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Great Kids’ Books

The best Jewish picture books of 2009

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Here are my favorite picture books of the year. Next week we’ll look at chapter books. Sorry, no board books—this year either I didn’t love them or I didn’t deem them sufficiently Jewy. (But if you wanna pick up Happy Hanukkah, Corduroy, knock yourself out.)

New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story

New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Stéphane Jorich (Dial Books for Young Readers). This is my pick for the best Jewish picture book of the year. It’s about Tashlich. It’s funny; it’s moving; it’s lyrical; there’s good dialogue. Best of all, it shows how hard apologizing can be, and how cathartic. The protagonist, Izzy, is a credible little kid—he apologizes to his sister for drawing on her forehead while she’s asleep. I like the fun , vaguely French watercolor illustrations, with lots of yummy detail in the kids’ clothes—Stéphane Jorisch has a way, in particular, with shoes. (And I like that Cantor Livia and her guitar-playing accompanist, with their flowy Berkeley-vibed clothing, look like a specific and familiar breed of middle-aged bobo Jewess.) This book is superb. (Grades K-3)

When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel

When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel by Mirik Snir, illustrated by Eleyor Snir (Kar-Ben). “Rain tapped a song/ Rocks rolled along/ The sea waved with glee/ When I held you close to me.” The words are simple but sweet; for me, the folk art-y, naïve paintings are what really make the book. (Mirik Snir should be shepping serious nachas from her artist daughter.) Brightly colored, curvy images of lots of animal parents and babies cuddling make a soothing yet unboring (blessedly pastel-free) read for little ones. There’s a quote in Hebrew and English at the end, from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “The day you were born is the day God decided that the world could not exist without you.” And there’s a place at the back to place your child’s photo and birthdate. What kid wouldn’t feel safe and special when this book was read to him? (Infant to Grade 1)

The Yankee at the Seder

The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Tricycle). This book is based on the true story of a Civil War-era Southern Jewish family that invited a passing Northern Jewish soldier to Passover dinner, only a day after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Uh-oh. The family’s 10-year-old son, Jacob, is horrified to have a “Yankee Jew” in attendance. He’s grieving the end of the war and the loss of his dreams: “I was never going to be a Rebel general. I’d never capture a whole unit of Yankees single-handed.” The tensions at the seder table are both uncomfortable and exciting. Jacob’s father pointedly tells the soldier that the message of the haggadah is that “no man needs to submit to the tyranny of an evil government;” the soldier, Myer Levy, says that the Passover story is about “how no man wants to be a slave and about how wonderful it is to be free.” Differences are put aside for the meal, but no one hugs it out at the end. “Well, that was something, wasn’t it?” is all the mom can come up with afterward. The book is illustrated with luscious, dark-toned oil paintings. There’s a historical note and photos at the end, but the book doesn’t feel at all like boring school stuff. (Grades 2-4)

The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak

The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak by Tomek Bogacki (FSG/Foster). This is another book that sounds like a noble, virtuous, narcolepsy-inducing history lesson—the spinach of Jewish juvenilia. Yet of all the books on this list, this one is by far my daughter Josie’s favorite. (She’s eight.) Korczak grows up in Warsaw, encounters anti-Semitism, pledges to fight for children’s rights, goes to medical school, starts an orphanage for Jewish children in which the kids help govern themselves and create a just society. Josie loved that last part. The book is beautifully illustrated, with acrylic paintings that have a slightly skewed, just-barely-cartoonish perspective. Some paintings stand alone while others are tiny spot illustrations integrated into the text. There’s so much to look at. And at the end, when Korczak’s children are marched from the Warsaw ghetto to the train that will take them to their deaths in Treblinka, there’s so much to mourn. I still think Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars is a better introduction to the idea of the Holocaust, but this is a gorgeous, gently-told book that every Jewish kid should eventually read. (Grades 2-4, and for adults, too)


