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Talking with Nina Jaffe at Bank Street College of Education

By Kristen Z. Stavisky

I recently sat down with Graduate School faculty member Nina Jaffe to talk about her latest project, a collaboration with HarperCollins Festival Readers and DC Comics on a series of books, including four readers for ages four through seven, and two chapter books for ages ten and up. The series features a long-cherished American icon, Wonder Woman. Nina was able to offer her own interpretation of Wonder Woman, emphasizing the character’s mythological background. The resulting stories reflect Bank Street values integrated with themes that thread through Nina’s previous works, such as The Cow of No Color, including stories featuring wise and strong women drawn from world folklore. During our conversation, Nina shared her specific inspirations for Wonder Woman and the collaborative journey that brought her vision to life. I asked Nina to talk about her own memories and how these influenced her interpretation of Wonder Woman. “Using childhood memories to understand the developmental-interaction approach is integral to coursework here at the graduate school.” This training informed her thinking as she sought to connect the Wonder Woman of popular culture to this new series of books for children.

“When I was ten years old, I attended summer camp in upstate New York. For ‘free choice’ time, I decided I wanted to learn archery and went up the hill to begin practice (all the other campers in this group were boys.) The counselor said: ‘Maybe this isn’t the right group for you. Why don’t you join the farm group? You can feed baby goats!’ Later that summer, the farm group took a trip to the county fair. I entered a calf-wrestling contest (which meant running across a track, grabbing a calf, and dragging it into a small square outlined on the field) and won! Recalling these experiences helped me imagine Diana’s feelings and motivation as she took on the challenges and rites of passage key to claiming her role as champion of peace and justice outside Paradise Island.” In 2002, HarperCollins and DC Comics, aware of her work and background in storytelling and folklore, approached Nina to write a book series for young children. Wonder Woman was about to experience another reinvention. Nina had the honor of transforming Wonder Woman into a literary creation, revised and translated for an audience of young readers.

Nina describes her work on the series as one of the most collaborative professional experiences she has had. Nina, with editors at HarperCollins and DC Comics, and illustrator Ben Caldwell worked together to bring a new kind of Wonder Woman to life. The professional interests that have guided Nina’s career, particularly linguistics, social studies, storytelling, and folklore, were encouraged by the entire creative team. They shared a vision, a desire to create a strong role model that all young girls could relate to. Nina notes the series’ decidedly un-Barbie-like representation of Wonder Woman. This Wonder Woman is graceful, muscular and strong and as reflected in Caldwell’s illustrations proud of her multi-ethnic heritage as an Amazon princess. The hope was to create a more global superhero that young girls from many backgrounds could engage and identify with.

Throughout the Wonder Woman series, children are guided to make sense of the world. Nina uses familiar settings and current issues to contextualize the stories. The Bank Street influence is clear. Just as Bank Street uses Social Studies as the center of the curriculum and encourages children to make meaning of the world around them, Wonder Woman’s adventures tackle current issues and problems. In The Journey Begins, Nina’s Wonder Woman confronts Ares, god of War (particularly timely given current geo-political realities.) In the climactic episode, Wonder Woman shows Ares the futility of fighting and the ultimate destruction caused by war. She promotes a message of peace and uses her intellectual gifts to avert tragedy. In The Rain Forest, Wonder Woman takes up environmental issues and fights to save the Rain Forest and the people that live there. Both stories allow children to see that they can take positive steps and have an impact on the difficult problems we face as a society. As Nina researched and wrote the Wonder Woman series, the connections to her professional life and ideas articulated at Bank Street continually surfaced throughout the creative process. Nina noted that in the original Wonder Woman—both comics and TV series—the writers portray her as traveling from the idyllic world of Paradise Island to “man’s world.” Nina pondered the terminology and advocated for a change—believing that young readers needed a new, more inclusive metaphor that would still preserve the distinct worlds of the Wonder Woman mythos. And so, “man’s world” became “mortals’ world” in both the readers and chapter books. In addition, she had access to DC Comics’ references, past and present, and used her own sources on Greek mythology and folklore, as well as the Bank Street Library.

The Bank Street Bookstore carries the result of Nina’s work, the Wonder Woman series, with personalized inscriptions available on request. Visit http://www.bankstreetbooks.com to learn more about the new Wonder Woman.#

An interview with Nina Jaffe will be included in a documentary which will be released in spring 2005 with Volume 3 of the Wonder Woman TV series on DVD (produced by New Wave Entertainment with DC Comics/Time Warner).



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