Dybbuks and Heroes Liven Holiday Books

Kibitzers, dreamers, medieval travelers and dybbuks are among the wide array of heroes, heroines and mystical villains in this season’s crop of Jewish children’s books, as publishers expand their offerings beyond holiday books and biblical retellings.

The roster of publishers is also evolving as much as the books they publish. An estimated 160 new Jewish children’s titles were published last year by a growing number of mainstream and religious publishers. This reflects a national growth among religious-themed books.

Ilene Cooper, the children’s book editor of Booklist, a trade magazine published by the American Library Association, said that several years ago, Booklist began publishing an annual spotlight on religion books.

“It was hard then to come up with enough books to fill the list,” she said, but not anymore.

Here are some of the most notable new titles.

“Angel Secrets: Stories Based on Jewish Legend,” by Miriam Chaikin, illustrated by Leonid Gore (Holt, $18.95, ages 5 and up)

Chaikin reveals her mastery of lyrically crafted, endearing stories based on biblical interpretations about the angels who link heaven and earth. Perfect for reading aloud. Chaikin writes warmly of angels of forgetfulness, alphabet angels and the palace of love. Gore’s dreamlike illustrations accompany each story.

“Dreamer From the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall,” by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Holt, $16.95, ages 4-8)

From the attic window of his home in a small town in Russia, the young Moshe Chagall, better known as Marc, sees the world differently from others. Colors are bolder, houses float in the sky and fiddlers dance on rooftops. Markel chronicles Chagall’s young life as he turns from a dreamer to an artist.

Lisker’s fanciful, colorful Chagallesque illustrations dance across the pages. A short biography is provided at the end.

“Dybbuk: A Version,” by Barbara Rogasky, illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher (Holiday House, $16.95, ages 7-10)

This tale, loosely based on the famous Kabbalist play by S. Ansky, is a mysterious, intricate story of broken promises, retribution and love set long, long ago in the tiny village of Brinitz. Rogasky’s retelling is skillful and engrossing. Illustrations by the award-winning Fisher are bold and haunting.

“Hidden Child,” by Isaac Millman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18, ages 8-12)

As a young boy growing up in Paris before World War II, Millman, whose name then was Isaac Sztrymfman, lived a happy life, accompanying his father on Sunday mornings to the nearby cafe, where Yiddish-speaking patrons debated politics.

But the German occupation of France in 1940, when Isaac was 7 years old, changed life forever. In straightforward prose and captivating graphic artwork and photographs, Millman recounts the story of his survival as he became one of the “hidden” children of the war.

Millman strikes a perfect balance in recounting the tragic hardships he endured, while revealing the acts of human kindness of people who took risks to protect him.

“A Horn for Louis,” by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by James Bernardin (Random House, $11.95, ages 6-9).

Leave it to master storyteller Kimmel to write a flowing and heartwarming story about the unique friendship between the young Louis Armstrong and the Karnofskys, a Jewish family in New Orleans. Great for reading aloud, this early reader about New Orleans’ most famous jazzman is made ever more powerful as a portrait of daily life long before Hurricane Katrina devastated this colorful city rich in American cultural history.

“Kibbitzers and Fools, Tales My Zayda Told Me,” by Simms Taback (Viking, $16.99, ages 3 and up)

Bedtime reading doesn’t get more fun than with these Yiddish tales recast by Taback, Caldecott-winning author and artist of “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.” Be prepared to laugh along with the kids who’ll delight in the baffling riddles of kibitzers and shlemiels. Why bring along an umbrella full of holes, asks Mendel. “I didn’t think it was going to rain,” replies Itzik.

The colorful illustrations are as offbeat and humorous as the narrative. Taback fills his short stories with easy-to-learn Yiddish expressions (and their definitions) and adds a glossary at the end.

“Sholom’s Treasure,” by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16, ages 4-10)

The two award winners are perfectly matched as Silverman engages young readers with the childhood world of Sholom Aleichem as he grows from class clown to master storyteller. Gerstein’s illustrations are delightfully playful as he gives readers a Sholom with rosy cheeks, reddish-brown curls under his cap and an impishly endearing smile.

“The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela,” by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17, ages 5 and up)

Shulevitz has created a wondrous, illustrated travelogue just right for children by recreating the little-known voyages of a Jewish traveler who visits Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad and Jerusalem in the 12th century. Shulevitz uses the first-person narrative to draw readers in.

Shulevitz has won awards for several books, including “The Treasure” and “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship.”

“Four Sides, Eight Nights,” by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, illustrated by Susanna Natti (Roaring Brook Press, $16.95, ages 4-8)

An offbeat, fun book that goes beyond the traditional Chanukah story to explore the history of the dreidel and spinning tops from around the world. There are dreidel facts from collectors and Sevivon science, including a lesson on friction from Sir Isaac Newton.

