favorite stories for the Jewish New Year.
Mr. Kimmel is the author of many favorite Jewish holiday stories including Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, which was named a Caldecott honor Book; and When Mindy Saved Hanukkah, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection. He lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon.
Jon J Muth was immediately drawn to this story, as its extraordinary balance of scary, funny, and lyrical elements offered amazing possibilities for illustrations.
Mr. Muth has written and drawn award-winning comic books, which have been published both in the United States and Japan. His previous book, Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse, has been highly acclaimed by critics, and recently received a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators. He lives in Kingston, New York, with his wife and two children.
Gershon’s Monster. A Story for the Jewish New Year. Retold by Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Jon J Muth. Scholastic Press, New York, 2000. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos taken by me.
Picture Book Challenge Update: 31 of 120