High Holy Days: Books for children and teens
“Oh No, Jonah!”
by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Jago (Kar-Ben: $7.95)
Those parents and teachers looking for a new twist on the story of Jonah (read yearly on Yom Kippur) need look no more. This latest version from children’s author Tilda Balsley sticks to the biblical text but is appropriate for very young children. The clever rhymes demand to be read out loud, such as after Jonah suggests that the frightened fisherman throw him into the sea: “Immediately, the weather cleared. / But things were worse than Jonah feared / ‘I wish I hadn’t volunteered.’ ” The vibrant, bold illustrations are truly stunning, and the artist’s interpretation of a huge, bright orange fish is probably more accurate than the usual depictions of whales. “A giant fish swam to his side / And stared at him all google-eyed. / Its mouth, humongous, opened wide / and, CHOMP! / He found himself inside.” Entertaining fun with a biblical message of forgiveness that is surely important to remember during the High Holy Days.
“It’s a … It’s a … It’s a Mitzvah”
by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman, illustrated by Laurel Molk (Jewish Lights: $18.99)
If your kids haven’t heard of Mitzvah Meerkat and all his animal friends, then it’s time to introduce them to this delightfully illustrated picture book. The authors were inspired by a well-known Talmud teaching relating the importance of various good deeds, such as honoring parents, visiting the sick, helping the needy, bringing peace between people and more. The lively animal characters joyously perform many mitzvot that children can easily relate to, and the clever layout helps parents introduce the Jewish concepts of performing good deeds in an age-appropriate manner. The title refers to the rhythmic refrain that can be chanted for fun by kids during a story-time session, but the whimsical pen-and-ink watercolor drawings are the highlight of this engaging way to introduce children to acts of loving kindness. Thankfully not preachy or otherwise didactic, the lessons are cute and contemporary. (The sheep are knitting scarves, the monkeys play on monkey bars, etc.) This is an excellent book for the preschool classroom, but the cuteness factor of the animals’ antics will ensure that parents at home will also get lots of pleasure in learning great Jewish values and passing them on to future generations.
“The Apple Tree’s Discovery”
by Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis, illustrated by Wendy W. Lee (Kar-Ben: $7.95)
Well-known author and storyteller Peninnah Schram reminds us in her afterword to this charming fable: “To find the star in the apple, you must turn it on its side and cut it in half. We must look hard to find the beautiful star in each of us, and sometimes it just takes a change of direction.” When a little apple tree notices that stars in the sky appear to be hanging from branches of the taller oak trees, she asks God to grant her wish to also have stars. Although God notes that her “fragrant blossoms fill the air” and her “branches offer a resting place for birds” she covets only what others have. But when God causes a wind to blow and suddenly her delicious apples hit the ground, they split open, exposing the beautiful star within. This sweet parable about appreciating God’s gifts and understanding our own uniqueness is a universal tale. It will be particularly memorable if you remember to read it before you slice those Rosh Hashanah apples — by turning them on their sides and finding that elusive star.
“Be Like God: God’s To-Do List for Kids”
by Ron Wolfson (Jewish Lights: $15.99)
Did you know God gave us superpowers? This inspirational guide/journal for kids (ages 8-12) shows us how “our God shares God’s powers with us so we can make our lives better and the lives of others better. When we learn how to use God’s superpowers, we become God’s partners — God’s superheroes — on earth.” Even though it sounds moralistic, it isn’t. In fact, it looks like fun. The paperback volume sets up prominent Jewish educator Ron Wolfson as a friendly uncle who asks you thought-provoking questions and lets you write down all your answers in your book. This book is a kids’ version of Wolfson’s 2006 adult book, “God’s To-Do List — 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth.” Divided into 10 chapters such as “Rest,” “Care,” “Give” or “Forgive,” it can serve as a young person’s means of truly understanding the ways he or she can bring goodness into our world. Wolfson is remarkably at ease with the sort of unaffected language that will appeal to young people. The book is attractively designed, the stories within are engaging, and the child’s urge to write in it will be irresistible.
“Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens”
edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Jewish Lights: $24.99)
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin (author of “Putting God on the Guest List”) wants young people to know that the Torah is about their lives — even if they are teenagers. “Every passage of Torah has the potential to be someone’s personal story and teaching — and that definitely includes you as a teenager,” he writes. Rabbi Salkin serves as editor of this volume and he has gathered insights into each of the 54 Torah portions from more than 100 Jews of all denominations. Most are rabbis, but other contributors are well-known educators, authors or community leaders. Some of the names that would be familiar to Angelenos would be Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, Chazzan Danny Maseng, Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Rabbi David Wolpe, Ron Wolfson, Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Spike Anderson, Rabbi Zoë Klein, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi William Cutter, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Joel Lurie Grishaver, Rabbi Denise Eger and Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz. Each short, two- to three-page essay is written in an engaging teen-centered style, such as one by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, which opens the discussion of Parshat Miketz with this line: “How do you know whom to trust and what is true? In Miketz, Pharaoh faces that problem.” Of course this is a wonderful resource for bar mitzvah students, but it can also serve as the first go-to book for families who enjoy sharing Torah insights at Shabbat or holiday meals.
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.