Holiday reading round-up for kids

The good news for Jewish children’s books this year is the occasion of the 20th anniversary of beloved picture book character Sammy Spider. There is even a colorful plush toy available on the publisher’s Web site ( Sammy’s creator, the prolific L.A.-based children’s author Sylvia Rouss, continues to turn out new titles for Jewish children, and her two newest books are highlighted here. One of them does not feature any talking spiders, but it is a delightful Sukkot-themed collaboration with Sylvia’s daughter, Shannon Rouss. Unfortunately, the same economic issues affecting the secular world of children’s publishing have hurt Jewish children’s book publishing; it is hard to justify publication of books about Jewish holidays when the likely sales of such books will be minimal, thus leaving few to choose from. However, the following new titles rise above the rest and will make fine holiday choices for the coming new year. 

“Sammy Spider’s First Yom Kippur” by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben, $16.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback).

Josh Shapiro and his family, along with Sammy and his patient spider mother, again appear in a holiday tale — this one focusing on the meaning of Yom Kippur. As usual, little Sammy is the curious observer of all things human, who never quite gets the fact that he is actually a spider and is supposed to spend time spinning webs, not celebrating Jewish holidays. And, again, his wise spider mother is a font of all Judaic knowledge, explaining various rituals in simple, preschool-appropriate language. Young Josh has disobeyed family rules and played with his ball inside, inadvertently breaking the honey dish, and disturbing Sammy and Mrs. Spider’s intricate web. Josh has been learning about Jewish holidays in school, and his parents help him to write up a list of “people you want to apologize to before Yom Kippur.” In the end, it is not only his parents who deserve to hear, “I’m sorry,” but Sammy Spider as well. The colorful cut-paper art by Katherine Janus Kahn is reminiscent of Eric Carle’s work and is the most appealing aspect of this fun series for children. Other appropriate titles for the season include “Sammy Spider’s First Rosh Hashanah,” “Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot” and “Sammy Spider’s First Simchat Torah.” 

“A Watermelon in the Sukkah” by Sylvia A. Rouss and Shannan Rouss, Illustrated by Ann Iosa (Kar-Ben, $16.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback).

All the kids in Miss Sharon’s class are excited about being able to bring their favorite fruits to school in order to hang them in the sukkah. Michael is especially excited because his favorite fruit is a … watermelon. Uh-oh! This funny premise will engage children while they are learning about how the holiday is celebrated. Miss Sharon is unusually accommodating to Michael’s request to find a way to hang up the watermelon, and the other children in class are depicted as enjoying the various attempts to solve the conundrum. But before Michael resigns himself to bringing his “second-favorite fruit” to school, the class figures out an ingenious solution and all ends well. The bright and cheery artwork accents the moods of the happy schoolchildren along with a curious squirrel who seems to enjoy watching the problem-solving process. Luckily for everyone, Michael’s second-favorite fruit — a pumpkin! — gets left at home.

“Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook” by Jane Yolen, recipes by Heidi E.Y. Stemple, illustrated by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin (Crocodile Books, $25).

Is it a cookbook or a story collection? It’s both — the unusual format of this handsome book will appeal to families who like good food and good stories. Noted storyteller Jane Yolen retells 18 Jewish tales (adding interesting tidbits about her source material on the final page of each story) followed by Stemple’s tasty recipes, which correspond to each story in obvious ways. The book is broken up into categories of brunch, soup, main courses and dessert. Each story is preceded by an appropriate Jewish saying, such as, “The reddest apple may have a worm,” which begins the Middle Eastern story of “The Three Skillful Brothers,” in which an apple plays an important role. For the upcoming holidays, “Two Jars of Honey” or “The Loaves in the Ark” would work nicely. Afterward, families can enjoy making honey cake or challah with the provided recipes. Later in the year, there are many other stories and correlated recipes to enjoy. It is nice to see that the authors have included Jewish ethnicities other than Ashkenazi. Young people can learn how to make shakshuka after hearing the story of Chaim, the yeshiva boy who comes back to an inn 25 years after eating an egg that he did not pay for. Pomegranate couscous is another surprise main course with kid appeal. Although the oversized book’s layout, design and colorful collage illustrations are particularly engaging for reading, it may be a bit cumbersome for the actual cook. Note to gift givers: The level of sophistication is high, and some of the stories are complex, so this book is recommended for well-seasoned readers age 10 and up.

“The Very Crowded Sukkah” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Bob McMahon (Two Lions, $17.99).

Sam, his parents, and his sister Ava are busily preparing the family sukkah by hanging paper chains, cranberry strings and fall fruits and vegetables, when a sudden rainstorm surprises them and they run inside the house to avoid a soaking. The forlorn children watch and wait by the window for the sun to make an appearance. Meanwhile, other outside creatures have the same idea. Into the sukkah flies a ladybug and a butterfly to dry off their wings. Ants march in the dirt and bunnies shake off their wet, puffy tails. When the rain stops, Sam’s family does get to enjoy their holiday meal in the cozy, uncrowded sukkah, and they eventually clean up and go to bed. Kids will get the joke on the final two-page spread: Night has fallen and the sukkah is again populated by myriad curious animals seeking out whatever crumbs they can find. The large and brightly colored illustrations depict a joyous family celebration, and the text is written in the perfect meter to be read aloud to very young children, who will enjoy naming the cute animals and finding the hidden ladybug. An author’s note on the final page provides useful information about the holiday of Sukkot.