Faith by Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakasis, and Cynthia Pon (Charlesbridge). This photography book illustrates how different cultures around the world pray, read sacred books, eat, visit holy places, celebrate festivals, and mark lifecycle events. Some kids love to look at photos of other kids, and this book will hypnotize them. There’s very little text. The images celebrate diversity without bludgeoning anyone over the head with it. We see a Jewish girl making challah with her zayde, a young Buddhist novice meditating, Nigerian children praying together, a bar-mitzvah boy chanting the Torah, a Muslim family breaking the daily fast during Ramadan, a Guatemalan kid with missing front teeth grinning broadly in an Easter mask. Charming. (Pre-K to Grade 4)

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! By Jonah Winter, illustrated by André Carrilho. (Schwartz & Wade, $17.99) Many years ago, as a tiny Jew, I got sick of hearing about Sandy Koufax. Whenever a kid would say there aren’t any great Jewish athletes, some grownup would trot out the story of a guy a million years ago who sat out a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur. To which we tiny Jews said (in our tiny heads): big whoop. Our unasked question: how much did that guy’s teammates and all the fans want to kill him? It sure didn’t sound Good for the Jews, refusing to play in the World Series. Will today’s tiny Jews also be resistant to hearing about how Sandy Koufax was awesomely Jewish and noble (there’s that word again)? Not if this book can help it. It’s enticing even without the nobility angle. There’s a crazy moving 3-D holographic cover image of Koufax mid-pitch. The illustrations are cool and distorted and freaky—and there’s a lot of brilliant gold leaf in them. Koufax is all arcing-curving-curve-ball-throwing giant arms, plus a set of bushy eyebrows. He’s pure power. He’s an enigma. The unnamed teammate who narrates this book (in a folksy voice that could possibly be deemed annoying) doesn’t really understand him, and we don’t either. But the fact that the main character feels elusive is OK. We respect his hard work, the way he faces anti-Semitism, the way no one can figure out what motivates him when he suddenly quits baseball at his peak. We end up just admiring the guy’s individuality; that’s better and truer than hagiography. Sometimes questions are richer than answers.(Grades 1-4)

When I Wore My Sailor Suit

When I Wore My Sailor Suit by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This book, for very young kids, is a little snippet of one of Shulevitz’s childhood memories. Little Uri visits the Mintzes’ apartment and plays with a model ship on a dresser, imagining himself on a daring voyage where he meets a pirate and finds a treasure map. But he’s pulled out of his fantasy by a painting in the room: a portrait with creepy eyes that seem to follow him. At first Uri is too freaked out to continue his imaginary play, but eventually he finds a way to defeat the picture’s scariness and go back to his world-sailing fantasy. Shulevitz is a heavy hitter in children’s books—he won a Caldecott Medal in 1969, for The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, and has illustrated nearly 40 books (including Isaac Bashevis Singer’s astounding—and shockingly out of print—1982 retelling of The Golem). Last year’s How I Learned Geography is a more Serious, Important autobiographical book—that one, for slightly older children, addressed more directly Shulevitz’s childhood in World War II-era Warsaw (where his apartment was hit by a bomb in 1939, while he was home) and his family’s flight to Paris, Turkmenistan, and then Israel. Mid-journey, the father can’t afford food at a desert market, and instead comes home with a map, which turns out to offer its own kind of nourishment in terrible times. Both books are about the power of storytelling and imagination. The illustrations in When I Wore My Sailor Suit are warmer and more inviting than the ornate, sweeping vistas Shulevitz paints in How I Learned Geography. They’re cozy. And the story deals with addressing fear in an authentic, manageable way. Maxine, age five, adores it. (Pre-K to Grade 2)

Next week: the year’s best chapter books.

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Alice Hale says:

I have to disagree with you about the book Faith. I recently looked through this book at a conference and at first I was very excited about getting it for the Jewish preschool at which I work. But by the time I finished reading it, it had moved to the “don’t buy” list. Why? All of the Jews depicted are men, with the exception of the little girl making challah. At our conservative, egalitarian synagogue women pray, chant Torah, lead services — we want books that depict women and girls participating in all aspects of Jewish life, not just “women’s work.”

Alice, that’s a valid point. There are 8 pictures of Jews in the book, and only 2 depict girls. (In addition to the girl making challah, there is girl shaking a lulav.)

Thanks for your comment.

Oh, an additional note: I didn’t include Leslea Newman’s new board books Daddy, Papa and Me or Mommy, Mama and Me because they don’t have any explicitly Jewish content, but if I were buying books for any egalitarian community that included small children, I’d want both. They’re the first board books I’ve seen that star two-mom and two-dad families. Simple, cute illos, very competently done.

