T&W Magazine editorial board selected Amy Young’s “Jibseria: A Garden Mythology” as the 2020 Bechtel Prize winner. This year, the prize was awarded for an innovative classroom writing project.
The Bechtel prize is named for Louise Seaman Bechtel, who was an editor, author, collector of children’s books, and teacher. She was the first person to head a juvenile book department at an American publishing house. As such, she took children’s literature seriously, helped establish the field, and was a tireless advocate for the importance of literature in kids’ lives.
Jibseria: A Garden Mythology
2020 Winner of the Bechtel Prize
by Amy Young
On a bright October day, I take my Authors & Illustrators class out to the school garden. We’ve spent the last week creating versions of the myth of Hades and Persephone. My students are well versed in myths, and one of the undercurrents my colleagues and I have selected as a focus this year is “Beneath the Surface.” The students are 5th and 6th graders at the Lab School of Washington, a school for children with learning differences. Most of the students have studied Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology in Gods and Goddesses Club where they took on the roles of characters in those myths and created projects that reinforced the content.
Now in middle school, these students have chosen my Authors & Illustrators class as one of their two art electives. The students I teach often feel like writing is beyond them. It requires so many skills they may lack: organization, spelling, punctuation, reading, keyboarding, handwriting, and faith in their own imagination. This year is no exception. I know, though, that by using sometimes unorthodox approaches to language and imagery, these kids will improve their writing. Their misspellings can become brilliant mistakes. Their wild juxtapositions and incredible images can become powerful connections to content, community and our broader culture.
In particular, by bringing art into the classroom, I can often sneak writing in through the “back door.” In this class of Authors & Illustrators, I am drawing on old passions of bookbinding and medieval studies and current influences such as the comic artist Lynda Barry and her work on image making. Since I am not a trained visual artist, the kids can see my own rough attempts alongside theirs.
On this day, I’ve brought my students to the Lab School’s garden. Over the next couple of weeks, they will be writing and illustrating myths. I want them to absorb the landscape, because our goal for the next few days is to create a mythology for the garden. We will identify possible gods and goddesses — both main gods and demi-gods — and the forms that they take. We will discuss what other creatures might inhabit our mythological world. First, we need to become familiar with the space: the garden beds, shed and compost bins, the trees and shrubs and roguish vines. When we walk through the gate, I point out a red-tailed hawk perched on a branch high overhead. The kids are transfixed by its quiet, haunting presence. The hawk is a gift. Later, she becomes Jewel, the main god of our mythological world.
Over the next couple of days, while the weather is nice, we continue to make trips to the garden, honing our list and naming the gods, goddesses and creatures of the mythological garden of Jibseria. We keep the compost monster named Schmirglet and decide we don’t need a Goddess of Beauty. Mike and Ike are the Guardians of the Gate, two self-absorbed brothers, bumblers who are always arguing and worrying about their hair. Rusty the Dragon, is a hoarder who is supposed to keep a balance between manmade and natural things. He feels ignored and under appreciated. We decide some of our characters need nicknames. The God of the Clouds, Cumulo, is also known as “Nimby.” The god of rain, Aqua, is nicknamed “H2O.” The meeting place of the gods is Mt. Jibse.
The world is created. Now it is time to write.
WHERE WE ARE HEADED
We have much work to do. In addition to writing the myths, the students are learning about or revisiting the concept of illuminated manuscripts. They practice making illuminated initials, using metallic markers and pencils to add tints of silver or gold to their own initials. Eventually, they will make an illuminated initial to start off their manuscript. Each myth will be printed out with wide borders. The students will learn about (or revisit) the idea of marginalia, the illustrations and “doodles” medieval monks added to the white space of manuscripts. They will illustrate their myths by drawing in the margins. I am pulling from their past experiences in other academic clubs at the Lab School, including Knights and Ladies Club and Renaissance Club. When the myths are complete (revised, edited and illustrated) and if the ground is not yet frozen, we will enclose the myths in a beautifully decorated container and place them in the ground until spring, when we will unearth them and read them aloud in celebration of the season.
But it is the writing that will take time.
