Rozi Hathaway’s Njálla is a refreshing look at Scandinavian lore, considering our most recent widespread children’s text about the area is Frozen. While Frozen features a sea of white people, Hathaway writes about a legend of Northern Europe that focuses on the lifestyle of the Sámi people as they lived hundreds of years ago. The Sámi, a group indigenous to the area, were often pointed to in opposition to the “There are no POCs in Scandinavia!” cry of Frozen fans following the release of the film. This makes their position as the featured group in this story even more attractive. The book, almost certainly intended for an audience of children, is painted in a soft watercolor palette and begins with a written introduction about the Sámi people and their lore. While this introduction gives necessary background to a story about a group of people that those outside of Nordic countries might not be familiar with, the book is otherwise weighed down by its explanatory text, which draws attention from the art and fails to add anything of note to the story. And while the art is enough to make this an engaging read, the story fails to give us enough context to understand the gravity of its events.
Njálla is the story of a young girl, Lieddi, who disobeys her parents in order to go outside in the middle of the night to look at the Northern Lights. She notices a fox, asleep in the lights, which disappears when she tries to touch it. When she returns home, the fox has in fact followed her, and she is told that she must return the fox home to the skies, which sends Lieddi on a journey accompanied by her pet reindeer.
The art is simple, with the characters sometimes interacting on blank white backgrounds, suitable for a story that takes place in the Arctic Circle. The watercolor palette of soft blues and grays does much to give the sense of a sleepy, cold place with a sleepy, content people. The subtle palette works nicely once we see the Northern Lights, which are a vivid blue. Whenever these lights appear in a panel, Hathaway dials back her grays, so that everything is highlighted, giving the effect of shining a light on a dark place. It is a subtle change that does much to highlight the climactic scenes.
The story is not long, and has little character interaction, so Hathaway mostly characterizes Lieddi through her movements, from high-kneed tiptoeing through the woods to tumbling out of her tent in the middle of the night in order to not draw attention to herself. She is painted as a precocious and curious child who is intrigued by and interested in the ways the world works, especially if there are certain elements that are meant to be off-limits to her.
Unfortunately, the art is offset by weak dialogue, much of which feels unnecessarily expository. The art gives most of the context necessary to understand what is happening in the scenes and the added dialogue, which could have helped further characterize Lieddi and the grandmother figure we see only twice, feels instead as if it is drawing attention away from the story. A speech from the grandmother tells Lieddi she needs to return the fox to the sky because their fates depend on it, which leaves a lot of questions (such as, “What would be their fates if she doesn’t return it?”) and yields no answers. The journey itself to return the fox is equally without conflict or explanation.
It is possible to explain away these plotting issues by acknowledging it as an origin myth, many of which are short stories with an initial conflict (usually with a human being doing something they shouldn’t) and a simple solution that explains a natural phenomenon. This story’s expected audience is probably children, so perhaps further conflict is unnecessary. Aside from its introduction, this story could have largely functioned without text and perhaps would have been more successful for it. Hathaway’s soft watercolors and sketched-out characters operate beautifully on their own. In this day and age when the interest in stories about people of color is still constantly, somewhat stupidly, debated, Njálla has a place and a purpose, managing to be inclusive without feeling like it has set out with the intention to do so and achieves its goal of being a wonderfully-illustrated myth for a young audience.
Elizabeth Brei grew up in Chicagoland, once worked at Disney World and has a cat named Moo. She holds an MFA from San Diego State University and can sometimes be found on Twitter @peachchild grumbling about kids these days or talking about Sailor Moon.