Children’s books to lighten dark days

Children’s books to lighten dark days

Ben Bridge

By Rita Berman Frischer, Special to JTNews

Twenty-five years ago, the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee recognized children’s author/artist Patricia Polacco for her book The Keeping Quilt, a loving tribute to her family’s past. I was one of those who voted to honor her for showing family continuity through the years, handed down in the form of a warm and comforting quilt. Now you can read not only the 25th anniversary edition of this story, updated to show how the quilt continues to be treasured, but also Polacco’s new and related book, The Blessing Cup (Simon and Shuster ).
When her ancestors fled Tsarist Russia, they gave their special china tea service in gratitude to the kindly doctor who had come to their aid and made it possible for them to escape. They kept just a single “blessing cup” so they could continue the ritual of sharing blessings and sips from it on every family occasion. In her turn, Polacco received the cup from her mother when she married. Truly blessed, even the 1989 California earthquake would not destroy this symbol of family, tradition and love.
A great story to read aloud when the family gathers, as are books by the following author.
All by herself, Rabbi Sandy Sasso is a lesson in theology, ethics, values, midrash, tradition and morality — her 2013 picture book Creation’s First Light (IBJ Publishing), and some of her other works, are greatly enhanced by the contribution of Joani Rothenberg’s glowing and moving paintings. In this thoughtful book, pictures and words take the light of that first day and evolve it beautifully, relating the creation of the world to the creation of our inner selves, of hope and dreams, of the soul and of love.
Open discussion, often Sasso’s prescription for spiritual growth and harmony, is the central theme in The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other (Jewish Lights) also illustrated by Rothenberg, which won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Best Illustrated Children’s Book. However, a pre-schooler doesn’t have to be Jewish to be captivated by the imaginative solution that emerges when opposing factions, fighting over how to affix mezuzot, actually pay heed to the first word of the Shema, and listen.
Ilan Stavans, recent scholar in residence at Temple Beth Am, understands differences well. Along with many respected works for adults, Stavans has written Golemito (NewSouth Books), a unique illustrated book, slim and bright. It might initially appear to be for younger readers but, in its language and message, is definitely for 5th grade and up. A specialist in Latin American and Latino culture and professor at Amherst College, Stavans has produced here a blend of Jewish tradition with a love of Aztec poetry and mythology, as two boys create a miniature golem in response to bullying at their Jewish school. Simple and bold illustrations by Teresa Villegas, artist and graphic designer, underscore the message of courage and determination Sammy finds in the Aztec Warrior Song by Nezahualcoyotl — “I shall never disappear” — a message of inner strength from both his Jewish and Latino traditions.
A second new book about blending cultures and honoring differences is Heidi Smith Hyde’s picture book Elan, Son of Two Peoples (Kar-Ben), illustrated by Mikela Prevost, and aimed at 5-9 year olds. Elan is son of a Jewish father and Native American mother, now Jewish. On the occasion of his becoming a Bar Mitzvah, his age has also made him eligible for the Pueblo manhood ceremony, part of his mother’s family’s tradition.
“Always remember you are the son of two proud nations” his parents tell him. That’s why after celebrating his Bar Mitzvah in San Francisco, the family travels to New Mexico. There, on the following Shabbat morning, he chants his Torah portion to his Indian family before going that night with his father and the tribal elders to the kiva (ceremonial room) for the ritual exclusively performed by men.
The story was inspired by a historical figure, Solomon Bibo, who married the granddaughter of an Acoma Pueblo chief and raised their children as Jews. He lies buried with his wife in a Jewish cemetery in California.
Human creativity takes many forms, whether pursuing new solutions to old problems, adapting traditions to link families through the years, or finding ways to express personal talents and share them with others. Kar-Ben has a couple of new books, both for 4-8 year olds, based on what I would describe as beneficial outbreaks of personal creative expression. The first, Ziggy’s Big Idea, is by Ilana Long, an author, stand-up comic, improv actress and English teacher. She’s “seriously funny,” according to her publisher. Illustrator Rasa Joni provides bright and tasty pictures.
Little Ziggy is an inventor at heart, a problem solver by nature. Not all his ideas are good, but when Moishe the baker mentions that his innovative boiled and baked buns are soggy in the center, Ziggy has a brainstorm that changes the world as we know it. Of course, we don’t know for sure whether Ziggy invented the bagel, but does it matter? Just pass the lox and cream cheese, please.
Our last book proves that creativity has no “use-by” date. Its Brooklyn-based author, Betty Rosenberg Perlov, 96 years old, grew up in the Yiddish theater. Always busy with arts, education and family, she has just now gotten around to creating a charming children’s book, Rifka Takes a Bow. In first person, she describes Rifka’s life hanging out with her parents who work at the Grand Theater on Second Avenue. She tips off readers to how some stage special effects are pulled off. She tells how Rifka (Betty?) sat in the wings and watched while her parents performed. And she describes that careless moment when Rifka inadvertently finds herself front and center onstage, with an audience calling on her to “Say something!”
“Piff-Paff,” says Rifka, keeping her cool. “Not to worry! I am going to act on the stage when I grow up!” No wonder; it already felt like home!
As another demonstration of a beneficial culture swap, “Rifka Takes a Bow” has been imaginatively and exuberantly illustrated by Zosei Kawa, a Japanese artist who teaches at Kyoto University of Art and Design.


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