Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero
by E. Lockhart, illustrated by Manuel Preitano
Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Heidi Rabinowitz
Willow Zimmerman is a white Jewish teen activist in Gotham City's Down River neighborhood, who gets mixed up in the criminal underworld in order to support her cancer-stricken mother. When an attack by Killer Croc leaves her with dog-like superpowers, she becomes Whistle, a hero who defends the neighborhood against crime, along with her Great Dane sidekick Lebowitz.
Manuel Preitano's illustrations give us a female superhero who is portrayed as a realistic physically fit young woman, who devises a hero outfit that is comfortable and practical. She has a proud Jewish nose and big, curly, frizzy hair. Her bestie is Latinx and her crush is Black. These small details add up to a story that feels modern and real.
First-person narration puts readers in the middle of the action, and in the middle of Willow's ethical quandaries. She's conflicted about doing wrong for the right reasons, even more so when she learns that her boss, generous E. Nigma, and her friend, environmentalist Pammie Isley, are the alter egos of the Riddler and Poison Ivy. Even Killer Croc is motivated by good, killing in order to protect Down River. The story's moral complexity raises it beyond the level of mere comic book action, to make it a thoughtful and fascinating read.
Delightfully, Jewish details abound. Willow's mother is a professor of Jewish culture and history, so her daughter is able to explain to her crush Garfield that Down River (modeled on the Lower East Side) once hosted over 500 synagogues, and she takes him to Rosen Brothers Deli for Reubens. Jewish E. Nigma's original name is "Eddie Nachtberger" and Willow bakes him rugeleh. When she needs to think, she visits a synagogue. She is strongly motivated to engage in tikkun olam, and understands that although she cannot complete the work herself, neither is she free to desist from it (to paraphrase Pirke Avot).
While the Jewish content is not crucial to the storyline, it adds plenty of flavor and offers very welcome and authentic representation that can be enjoyed by readers of all backgrounds.
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bookoflifepodcast.com. Heidi is Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and Library Director at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida.