By Jane Yolen and Barbara Diamond Goldin, illustrated by Vali Mintzi. Charlesbridge, 2018. 112 pages. $18.99/hardcover; $10.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 10–15.
Part of growing up is coming to understand how stories work. For very young children, a story is simply an account of something that happened, no matter how fantastic. For them, fairy tales are as true as newspaper articles. But over time, maturing children learn to distinguish a yarn from a legend and a myth from a fable. They figure out how to uncover the truths in each. Meet Me at the Well is a book aimed at children who are in the middle of this process—who recognize that not every form is the same, but who may not be sure how to interpret different texts.
To look at its cover, this book appears to be a young child’s picture book, but it is much more sophisticated. It tells nine stories from the Hebrew scriptures, each of which focuses on one or more women of significance. Each tale can be read simply on its surface: e.g., Eve makes a mistake or Miriam protects her brother. But Jane Yolen and Barbara Diamond Goldin lead the reader through the façade to explore the stories beneath the story and the messages hidden inside and in between the words. They invite the reader to ask questions that don’t seem to be answered by the text, but that may be puzzled out of or imagined into it. They invite readers to try on the conjectures of others and, more importantly, to try out their own answers. This is not a simple-minded “find your truth” approach, but a recognition that there is more that is true than what first appears.
Each chapter consists of several interlocking pieces. There is a simple retelling of a Bible story accompanied with text boxes containing additional information and followed by two interpretations of the text: first in the voice of one of the women and then in poetry. Additionally each is illustrated with one of Vali Mintzi’s full-page watercolors, beautifully conveying the spirit of the story. All of this diverse material could be confusing if it is just handed to the young reader, but it is an ideal book for a middle school class or for an adult to read one-on-one with a youngster. It will certainly spark conversation and open the door to joint exploration and mutual illumination.
Often it seems like the creation story in Genesis should end with “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, the Lord said, ‘This is a man’s world.'” On its surface, the Bible celebrates a series of male heroes and villains. From patriarchs to kings and prophets to apostles, men are front and center. While a woman may occasionally step into the spotlight, she is typically first defined by her relationship with her father or husband or son, sometimes (but rarely) by her interactions with another powerful man from outside her family. This book seeks redress. Just as James Brown’s anthem opens with, “This is a man’s world,” only to quickly change course with “But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl,” Meet Me at the Well shows how that lesson can be applied equally to the world of the Bible. This book shows girls the stake they have in our spiritual traditions and their claim on our religious heritage. Perhaps more importantly, it can show boys what a woman or girl can accomplish.
If you are looking for a scripture-based book to read with your middle school-aged children, this is it.