Review: Two Tribes

Two Tribes

written and illustrated by Emily Bowen Cohen

Heartdrum (imprint of HarperCollins), 2023

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Eva L. Weiss

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This middle-grade graphic novel is a creative reimagining of the author's life story. Emily Bowen Cohen was born to a Jewish mother and an indigenous American father, a member of the Muscogee Nation. The author's real-life father died when she was nine years old, but in the novel, the father of Mia, the 12-year-old protagonist, is alive and well in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The plot turns on Mia's decision to run away from her mother and stepfather's home in California to visit her father in Oklahoma after her bat mitzvah. She resents their sincere but heavy handed efforts to immerse her in Jewish culture to the exclusion of the other half of her identity. The narrative authentically unfolds the raw conflicts of Mia's dual identity as she comes of age and fiercely desires to renew her ties with her father, his family, and her Muscogee heritage. This graphic novel offers young readers a heartfelt and respectful glimpse into lesser known cultural landscapes well worth exploring. The author brings to life a creative appreciation of Mia's "Two Tribes," but there are also passages where the storytelling stumbles. For instance, Mia’s classmates express harsh prejudices that are met with proper rejoinders, but are facile given the pain they inflict. The earth-hued graphics are thoughtfully crafted, and there is a harmonious balance between text and image. Yet, graphic novel aficionados might have hoped for livelier pacing and more passion and nuance in facial expressions. 

The book conveys the relatable desire of committed Jewish parents to convey traditional Judaism to the next generation. Jewish customs are presented knowledgeably and lovingly. The author treats both her cultures with equal reverence. However, the wisest and most powerful passages in this graphic novel  are found in the interweaving of the Book of Jonah into the story, offering an excellent introduction to Jewish interpretations of biblical texts. And readers will be gratified and soothed by the capacities of all the adults to acknowledge their missteps and make amends.

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Reviewer Eva Weiss is a writer, editor, and translator. She was born in New York City and worked in the publishing industry there before making her home in Israel many years ago. She writes cultural and human interest stories and is the author of the children's book I Am Israeli (Mitchell-Lane, 2016).