WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3

Guardian of the Dead
Written by Karen Healey
Little, Brown, 2010, 352 pp.
ISBN: 978-0316044301

Ellie is an 18-year-old boarding school student on the South Island of New Zealand. Her life is that of a pretty normal high school girl until an accidental brush with a magical object (and her mysterious crush) awakens latent magical powers that she didn’t know she had (and isn’t sure she wants). With her new awakening comes encounters with magical creatures and the ability to see an alternate reality in the everyday—both based on Maori mythology. But it also comes with the knowledge that the Eyeslasher murders plaguing the North Island and the beautiful Reka who is eerily eyeing Ellie’s best friend Kevin are part of two separate, evil plans. Ellie needs to help stop these plans in order to save the fate of New Zealand and that of her friend.

With a female heroine saving the day and the males, a boy-girl friendship in which neither secretly pine after the other, and a not quite happily-ever-after ending, Guardian of the Dead defies typical young adult fantasy novels, with the added benefit of a cast of magical creatures and mythology based on Maori lore. This book is also exceptional in that the female lead is not a typical beauty—she is described as very tall, overweight and insecure, gaining confidence as the book progresses and ultimately (although with a twist) gets the guy. The story explores themes of loyalty, choice, and acceptance of differences—from appearances to cultural. This book would be best for adolescent readers, but educators should note that there is graphic violence and adult language throughout the book.

Karen Healey is a native of New Zealand. While not a Maori, she did extensive research on Maori mythology and in the book’s afterword notes the authorial license she took in adapting these legends to fit the purposes of her story. While the novel has a glossary of some of the Maori words used in the text, many words are not explained, but are usually understandable in context, because they are common Maori words used in the everyday language of New Zealanders. When the words aren’t explained, it can be frustrating for those unfamiliar with the Maori language, but this is only occasionally a problem.

Guardian of the Dead
would make a great addition to a unit on world mythology, fantasy novels, or New Zealand. By pairing it with more classical Maori mythology books such as Taniwha by Robyn Kahukiwa (1987) and Maui and the Sun: A Maori Tale by Gavin Bishop (1996), readers can explore how the Maori mythology was used in Guardian of the Dead and the differences between the classic mythology and the modern spin. The novel could also be paired with The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (2010) for two modern looks at Maori mythology. However the book is used, it is an engaging story that captures the reader and has received favorable reviews including a starred review from School Library Journal.

Gina Hundt
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

9 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3

  1. Pingback: Mirror
  2. Monique Stone says:

    After reading the commentary about Mirror- I was very curious about how my Moroccan student would respond. I mentioned that it was all rural- and didn’t that bother her? She said to me very quickly- Did you read this part? The writer explains that she only just happened to travel in the rural parts. This book is really good”

    I teach English as a Second Language in the South Western United States. I have several students from North Africa. Many are young and are quite homesick. I decided to see how they might respond to representations of their cultures in children’s books available in the United States. I did not have enough lead up time to do justice to an explanation of cultural authenticity, so I used questions such as, do you think this book is fair? do you think this book is good? Should I read this book to my son to teach him about your country?

    I can’t say that one student from Morocco can completley decide the authenticity of a text, but her approval for my son’s library means a lot to me.

  3. Yun-Hui Tsai says:

    I remember when I read Yenika-Agbaw’s “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereo-types with New Ones?” in the book “Stories matter: the complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature”, she argued that “a fair comparison would have been to compare urban life and children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in both regions”. however, at that time, my first, shallow reflection was that “there is no such thing as a ‘fair’ comparison”, since these two kinds of kids/lives do exist in this world, so would this kind of comparison. I was wrong. And I am glad I realized that. By reading the book Mirror and this review I now understand that authors of children’s literature should keep in mind that their works have the impact deeper than we imagine, therefore they must possess the social responsibility to provide authentic and non stereotype stories to their young readers, who have less knowledge and sensitivity to read critically. I was really impressed that there are so many similarities the Baker designed in the book, even the color of each family member’s clothes, that makes readers connect two countries almost effortlessly. However I also noticed that if Baker didn’t choose to portray them this way, this book could inevitably end up in just another “unfair” comparison. This is such a outstanding book with beautiful illustrations and noble themes. But just because it’s so success and wild recognized, we should also pay more attention on its influence, either positive or negative.

  4. Taylor Yagow says:

    I think this review is really exceptional! The respect she shows for both cultures is great! I especially enjoyed her interruptions of the differences and yet the main purpose of the book Mirror was to focus on similarities as what connect all of us. I found some books that I thought would go well alongside Mirror, “Why I Love Australia” by Bronwyn Bancroft, Bundle of Secrets: Savita Returns Home by Mubina Hussanti Kimani and Ikenna Goes to Nigeria by Ifeomas Onyefulu. These are just other suggestions. I personally liked these three because they go into the cultures that Mirror compares in a child friendly way.
    I found Mirror to be a beautiful book with extraordinary illustrations. It really made me think about the stereotypes that we all make and that our similarities are really what hold us together.

  5. Annette Fiedler says:

    I found this review of Mirror expressed wonderfully; I enjoyed the intensive review and information provided here. I enjoyed this book greatly and felt that the images of the cultures told a beautiful story of culture and identity. The story that each side of the book represented was told in a way that children of all ages could understand. I brought this book into my classroom and my students’ had many questions, but the exposure to the literature was great. I am usually not a huge fan of wordless picture books but this one is one that grabbed my attention and I would like to do into depth more so with it and my future lessons in my classroom. There is a lot to expose our children to in this text and doing so will invite them into many different culture related discussions.

  6. I loved the design of this book! It was a “clever” way to capture my attention. I studied it forward and backwards the first day I had it because I was so intrigued with the design. This is a powerful book with a deep message, I thought, that shows we are all just people living life. In certain aspects we connect in the way that we live and in other aspects we don’t, but that is what makes it all so very interesting. The details of the illustrations are quite detail oriented. It certainly is a book that can be studied repeatedly and you will discover something interesting within the illustrations.
    The review is done nicely. I enjoyed reading her thoroughness of the book and that she reflected on the positives and slightly negatives. Authenticity is an important aspect that we have discussed throughout this semester. The reviewer discusses that the cultural authenticity was done correctly and portrays each culture accurately except for the magic carpet. I agreed with her. Usually there are words or situations that cause you to think that something does not seem right. I didn’t have that with Mirror. This is a great picture book to own!

  7. Dana Gray says:

    I enjoyed reading this review. I think the book Mirror was very unique and beautiful. The pictures were so crisp and naturally stunning. Baker obviously took great care and consideration in the images she chose to represent and compare. As the reader it was very apparent to me that her goal was to show similarities while highlighting differences. I think that this book could be appreciated for is central message and beautifully crafted images, we shouldn’t get too carried away with judging the book on its relevance and representation within a social-political responsibilities of the author.

    I do think that Short raised a good point, describing how the boy drew pictures of the magic carpets, and how that connection to Arabic is overdone and could be construed as negative. I did not view that as a negative quality.

    Overall this is a beautiful thought-provoking book that I will soon be adding to my library.

  8. Lanika Rodrigues says:

    I definitely enjoyed the book. Honestly, I believe it is more complex than many picture books I grew up with as a child and critiqued when I was old enough to babysit. The differences were actually what stood out most to me–the greater the differences, the more similar the families. For example, at the end of the story, when the Australian family settles in to enjoy some time away from the constant overflow of technology by the fireplace, while on the other hand, the rural, Moroccan family chooses this time to enjoy technology together as a family…it’s still family time, with the members enjoying each others’ company; it’s just done differently for the families. It reminds me of trying to read a book in a mirror: while a human face reflects exactly in a mirror, a book will always read backward in a mirror. This story’s ending example is no different: while there are places in the book where there are similarities between the cultures, it is still a fascinating joy to explore the differences, just as much as holding the book to the mirror.

    Because of such symbolic complexity expressed in this book, I see the lack of political societal structure representation as negligible, particularly when considering its main target audience. It is, after all, a PICTURE book, written for children whose parents and primary adult environments very likely teach stereotypes about people of foreign origin. Children in this case often see the attacked culture from very simple perspectives simply because ignorant perspectives are exactly that: simple. The author, therefore, appears to be using the very stereotypes (for example, the notorious “magic carpet”) to bring respect, rather than ridicule, to the different cultures. After all, when we look into a mirror, we might not always like what we see–yet often what we dislike about ourselves just might be what others see in us as beautiful. The book, the author, doesn’t focus on political structures because that isn’t the heart of the book. The heart of the book is to bring us back to the very simple truth: that no matter what our differences, at the end of the day, we are beautiful when we work together, especially when we work together to bring out the good in others, no matter how far away that may be.

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