December 14, 2017

bull

Bull

David Elliott

Pub. 2017

200 pgs.

Genre: Fantasy, Novel-in-Verse

Summary / Review / TLDR / Recommended For / Issues / Themes / Grade


Summary

Theseus, father of democracy and willing sacrifice, arrives on Crete to kill the Minotaur, the man-bull rampaging in the Labyrinth below King Minos’ palace. With the help of Ariadne, he finds his way through the maze and lops off the Minotaur’s head before returning, victorious, to Athens.

We’ve heard that story.

But there’s more to it. Daedalus, father of Icarus of wax-wings fame, worked for Minos and built the labyrinth. Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur, slowly went mad after his birth. Minos only became king because he begged Poseidon for his divine blessing. And what of the Minotaur himself? Was he always the raging creature thrust into a prison, or could he once ration like the human-part of him might suggest?

Maybe it’s time they all had a say.

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Review

They say poetry is meant to be read aloud. That’s why it predates writing itself: people would memorize stories to rhythms and forms and rhyme so they could repeat them for future generations. It’s the reason why we can remember lyrics more easily than paragraphs; the patterns and tune jog our memories as we go.

And if poetry is meant to be heard, then this book, Bull, is meant to be performed. I mean, it’s set up for us already. Elliott titles the poems with the name of the speaker, and while some cast members get more page time (Poseidon) than others (Theseus), it’d make a fun read aloud for a class studying mythology, poetry, or ancient Greek drama. So, high school students.

I say high school students specifically because of some of the language. Middle school students would get a kick out of reading some of the swear words (and some of the implied ones, too), but if you’re going to have it on your shelf, it’ll become well-known that one of your books has some pretty hardcore cursing in it. High school students tend to be a little more mature about such things.

As for the story itself, it’s essentially the one we all know and love. The story of the Minotaur is really about three or four myths all rolled into one: Minos becoming king, Minos’ favorite son’s death; the Labyrinth (not Henson’s version), and Theseus and the Minotaur. What Elliott does for the reader, though, is fill in some of the skeleton of the story. I’d forgotten that the Minotaur actually had a name— Asterion, ruler of the stars. In this version, we get to watch Asterion grow up. He’s painted as another pawn in a cruel game between Minos and Poseidon, just as Pasiphae and, to a lesser extent, Ariadne are. While we never know in the myths what kind of person Ariadne really is, she’s shown to be a caring, though cynical, sister to her bullish brother. In mythology, most of what we know about Daedalus comes from the Icarus too-close-to-the-sun story, but Elliott gives him a voice just as determined as any hero. All of this characterization builds sympathy for these characters and moves away from the commonly didactic nature of myth.

Finally, there were three technical aspects that impressed me with this book. Two of these happen with the actual formatting and layout. First, there are times when Elliott will take a phrase or even a single word and put them alone on the next page. It’s almost like a stage direction: “Breathe here. Watch until they lean forward, anticipating. Then go on. Snide smile. A wink.” It’s absolutely brilliant. The second thing…oh, I don’t want to give it away! Just, if you read the book, watch Asterion’s poems. It’s incredibly subtle, but by the end of the book you’ll see it. It was so cleverly done that I kind of want to borrow it for myself.

The final technical aspect has to do with the actual poetry. Each individual character gets his or her own style of poem. He discusses this at the end in one of his author’s notes, goes into detail about how he selected each style to represent the voices he wanted to use. Some of them are more formal and traditional, while others (Poseidon in particular) reads very much like a rap. Not only would this allow for a pretty fun discussion in class on poetic forms (hello, April aka National Poetry Month!), but it would make an awesome class project. Have the kids break into groups, and each group has to retell a well-known story in different poetic voices (no fewer than three types). I’d love to see what each group came up with!

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TLDR

An incredible, contemporary take on a classic myth, Bull would be an amazing addition to any curriculum. It just begs for projects and class participation.

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Recommended for…

  • Lessons on poetry, mythology, and Greece
  • Fans of Hamilton
  • People who love a good story told in a fresh way

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Issues

  • Bullying: references to bullying
  • Death: characters die; references to character death
  • Deceit: characters trick each other throughout
  • Emotional Abuse: character derided by parent/sibling
  • Lying: characters lie
  • Physical Abuse: character locked away in solitude by parent
  • Prejudice: characters are prejudiced against others not like them
  • Religion: Greek pantheon
  • Sex: implied
  • Swearing: throughout
  • Violence: characters attack one another
  • Weapon Use: swords, slings, etc.

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Themes

  • Acceptance
  • Death
  • Determination
  • Disability
  • Education
  • Family
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Growing Up
  • Heroism
  • Identity
  • Justice
  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Responsibility
  • Right vs. Wrong
  • Romantic Love
  • Sports
  • Survival

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Grade

Main Character 2
Subcast 2
Setting Development 2
Exploration of Conflict 2
Satisfying Resolution 2
Consideration of Themes 2
Didactic Tone 2
Suspension of Disbelief 2
Imagery and Description 2
Compelling Storytelling 2
Author’s Style 2
Rhythm and Pace of Book 2
Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 2
Predictability 2
Reader Enjoyment 2
Total 30/30
100%

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