October 20, 2018

Holiday tales will tantalize tots and parents

The best of this season’s new Passover books include an old European folktale reimagined, an enthusiastic nod to experiential Judaism with the “Adventure Rabbi,” a beautifully illustrated retelling of the story of Moses, and a cute affirmation of what it means to be the youngest in the family at Passover time.

“Stone Soup with Matzoh Balls: A Passover Tale in Chelm” by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Maryam Tabatabaei (Albert Whitman & Co., $16.99).

Popular author Linda Glaser retells the fable of “Stone Soup,” adding a Jewish twist. Young readers will enjoy the entertaining tale of a hungry (and mischievous) stranger who comes to town claiming he can make soup from only a stone. Of course he outwits the gullible townspeople, and they each happily contribute to a communal pot of delicious matzah ball soup just in time for the seder. In 1995, Canadian children’s author and storyteller Aubrey Davis wrote a longer version of this story, titled “Bone Button Borscht.” Glaser’s inspired innovation is to set her story on Passover, in the town of Chelm, where the people are known for being foolish. On Passover, we are taught that all who are hungry should come and eat, and thus the hungry stranger’s deception eventually encourages the miserly townspeople to change their ways. This well-told tale will delight young children, who will catch on to the stranger’s trickery and the townspeople’s foolishness as they experience this old European folktale, now tweaked with a bit of Jewish flavor. The illustrations are charming and child-friendly, with one two-page spread notable for an “inside the soup pot” perspective that is very clever. An interesting short bio on the back flap notes that the talented illustrator, Maryam Tabatabaei, lives in Tehran, Iran.

“Seder in the Desert,” by Jamie Korngold, photos by Jeff Finkelstein (Kar-Ben, $17.95). 

This excellent photo-illustrated book opens with a great line: “Why is this seder different from all others? Because this year we are celebrating Passover in the desert.” The oversized brown-colored text with appealing font is accompanied by a huge photo of various people trekking through a beautiful sepia-toned desert landscape (could it be Israel?), clearly on their way to someplace wonderful. They climb over red rocks and up slanted sandstone, assisting one another as the Israelites surely did long ago. They carefully carry a Torah in a special backpack. When they arrive at the spot where they will have the seder, they begin to unpack the foods, folding chairs and haggadot. Individual children are depicted in photos explaining each of the symbols on the seder plate in simple language. The Torah is unscrolled, with each participant holding up a portion in a long line, as the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery is read aloud under the blazing blue sky. Then, “like Miriam and the Israelite women,” they sing “Dayenu” and dance with tambourines. The book’s endnotes explain that this experiential seder idea is the brainchild of Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, spiritual leader of the “Adventure Rabbi” Program, who once worked as an Outward Bound guide as well as other adventurous occupations. More than 250 people from more than 18 states and five countries have joined this program in Utah’s Moab desert, which re-enacts the Exodus from Egypt, and looks like quite a lot of fun. Their Web site is

“The Story of Passover” by David A. Adler, illustrated by Jill Weber (Holiday House, $15.95). 

Prolific children’s author David Adler, known for his picture-book biographies and the popular Cam Jansen series, is back with another Passover book, which will sensibly replace “A Picture Book of Passover,” Adler’s original 1982 book about the holiday. This version is more colorful, less wordy and simply more accessible to the target audience of 4- to 8-year-olds. The story is well told and straightforward, but it is the unusual folk-art beauty of the illustrations by Jill Weber that make this book a standout. The spread of Moses in the basket and his mother’s tearful goodbye as an anxious sister, Miriam, looks on could easily grace the wall of a museum. The expressive illustrations of the Ten Plagues will particularly fascinate children and surely find an appreciative adult audience. These two have worked together before on “The Story of Hanukkah,” so one hopes other Jewish holidays will inspire future collaborations from this gifted author-illustrator pair.

“The Littlest Levine,” by Sandy Lanton, illustrated by Claire Keay (Kar-Ben, $17.95).

Hannah Levine hates being the “littlest Levine” and wants to ride the school bus, tie her shoes, hang paper chains from the Sukkah, light Chanukah candles and bake hamantashen. Her grandpa continually reminds her, “Soon you’ll be proud to be the littlest Levine.” After Purim, Grandpa teaches her something from a book every evening, and on the night of the seder, while the older siblings are helping their parents prepare the table settings, Hannah and Grandpa disappear into his study. Children will guess what the set-up is leading to — little Hannah reciting the Four Questions. “Today I love being the littlest Levine,” she says, amid hugs and pride all around. A simple story, but the cheery tone and oversized illustrations are perfect for the preschool set.