A friend who works in a bookstore recounts that whenever Jewish parents or grandparents ask for help in selecting a book, they preface their request: “Oh, he’s 7, but he reads like a 12-year-old,” or “She’s beginning fifth grade but reads on a high-school level.” But despite their parents’ best intentions to get them reading the classics as soon as they can lift them, along with The New York Times, kids really do prefer picture books with great stories. The sign of a successful book is whether the child will read it over again as soon as the book is finished. How many people reopen the day’s newspaper?
The season brings Chanukah stories, picture books about immigration, folk tales, Jewish history and family history, the Bible and more. More advanced readers will find books with settings and characters out of the ordinary.
A story that both parents who read aloud and kids who are read to will long remember, Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story by Marci Stillerman, illustrated by Pesach Gerber (Hachai), is based on a true story of Jewish women who defy their circumstances to celebrate Chanukah. In the barracks of a Nazi concentration camp during the winter before the end of World War II, several women construct a menorah for the children by twisting together nine metal spoons — “valued like gold” in the camp, for with a spoon “one was able to scoop up every last drop of food” — and use fat gathered from kitchen scraps and threads to light it. “It was our own special Chanukah miracle,” the narrator relates.
The story is framed by a contemporary holiday get-together, in which a family gathers to celebrate the holiday, enjoying latkes made by Oma, German for “Grandmother.” As the Chanukah lights are flickering, the youngest children gather in Oma’s lap and ask her to retell a story they have heard many times over, about the Children’s Menorah. As she tells the story, they interject the questions they have asked before, prodding the details they love.
This is Stillerman’s first book for children, and it is told with sensitivity, highlighted by Gerber’s soft-toned, expressive illustrations. One of the survivors of the camp moved to the United States, and told this story in an interview. She had saved the little menorah, but lost it soon after liberation.
A veteran children’s author and illustrator, Marc Podwal, presents legends and history of the menorah, retelling the background of Chanukah in The Menorah Story (Greenwillow). He shares explanations of the creation of the seven-branched menorah, the best-known ancient symbol of the Jewish people, and the development of the eight-branched Chanukah menorah whose “eight small lights celebrate great miracles of long ago.” Podwal’s beautifully colored, sometimes playful, soulful paintings, executed with gouache and colored pencils, depict the Temple, Maccabees and different versions of the menorah.
Maccabee Jamboree: A Hanukkah Countdown by Cheri Holland, illustrated by Roz Schanzer (Kar-Ben) is a cheerful, brightly colored counting book for young readers, including elements of the Chanukah holiday. The story features eight children dressed in togas and antique dresses to resemble the Maccabees, who dance, make latkes, wrap presents, polish the menorah and otherwise frolic, as their numbers diminish and then increase.
The Way Meat Loves Salt: A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish Tradition by Nina Jaffe, illustrated by Louise August (Henry Holt), set in Poland, is a folk tale retold. When a rabbi asks his three daughters to tell how much they love him, he banishes the youngest when she announces, “the way meat loves salt.” Through a series of adventures with a Cinderella-like twist and the help of the prophet Elijah, she meets and marries the son of another distinguished rabbi, is eventually reunited and reconciled with her family, and her father realizes that she spoke the genuine truth. Jaffe, an award-winning author and storyteller, is a member of the faculty of the Bank Street College of Education. August, who also lives in New York, creates glowing illustrations with a folkloric quality. Kids will enjoy reading this again and again.
Terrible, Terrible by Robin Bernstein, illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki (Kar-Ben) will ring true for the many New Yorkers who long for more space. This is also a retelling of a classic folk tale, but recast in a contemporary setting. Here, a young girl whose mother is remarrying finds the new home she shares with her step-father and his family to be very crowded. Troubled that she can’t find a place for herself, she seeks the counsel of her rabbi who advises her to bring the family’s seven bicycles into the house.
When the young girl complains again to the rabbi, she advises that they bring the pets inside, and then recommends inviting all of their cousins. The young girl returns to the rabbi and tells her it is “terrible, terrible,” that it is so crowded she can’t lift her hand to wipe away her tears. The rabbi then advises that they send the cousins home, return the animals to the yard and the bicycles to the garage, and, lo and behold, the house seems “cavernous.” And the newly-formed family is strengthened, giving the story its happy ending.
Children will enjoy the details in Kawasaki’s illustrations, which are full of whimsy and charm, particularly her congo line of cousins.
Journey to Ellis Island: How My Father Came to America by Carol Bierman, illustrated by Laurie McGaw (Hyperion) is based on a true story: The author’s father had a damaged hand and was almost sent back when he arrived in New York City as a young immigrant. The powerful feelings behind the story come alive through Bierman’s textured retelling of a story she heard while growing up, and the illustrations — family photographs, paintings, period postcards and sepia prints — add to the book’s appeal.
One More Border: The True Story of One Family’s Escape from War-Torn Europe by William Kaplan with Shelly Tanaka, illustrations by Stephen Taylor (Groundwood) is based on the author’s father’s experiences, as his family made their way to safety in 1939 —with a visa from Chiune Sugihara in Lithuania — by traveling by train across Russia to Japan and then to North America, settling on a farm outside of Cornwall, Ontario. The documentary sidebars, archival photographs and maps tie the story to World War II history.
The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia edited by Mordecai Schreiber (Shengold) is a one-volume illustrated guide covering 4,000 years of Jewish history, with entries arranged alphabetically from Aaron to Stefan Zweig. Accessible and visually appealing with time lines on the end pages, the book emphasizes in particular the State of Israel and American Jewry. This is an updated, redesigned and rewritten edition of the Junior Jewish Encyclopedia.
Masada by Neil Waldman (Morrow) is an illustrated retelling of the story of the ancient fortress in the Judean wilderness, defended dramatically by the Jewish rebels known as Zealots in the war against the Romans in 70 C.E., and now a popular tourist site in Israel. In recent years, archaeologists have uncovered important artifacts on the site. Author and illustrator Waldman, who first visited Masada when he was 20 years old, lives in Westchester; his passion for the story is evident.
The Bible from Alef to Tav by Penina V. Adelman (Torah Aura) is a user-friendly volume for children’s Torah study. Adelman, an author, storyteller and social worker, put together this book to fill a niche when her young son asked for his own book to use during the Torah reading in synagogue. She presents a creative retelling of 22 biblical stories — drawn from Genesis to the Book of Daniel — each linked to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, followed by suggested activities. The book features a striking layout and design, which both kids and parents will enjoy. An extensive appendix helps parents in guiding their children in Torah study.
The Cow of No Color: Riddle Stories and Justice Tales from Around the World by Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin (Henry Holt) features provocative stories from the Balkans, Ghana, India, Vietnam, the United States and Cuba, as well as ancient Israel, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The stories pose dilemmas — which can lead to great discussions among young people — and then show the answer as it appeared in the original.
The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz (Harcourt Brace) is a novel about the encounter between two young girls, one a blind Ethiopian Jew named Rahel, who meet up and travel together by foot from Ethiopia to the Sudan, fleeing famine, drought and violence. Around Rahel’s neck are beads given to her by the grandmother she had to leave behind; each bead is a reminder of a story. The author, who grew up in Ethiopia, now lives in North Dakota.