It is the week before Thanksgiving. The students have chosen which character/s they want to focus on. They have decided on the point of view. They have begun writing their myths. They idolize Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson series (Percy Jackson is the 12 year-old protagonist who has learning differences and discovers he is the son of Poseidon). Several are trying to tell their myths from more than one point of view. They have read stories and watched movies that do this and want to give it a try. It is harder than they think. Some are off and running, spelling errors and all. Others have trouble entering the story. One student has chosen Mike and Ike as his characters to focus on. The story begins with dialogue. It is impossible to tell who is talking and where the characters are. On the second day of writing, I ask the students who want to, to share the first 5-6 sentences of their myths. Everyone ends up sharing. They hear different voices, different perspectives. They hear strong details. They comment on how fun it is to see the characters they created pop up in different stories. “I like how Mike and Ike are so clueless,” says Isla, “but it’s a little confusing.” You need more description.” “I don’t know where the characters are in the garden,” says Brenna. Another student offers suggestions based on what we know of the characters’ personality traits. They keep writing. One student who thought she was done, now sees she needs to go back and fill in some gaps. Another student asks for help with quotation marks. Jake comes up with his own system, color coding the dialogue. Here are a couple of beginnings:
Across oceans, forests, tundras, and farmland there was a garden of gods called Jibseria. This garden had a bunch of gods and goddesses living there but today we are focusing on one story that is the story of Rusty, a dragon. First, in the garden, we have the god of the garden, the seer of all, the knower of everything,– Jewel. She’s a smart, witty, red tailed hawk. – Brenna
Jewel sat on her perch watching the sun rise. Sola stood under the perch, her golden eyes fixed on the rising sun. Luna was already done lowering the moon from the sky. He was now squinting at the sun. The sky flashed red to orange and finally yellow. The healthy grass shimmered and shined in the rising sun. Leaves also blanketed the earth. Sola let out a long breath as Jewel soared down from her perch and returned to goddess form. “I’ve raised the sun for as long as this garden has been here. It’s still tiring,” Sola sighed. – Savannah
It is quite likely that by the time the students finish writing, revising, editing and illustrating their myths, the ground might freeze. If that happens, we will ask the gods of the garden for permission to place them in the shed at the foot of Mt. Jibse. According to our mythology, the metal statue of an oversized human standing with a dog there traps the unused brain power of humans and keeps them from overtaking the gods. Will the gods grant us our request?
I am hopeful my students will come away from this experience feeling a part of a community of creators. I hope their ideas and images have the power to influence and help others, and that they recognize the power of myths and stories to change who we are. The image of the red-tailed hawk who visited us on the first day in the garden comes to mind. She will be immortalized in the Jibseria mythology, in the stories of Brenna, Jake, Isla, Savannah, and Emmett, a muse to their image making. May she allow them to soar.
1. We discuss what we know about myths and read a familiar one, in this case the myth of Perephone and Hades. The students identify the major and minor gods and any demi-gods or mythical creatures. We discuss the collision of desires between each of the main characters –Persephone’s desire to pick a flower, Hades’ desire for Persephone, Persephone’s mother’s desire for her daughter. We observe how not all the gods and goddesses are mentioned, that these are just a few of the many gods in Greek mythology.
2. The students create an illustrated version of the myth. Using comic writer and illustrator Lynda Barry’s image making techniques as a reference, they create a comic of 8-12 frames that tells the story. Some choose to modernize the setting. They present their comics to the class. The students see there is no “right answer.”
3. We visit the realm where our mythology will be created. If there is no garden, or if it is the middle of winter, the setting could be your classroom, the gym, or another common space. We explore the realm and observe it with this in mind. What are the important components? We start brainstorming possible gods, goddesses, demi-gods and creatures. I keep the notes.
4. After 2-3 visits to the garden we have a full list with names and nicknames. The use of nicknames allows more students to be represented and solves a couple of disagreements. We start building up character traits and descriptions. Once our mythology is complete, I make sure every student has access to their own copy.
5. We take some time to look at examples of illuminated manuscripts. The students learn about initial letters and marginalia and see examples. On index cards, they practice illuminating the first letters of their names, incorporating personal elements like baseball bats or animals.
6. The students choose the main characters from our mythology they want to write about. It doesn’t matter if they overlap since we have agreed on the basic character traits. I encourage them to think about who is telling the story. We look at the beginnings of other myths. They select a point of view.
7. After the first period of writing, I ask who wants to share what they have written so far. A couple students are eager. After they read, others decide they want to share too.
8. After 4-6 days of writing, some of the students are ready for a read-through. They read to me or another student, or I read to them. They make revisions and begin the editing process, editing one paragraph or page at a time on their own before sitting with me for a final side-by-side edit. It is already exciting to see the garden come to life through the variety of student voices.
9. Once the first page is edited the students illuminate the first letter of their myth on an index card. I scan the letter into their document and resize it.
10. The myths are formatted with wide margins, leaving room for “marginalia.” As the myths reach a final form, they are printed and the students start illustrating them in the margins.
11. From here we will select a container for the myths and decorate it appropriately. If the earth is still soft we will set the container in the ground until spring. When spring comes, we plan to unearth it and have celebratory readings in the garden. Maybe the red-tailed hawk will return!
Amy Young is a teaching artist at The Lab School of Washington where she infuses her imaginative writing classes with art and the natural world. She is a former poet laureate of Alexandria, VA. Her poetry has been published in anthologies as well as journals including Broadsided and Poet Lore. Her poems have been set to music and performed by The 21st Century Consort and The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.