Deb­o­rah’s Tree

Jane Yolen; Cosei Kawa, illus.

  • Review
By – November 7, 2022

In Deborah’s Tree, Jane Yolen and the inim­itable artist Cosei Kawa intro­duce Deb­o­rah, the bib­li­cal prophet who served as a judge in Israel and deliv­ered an icon­ic song com­mem­o­rat­ing her people’s vic­to­ry under the guid­ance of God. Although hard­ly an obscure fig­ure, Deb­o­rah is often framed as an excep­tion because of the way she elud­ed the tra­di­tion­al role assigned to women. Like oth­er schol­ars, Yolen ele­vates Deb­o­rah, empha­siz­ing her unques­tion­able strength and courage — but she also cap­tures, through acces­si­ble lan­guage, the move­ment from a qui­et child­hood to the ulti­mate ful­fill­ment of a destiny.

Each stage of Deborah’s life is intro­duced as a pro­gres­sive step, with Yolen’s imagery and cadence illus­trat­ing her future. Deb­o­rah is five,” she writes, sit­ting under the palm tree, chew­ing on a sweet date.” But this seem­ing­ly ordi­nary girl also bears the respon­si­bil­i­ty of a spe­cial gift: the abil­i­ty to proph­esy. As she grows old­er, she begins to under­stand the impli­ca­tions of this bur­den. By the time she is twelve, there is no more talk of dreams as her own future unfolds before her.”

Although Yolen’s tone is under­stat­ed, she makes it clear that Deborah’s lat­er role as a judge defies gen­der norms. She deliv­ers legal deci­sions to men about some of the most sig­nif­i­cant issues of their lives: mar­riage, prop­er­ty own­er­ship, and even the poten­tial results of God’s anger at their flawed behav­ior. When Deb­o­rah works with the pow­er­ful gen­er­al Barak, she care­ful­ly bal­ances society’s expec­ta­tions of female lead­er­ship with the Israelites’ des­per­ate need for a vic­to­ry. Using spare lan­guage, Yolen depicts a wise and cau­tious woman who not only sees the future but also per­ceives how human agency can alter its course.

Deb­o­rah is both a vision­ary and a prag­ma­tist, and Cosei Kawa’s rich and com­plex images par­al­lel that dual­i­ty. With pas­tel and jew­el col­ors, the artist con­veys both the world of dreams and the set­ting of ancient Israel. Often Kawa uses per­spec­tive to indi­cate how char­ac­ters inter­act, as when Deb­o­rah first dreams of, and then meets, Barak, pic­tured as a tow­er­ing fig­ure. There is also a hint of mys­tery in the real­is­tic scenes of dai­ly activ­i­ties. A pic­ture of the young Deb­o­rah prepar­ing food with her moth­er shows the girl with her eyes strange­ly down­cast, as if in con­tem­pla­tion, while her moth­er stirs dates in a bowl. The mul­ti­lay­ered mean­ings of both words and images rein­force Deborah’s author­i­ty, pre­sent­ing it in a new and sub­tle light.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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