Book Review: Magic Words

15 Sep

Today’s book review is for Magic Words: From the Ancient Oral Tradition of the Inuit, translated by Edward Field, illustrated by Mike Blanc, published by Vanita Books. I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Magic Words is from a story that Knud Rasmussen recorded in the 1920s when he visited the Inuit. Many of the stories and legends in his papers were recorded verbatim. In the 1960s, Edward Field translated a number of these texts into English for a collection.

Field’s translation is elegant in its simplicity and preserves the feel of the oral storytelling tradition. His writing is clear and direct, yet still carries a sense of wonder and magic. He shares a tale of ancient times when humans and animals all spoke the same language, when they could change their forms at will, and when magic was still alive in the world. It’s a story that should capture the imaginations of young readers, while at the same time exposing them to the beliefs and culture of the Inuit.

The text is accompanied by gorgeous digitally colored pencil drawings by Blanc. It is obvious that he has studied Inuit art in order to create these illustrations. He uses flat outlines, which call to mind Inuit art tapestries, as well as the planed faces common to their sculpture. These traits are then softened through the digital coloring to add a fuzzy feeling of the distant past. The elements all pull together to create a distinctive mood within a specific cultural context.

The overall design of the book is quite lovely–with even the fly leaves being illustrated. The placement of text on the page is thoughtful–and it varies according to each illustration. I thought that the Coraline font worked well on the page, complementing the artwork while remaining quite readable. The only thing I didn’t really like is how the letter “y” has its tail backwards.

I would love to own a physical copy of this book; I think it would be perfect for my daughter’s collection. I’ve already recommended it to my father-in-law who owns and operates a gallery dealing with contemporary Artic, Inuit, and American Indian artists. I also plan to mention it to the children’s librarian at my local library.

This book earns 4 out of 5 stars. I liked it immensely. It’s beautiful and magical and offers a great opportunity to discuss multiculturalism. My final reservation, though, is that the publisher didn’t commission an Inuit illustrator. There are so many talented Inuit artists who could have been approached to work on this book. I understand the appeal of using someone established and familiar–but it left me with a feeling of cultural appropriation.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews at Goodreads.


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