Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on March 6, 2017
By David Elliott
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 3/28/2017
Like all good mythology, the story of the Minotaur deserves at least a T rating—suitable for ages 13 and older—for violence, suggestive themes, crude humor and strong language.
With that content warning out of the way…
Bull, a highly anticipated verse novel for teen readers, debuted in March and has received much praise for a “salty, quick-witted retelling” of the Minotaur myth. Author David Elliott and the publishers at HMH Books for Young Readers have recast Asterion the Minotaur in this epic tragedy of power, lust and revenge.
And that’s not even the best part. Elliott writes the novel in a series of poetic forms tailored for each character. More than a fresh take on mythology, Bull is an energetic, well-written mentor text in poetry and voice.
There in the endnotes, Elliott explains why he chose an Italian poetic form, the ottava rima, to reveal the doomed antihero Asterion through his soliloquies.
“Eight lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of abababcc. Like a sonnet but six lines shorter: This seemed to infuse his character with the nobility I was hoping the sonnet would bring, but avoided, I hope, his appearing insufferable.” (p. 185)
Elliott shows a unique sense of humor. For Minos, he scribed verses in the English split couplet.
“One line of iambic pentameter followed by one line of two beats. As maddening as this sometimes was, those two beats were very helpful. I often was able to use them to allow Minos his kingly-sounding decrees.” (p. 186)
Meanwhile, Poseidon riffs off lyrics like Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton.
“Because one of Poseidon’s chief characteristics is that he’s changeable (like the sea), I decided not to restrict him to a form. But as I looked more carefully at how he spoke, I realized it is often in a rough couplet of uneven (he’s also unpredictable) lines. The line breaks of his (many) speeches sometimes demonstrate this, sometimes not.” (p. 186).
The god of the sea plays by a different set of rules. As the chorus, deus ex machina and comic relief, Poseidon neither minces words nor beats. Here’s his introduction of the tribute Theseus:
“These boys are barely old enough
To grow a beard.
But here’s something interesting,
Maybe even a little weird.
One of those boys
You’re familiar with the type.
Believes his own hype.
And now, just to add a little fun,
Some folks say
That he’s my son!”
The Fates have not ignored the rest—Pasiphae, Daedalus, Ariadne and Theseus have their say in the novel, too.
Elliott researched poetic forms reading Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry and claims in the endnotes to have never written in fixed stanzas and rhyme schemes before writing Bull. Writing in forms for him was “as liberating as it was restrictive.” The process unraveled the fate of all the players cast in the story and provided a deep look into their unique voices.
David Elliott’s Bull is a reimagined take on the Minotaur myth, an engaging mentor text on poetic forms and a highly worthwhile read.
David Elliott is a New York Times bestselling author of many books for children, including Finn Throws a Fit, Jeremy Cabbage and the Living Museum and In the Wild. He lives with his wife Barbara in a colonial house in New Hampshire.
HMH Books for Young Readers has published award-winning fiction, nonfiction and reference works for children since 1864.