September 25, 2018

Children’s Books for Passover and Beyond

A new family haggadah and a cute redo of a classic Passover picture book are available now in time for Passover. And for springtime reading, we recommend two award-winning Jewish-themed novels for older children, along with a recent picture book about Purim that could possibly become a year-round favorite.

Haggadah
“Welcome to the Seder: A Passover Haggadah for Everyone”
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitsky. Illustrated by Rinat Gilboa. Behrman House, 2018.

This appealing new haggadah is targeted at families who enjoy including seder guests from other ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Written by Rabbi Kerry Olitsky, founder of Big Tent Judaism, the haggadah includes traditional Passover texts and rituals, and adds poems and stories that highlight a universal message of freedom. Relevant quotes are interspersed within the text, including thoughts from Nelson Mandela and Confucius, along with wise, present-day rabbis. Occasional sidebars offer acceptable versions of blessings from other religious traditions that would make a multicultural seder more inclusive. Most of the haggadah is in English, with a lot of transliteration, along with the more important blessings presented in Hebrew. The thoughtful design includes pleasing watercolor artwork and a large amount of white space. This haggadah should prove to be a hit with families searching for ways to include interfaith and multicultural traditions at their Passover tables.

Picture Books
“The Passover Parrot”
By Evelyn Zusman. Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker. Kar-Ben, 2018.

Those who enjoyed the 1984 classic story of the parrot who steals the afikomen and the little girl who cleverly gets it back will be pleased to see this new 2018 revision. Hametz is the colorful and talkative parrot who arrives in the Brooklyn home of Lily and her large family right before Passover. No one seems to have time to hear Lily practice the Mah Nishtanah, so she recites the Four Questions in front of Hametz, who is “never too busy to listen.” The parrot cleverly shows off his newfound knowledge at the right moment in the seder but then steals the afikomen and won’t drop it from his beak. Lily saves the day by singing the first Hebrew question, knowing that Hametz will have to open his mouth to supply the answer. This revised edition is appealing and fun for kids due to the mixed collage art and large print. Plus, the illustrator has assured that this gem of a story is suitable for families of all observance levels due to the inclusion of kippot on the heads of all Jewish boys and traditional depictions of home holiday observances.

“A Queen in Jerusalem”
By Tami Shem-Tov and Rachella Sandbank. Illustrated by Avi Ofer. Kar-Ben, 2018.

“A Queen in Jerusalem” is about Purim, not Passover, but it’s too significant to omit from this list of new books. It is rare enough for a modern English-language children’s book to take place in Jerusalem, but rarer still to provide British Mandate Palestine as the setting. The name of the main character, Malka, means “queen” in Hebrew, and young Malka wants her mother to make her a Queen Esther costume for Purim. She is disappointed to find that her mother is just too busy. Malka angrily storms through the old city until she encounters a man chiseling stone into a statue. She enters his studio and discovers weavers who create for her a beautiful robe, goldsmiths who create a regal scepter and crown, and artists who find inspiration from her regal costume as she sits on a throne before them. Although the place seems magical, we learn that the man is Bulgarian immigrant Boris Schatz, and Malka has stumbled upon the beginnings of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, a place that has existed for more than 100 years. This is one of the few Hebrew-language children’s books to be translated into English, possibly because the dual authors are well known among Israel’s children’s literature scene. This charming read-aloud book will appeal to children who love to dress up (don’t they all?), with the bonus of getting a short introduction to Jewish art and history upon reading the author’s note at the end.

Middle Grade Novels for Older Children
“Refugee”
By Alan Gratz. Scholastic, 2017.

As a recent winner of both the Sydney Taylor Award and the National Jewish Book Award, Gratz’s novel, for grades 5–7, has become a bit of a phenomenon that also presents a super-timely narrative. The different journeys of three young refugees — a boy from Nazi Germany (on the ship St. Louis), a girl from 1990s Cuba and a boy from present-day Syria — are seamlessly woven together by the author to create a historically accurate and highly engaging experience for the reader. The three children and their families battle their restrictive governments with bravery, and eventually make daring escapes in the hope of remaking their lives. Although the time periods are different, the gut-wrenching decisions these children are forced to make span time and place and serve as examples to readers as to what the process of migration entails. An adventurous, suspenseful read that sheds light on the reality of a desperate global situation.

“Lucky Broken Girl”
By Ruth Behar. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2017.

Ruth Behar, a Jewish Cuban-American cultural anthropologist and poet, escaped the Castro regime with her family when she was 5 years old. She has based this poignant and lyrical tale on her own difficult immigrant childhood growing up in New York City. Just as young Ruthie endeavors to learn English and the confusing ways of America, a devastating car accident leaves her in a full-body cast for a very long time. It seems as if her dreams are broken along with her body, but Ruthie’s story of crossing multicultural boundaries turns out to be a story of resilience and hope that speaks so well to today’s young readers. It is also delightful to see a middle-grade novel that features a proud Sephardic Jewish protagonist. This book was a deserving finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Young Readers.


Lisa Silverman is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library located at American Jewish University.