Natti is familiar to young readers as the artist of the popular Cam Jansen series, and her light touch and expressive characters enliven the book.

A New Blend of Chick-Lit Sleuth


“Sex, Murder and a Double Latte” (Red Dress Ink, $17.95)

Like her protagonist Sophie Katz, Kyra Davis has skin the color of a “well-brewed latte.” That’s why she has spent a large portion of her life fielding comments about her ethnicity.

There was her supervisor at a clothing store, for example, who asked about her Star of David necklace, since how could Davis be Jewish when she looks black? Or all the times people have assumed she’s Puerto Rican and lecture her on taking pride in one’s heritage when they discover she can’t speak Spanish.

“Occasionally, when people ask me where I’m from, I’ll make up some country in Africa and act really offended if they say they never heard of it,” Davis said.

Growing up black and Jewish has paid off for the 32-year-old Davis, whose debut novel, “Sex, Murder and a Double Latte,” manages to address issues of race and religion while blurring the lines between mystery and chick-lit fiction. “So many books with ethnic characters don’t make it in the mainstream,” said Davis, who will be reading at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 24. “But here, I’ve got this biracial protagonist and I’m thrilled that publishers are opening their minds. Of course, Sophie is both Jewish and black, so I guess she’s doubled her market.”

Davis, who signed a four-book deal with her publisher, joins a small-yet-growing group of new chick-lit authors like Laurie Gwen Shapiro (“The Matzo Ball Heiress”) and Elise Abrams Miller (“Star Craving Mad”), who write about distinctly Jewish characters. Due out next month, Davis’ novel stars mystery writer and frappuccino addict Sophie Katz, who’s convinced that someone wants to kill her by re-enacting scenes from one of her books. To complicate matters, she’s dating one of her murder suspects — a dashing Russian Israeli who likes making l’chaim toasts in bars. And, of course, Sophie’s mother piles on plenty of Jewish guilt as her daughter plays sleuth. “What is this, you’re discovering bodies now? Why can’t you live a nice, normal life like your sister?”

Margaret Marbury, executive editor of MIRA Books and Red Dress Ink, says she had been searching for the “perfect chick-lit mystery but most I saw either had too much mystery and too little girl stuff or vice versa. Kyra’s book has the perfect balance.”

Marbury, who rejects most of the hundreds of manuscripts she reads every year, adds that she’s “really picky about female protagonists. But the major draw of Kyra’s book was her main character, Sophie. She’s real, multidimensional, sympathetic and incredibly funny.”

In a telephone interview from her San Francisco home, Davis, gregarious and effusive, describes a rags-to-riches saga that bears some striking similarities to J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame. Like Rowling, Davis was a single mother with a precarious financial situation when she began writing her novel.

“My life was falling apart and I wanted to get lost in a fictional world,” she says.

Born to a black father and a Jewish mother, Davis primarily grew up in Santa Cruz. Raised by her mother and maternal grandparents, “we were a High Holidays kind of family,” she says. “But I’ve always felt at home in the Jewish community.”

Though her grandmother always thought that her granddaughter should be a writer, Davis originally wanted to be an actress. After graduating high school, she opted to pursue fashion marketing and merchandising and spent some time in New York before returning to San Francisco to study business and humanities at Golden Gate University. She married, had a son and found a job as a marketing manager of an upscale sports club.

In 2001, Davis filed for divorce and felt her life had “become a Woody Allen joke. I had all these plans and none of them worked out,” she says. “I was a single mother afraid of losing the house my grandfather built.”

When Davis began to write, she knew she wanted to create “escapist fiction” but considering her state of affairs, “definitely not romance. I had all this anxiety and that lent itself to writing a murder mystery,” she says. “Just take all your pent-up stuff and kill people off on the page.”

Davis consulted a few books on fiction writing, worked during her lunch hours and late at night and after two years of labor, had a completed manuscript. Her mother covered the expense for a writing conference and Davis traveled there to pitch her book. Davis soon found an agent who swiftly secured a deal at Red Dress Ink.

“It’s an American dream story,” Davis says. “But it never would have happened if I hadn’t gone through all these challenges. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t have written this manuscript if my life was going well.”

Now that she no longer needs a day job, Davis plans to write two novels a year and stay home with her 5-year-old son Isaac.

While she of course hopes that her books will be successful, more importantly “this whole experience has taught me that I have the strength and ability to get through some really bad stuff,” she says. “I can pursue my passions and dreams and demonstrate it for my son so that one day, he can do it, too.”

Kyra Davis will be at Borders-Brentano’s booth No. 201 on Sunday, April 24, at noon, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. For more information, visit www.kyradavis.com or www.latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks/.