Myths, according to author Virginia Hamilton, are narratives that tell about a god or gods, about superhuman beings, animals, plants, and about the first people on earth. They are the truth to the people who believe in them and live by them.
There have been many collections of myths, even those with a focus on explaining the creation of man. But most have been compiled for adult audiences, fitting into a curriculum of study. This compilation, specifically published for young readers and recently named a Newbery Honor Award winner, brings together creation myth stories collected from the Americas, the Pacific, Africa and the ancient Mediterranean world. There are also pieces taken from Genesis in the Bible.While the anthology is a rich one - readable, practical for many levels of use and derived from a broad spectrum of sources - it is the basic premise on which the tales were collected as well as Hamilton's comments and the extraordinary illustrations that make this a must-have for folklore collections and pleasurable reading.
The notes, in the preface and in the concluding explanations, offer general insights into myths, but the real value is in the information specifically written about this myth collection and how the tales are organized. For example, myths are classified according to their internal features: creation of humans, earth-diver or creation from nothing. Many myths have elements that surface in folk-tales or pour quoi ("why") tales recurring through all cultures. Some of these stories are well-known, such as those of Greek origin (Chaos, the Cyclops and Prometheus) and those found in the Bible based on sacred texts written centuries before the birth of Christ.
At the end of each narrative the author has made comments about the story, adding personal insights, references and notes regarding the locale from which the story was taken. A three-page bibliography adds to the depth of the compilation.
The 42 color oil paintings expand the commentary to a deeper understanding but also make this a collection of impressions about how a well-known artist viewed the myths given his varied background of "fundamentalist Bible thumper . . . a licensed Methodist preacher . . ." who has moved to a ". . . dyed-in-the-wool agnostic. . . ."
Barry Moser's unique art lies in his approach, which he calls his artistic control, but also in a basic philosophy of illustration as not only art, but as a craft. The paintings for "In the Beginning" began with 200 pictures. "The hardest part was deciding which images not to use," he said. That is one of the "crafts" apparent in Moser's bare-bones art; no extraneous art pieces here.
His love of abstract images confirms a personal philosophy and supports the idea that myths generally give guidance and spiritual support to the lives of those who have kept the stories alive. His images of the supernatural come through in delicate and bold portraits as well as impressionistic eggs and swirling darkness. While he contends there are no theological overtones in these images, the dark color throughout suggests a binding element to the whole book, "the chromatic continuity."
Virginia Hamilton and Barry Moser are both highly acclaimed, award-winning masters in their fields. Hamilton's credits include a Newbery Honor Award for "M.C. Higgins, the Great," the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the Edgar Allen Poe Award. Moser has received the American Book Award for Illustration, a Redbook Best Picturebook Award and the New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award.