October 15, 2018

Read Me a Story

Sure, the children’s shelves at bookstores are crowded with schlocky merchandising tie-ins and humorless “P.C.” stories that groan under the weight of their own environmental and multi-culti lessons. But look a bit more carefully; you’ll find the kinds of books that create those magical moments between adults and children.

Both the independents and the retail megastores now devote valuable space to kids’ titles. Children’s programming at bookstores now rivals — and, in many communities, surpasses — that of the old-fashioned (and cash-strapped) neighborhood library. Most larger stores boast a year-round slate of readings, craft activities, signings and story hours. Along with the increase in choice among titles of general interest, there’s a better, more interesting mix of Jewish-themed picture books. For those who still conjure up their old, uninspired Sunday-school readers when they think of “Jewish stories,” it’s time to take a second look. Below, a sampling of new (and nearly new) illustrated books of Jewish interest:

“The Never-Ending Greenness” (Morrow Junior Books, $16) by Neil Waldman

The idea for this poetic and moving story was sparked years ago, when Neil Waldman, now a grandfather and veteran children’s author-illustrator, first saw the reforested Judean hills while on a visit to a kibbutz outside of Jerusalem. “I began wondering,” he writes, “about the people who had planted these trees and what their lives had been like.”

The result is “The Never-Ending Greenness,” a lyrical, fictional memory tale that begins in interwar Europe: “I was born many years ago in a city called Vilna. I remember my papa’s bakery, all filled with wonderful smells. I remember the synagogue and the great library. But, mostly, I remember the trees.”

The ensuing Nazi occupation (painted in shades of gray and black) is handled with deftness and brevity. The boy-narrator and his mother escape and make their way to “Eretz Yisrael,” where they await Papa, who was forced to join the army. In his adopted home, the boy explores ruins, finds ancient Roman coins and watches gazelles drink at a nearby spring. After dreaming about a magical forest, he begins to plant, and the efforts of this Jewish Johnny Appleseed are flourishing by the time his father happily reappears. By story’s end, the saplings are a mighty forest, the narrator is an old man, and children from all over the world are sending seeds to Israel in honor of Tu B’Shevat.

Waldman’s dreamily impressionistic scenes are filled with wonder, and while this book offers a slice of modern Israeli history, the author’s warmth and gentle wisdom about children make it into something much deeper — a tale of love, hope, grace and connection that delivers an unusual level of emotional richness.

“Dybbuk: A Story Made in Heaven” (Greenwillow Books, $16) retold by Francine Prose and illustrated by Mark Podwal

This newest take on “The Dybbuk” is a witty, surprisingly satisfying retelling. Jewish legend has it that 40 days before a baby is born, the angels get together and decide who the child will marry. When the parents of Leah from Chopski arrange her marriage to Mean Old Benya instead of to her beloved beshert, young Chonon from Klopski, the unwilling bride is possessed by a dybbuk.

Some comical hand-wringing and pontificating among the rabbis ensue, but, ultimately, Chonon is summoned to the chuppah, Leah is “de-possessed,” and the wedding guests feast happily on a “mountain of cake and bread” and an “ocean of chicken soup.”

Writer Francine Prose, whose acclaimed novel “Hungry Hearts” dealt with a theatrical production of “The Dybbuk,” has said that she always thought the legend was also the stuff of a great children’s book. She has great fun here, showing us that she was right. Mark Podwal’s elegant and beautifully colored illustrations are like a playful homage to Chagall, with their winged angels, flying violins and rooftop fiddlers wrapped in tallitot. Every page is magical and evocative. A winning introduction to a classic tale.

“The Angel’s Mistake: Stories of Chelm” (Greenwillow Books, $15) retold by Francine Prose and illustrated by Mark Podwal

As they did with their previous collaboration, a retelling of “The Dybbuk,” Prose and Podwal have scored again — this time with the story of how Chelm, that fabled shtetl of fools, came into being. The 7-year-olds I read it to giggled so helplessly that they began sliding off the couch.

The Chelm-niks’ elaborately befuddled logic should prove irresistible to adult readers too: “When the man who woke the townspeople for morning prayers got too old to go from house to house, they took their doors off the hinges and brought them to him so that he could knock on their doors without leaving his yard.” Prose’s writing is buoyant, crisp and funny. Podwal’s painterly illustrations are both sophisticated and silly. Together, this talented team has recreated, for a new generation, that delightfully jumbled capital of narishkayt in a book infused with Jewish wit and imagery.