We are so proud that FAITH (a Global Fund for Children book) has been embraced by TABLET as a Great Kids’ Book.

I wish to respond to Alice and add a note about the book’s development. We do pay attention to gender representation. As Marjorie points out, there are two images in FAITH that show a girl learning to make challah bread, and celebrating Sukkot. Ideally we would have liked to include more images of girls “participating in all aspects of Jewish life.” We sourced the book’s pictures from many photographers, from existing stock. We did not commission photos, however, for budget reasons. We hope communities would make available more images of egalitarian participation in the future.

Regarding the challah-making image, we selected the one of the grandfather passing down the tradition to the granddaughter over many similar images showing a girl learning from her grandmother or mother. We try to convey that traditions are not bound by gender.

One other note: while a number of images in the book show girls praying, we do not wish to suggest that only girls pray, or that girls only pray. We want to show girls laughing, celebrating friendship with, and helping those in need, including people of other faiths. We agree that women and girls by participating in all aspects of life, enrich, indeed, give vital expressions of faith.

Janus Korczak is one of my all time heroes, what he did for’his’children was nothing less than amazing.

I was lucky enough to get an early copy of NEW YEAR AT THE PIER by April Halprin Wayland/illustrated by Stephane Jorich because April came to visit last year around February or early March. I think it is one of my favorite books because of the message of forgiveness and moving on to be better and feel better in a new year. I featured this book during Rosh Hashana on illuminara when it first came out. Thanks for guiding us to the other books as well!

Jay Golan says:

You should note that the PJ Library project of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation has an exhaustive and ongoing review process for the best Jewish children’s picture books with Jewish content, issues and history. Moreover, books are offered to be sent monthly it’s offered at minimal cost to more than 100 communitites throughout the United States – and it’s easy to sign up on an individual basis and to get connected to others, through the PJ Library website enrollment. It’s a fantastic addition to making Jewish content available at an early age, especially for parents unsure of their own mastery of the content.

Michele Lifshen Reing says:

Fantastic and fascinating list. Love your picks Marjorie and thus passing on to Bubbie and Zayde. They kvell for such info. Happy Hanukkah. Looking forward to the chapter book list!

I absolutely loved ‘New Year at the Pier’! It was a big hit at the little independent bookshop where I work in Melbourne. Gave it to my two-year-old cousin, who loved the pictures, though the narrative was a bit too complex for someone not yet kindergarten-aged! I also really dug the not-too-preachy, pan-denominational vibe. Good for children from families of all sorts of levels of religious observance and affiliation.

Do you know about ‘The Man Who Flies With Birds’? It was published quite recently by Kar-Ben and is a really gorgeous, non-fiction picture book for older primary-school aged children (grade 4 and up). It’s all about the work of Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem, who studies bird migration in a little cessna (he literally flies with the birds) and has conducted ground-breaking research into endangered species, migration patterns, the risk of bird strikes with planes – pretty much anything bird related. I never thought I would find a book on ornithology so interesting. Older kids and adults love it.

The Yankee at the Seder is such a beautiful story. I read it at shul last Pesach and had to choke out the end of it because we were all teary.

Thanks for this list. Several new ones for me. Guess I know some new selections to add to our little guy’s wish list!

elissa, thanks for the tip! i’ll check it out.

i desperately wanted to love kar-ben’s book menorah under the sea, which sounds like it COULD have done for marine biology what the man who flies with birds did for ornithology…but it was deeply flawed. wah!! so much potential, squandered! (i wrote about it on goodreads if you wanna search out the review.)

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Dear Marjorie,
Since I live in Israel, and all my grandchildren are being raised in Hebrew, I was drawn to When I First Held You by Mirik Snir, which actually came out in English before the Hebrew. But I was able to find it in time for Hanukah – it is a beautiful book and I thank you for making me aware of it. I bought 3 – one for each family with grandchildren.
Zelda Katz

Hmm… that’s a pretty interesting story. Quick question – do you think there’s a more effective strategy?

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Great Kids’ Books

The best Jewish picture books of 2009

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