Neil Gaiman,
Blueberry Girl,
illustrated by Charles Vess
(HarperCollins, 2009)

Only Neil Gaiman could write a poem that feels like a traditional rhyming tale while simultaneously writing outside conventional guidelines. Written in 2000 while he was in the process of finishing the last two chapters of American Gods, this sweet little poem was created especially for Neil's friend Tori Amos while she was pregnant with her first child. Charles Vess, who collaborated with Gaiman on the Sandman comics and the illustrated version of Stardust, provides the illustrations.

I first heard this poem when Neil made an appearance at the Newberry Library in Chicago, doing readings while promoting American Gods. Then and now, it deserves every ounce of applause it received, and I'm glad he decided to share it with the rest of the world.

"Poem" may be too formal a word, though, for Blueberry Girl feels a bit more like a prayer or an incantation. And an uplifting one at that: Gaiman openly addresses "the ladies of light, the ladies of darkness, and the ladies of never-you-mind," asking that they give the unborn girl everything that life has to offer, "everything" being pain as well as pleasure, because that's how we recognize the sweetness of life. "Help her to help herself, / help her to stand, / help her to lose and to find." Yes, it's for girls and women but anyone can find inspiration from this book. The words are as enchanting as the art: delicate yet full, simple but beautiful. It is a very universal sort of tale, too. Girls of all kinds are covered in the 30 pages, teenagers as well as toddlers, and of all races and ethnicities, making it easy for any young girl who's reading it to identify with the characters. The lush, vivid art compliments the words perfectly, as if they were hatched like twin souls from the same egg.

Naturally, as is always the case with Gaiman, the story is informed by heavy doses of mythology. The "ladies" themselves are the Fates, who have made previous appearances in American Gods and the Sandman chronicles. There is also a reference to Sleeping Beauty: "Keep her from spindles and sleeps at sixteen, / let her stay waking and wise." Gaiman's respect for the stories of antiquity is a hallmark of his work, and the excellent, virtually seamless blending of pagan influences with modern spirituality gives Blueberry Girl a fairy-tale quality that is neither new-agey nor cloyingly sweet. It acknowledges the bittersweet pain of growing up while offering hope that life will still be a wonderful adventure ("Nightmares at three or bad husbands at thirty, / these will not trouble her eyes."). For me, the magic is that this is an empowering book for women and girls, for "anyone who has a daughter, or is a daughter," as Gaiman himself puts it, that was actually written by a man. It's also very realistic because it embraces every phase of life that a woman, any woman, will experience in her time on this crazy planet.

Sweet, funny and touching, with art that will truly blow you away, Blueberry Girl is a surefire instant and future classic that is right up there with Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. This is a wonderful book for any adult to give the child in their life.

review by
Mary Harvey

20 June 2009

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