Just for kids: New books for a new year

September 6, 2017
“Big Sam: A Rosh Hashanah Tall Tale”

couple of books with holiday themes grace our fall list of recommended children’s books, along with others that explore perseverance, a child’s perspective of the Six-Day War,  and the importance of inclusiveness and acceptance of unfamiliar cultures.

“Big Sam: A Rosh Hashanah Tall Tale” by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Jim Starr. (Apples & Honey Press, 2017)

The engaging cover illustration depicts a Paul Bunyanesque character grasping a giant shovel and standing guard over outsized containers of apples and honey  in the Pacific Northwest.

The character’s name is Samson the Giant -— “Big Sam to his friends.” He’s preparing for the High Holy Days, but on a very large scale. When he makes challah: “He dug a big hole in the ground to make a mixing bowl. It’s still there today. We call it the Grand Canyon.” He whittles a giant mixing spoon from a fallen redwood tree, lets the bread dough rise in the heat of a Yellowstone geyser and bakes it in the Mount St. Helens volcano. The narrative takes a turn when displaced animals complain to Sam that his holiday preparations have damaged some natural habitats. Realizing that Rosh Hashanah is about “mending the world,” Big Sam works to make things right by planting trees and flowers and clearing away boulders that had blocked the river. The illustrations of covered wagons, old-time trains and expansive Wild West landscapes complement the engaging tale and ensure it will become a family favorite.

“The Little Esrog”

“The Little Esrog” by Rochelle Kochin. Illustrated by Janice Hechter. (Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, 2016)

Only 10 Jewish families live in the small village of Sislotch, so every year on Sukkot they request a box of etrogs from the nearby city. The large etrogim in the box brag about their beauty and size and bully the smallest one, who wishes only to be useful for the sake of the holiday mitzvah.

The well-meaning wagon driver, tasked with transporting the precious cargo, unwittingly removes all the pitomim (tips) from the big etrogs to preserve them, but overlooks the little etrog, which remains intact.

The townsfolk are inconsolable until young Rivka finds the little etrog, now the sole kosher fruit that can be used for the blessing, and the village rejoices. Those big, beautiful (and mean) etrogim get what they deserve as they are made into “big, beautiful jam.” This book is targeted at an observant audience, but the message of inclusiveness and kindness will appeal to all.

“Drop by Drop”

“Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva” by Jacqueline Jules. Illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

Jewish heroes and sages often serve as inspiration for a variety of children’s stories, but first-century sage Rabbi Akiva is long overdue for a picture book relating his very engaging life story.

This well-written and beautifully illustrated book serves as a sort of biography of one of Judaism’s most venerable sages who did not learn how to read until age 40 and became a scholar only because of the persistent encouragement of his loving wife, Rachel.

The story begins with Akiva, a poor shepherd, noticing a stone in a brook that has been worn away by water. He realizes his “mind is not harder than a rock,” and if he can just learn a little bit each day, he can change his life. When he is laughed at by the children in his first-grade class, Rachel comforts him and says, “Pay no attention to those who laugh. Work hard and you will succeed.” Worthy advice in any generation.

“Yaffa and Fatina”

“Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam” adapted by Fawzia Gilani-Williams. Illustrated by Chiara Fedele. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

The prolific British-born author of children’s books on Islamic holidays and folklore turns her attention to the well-known midrashic tale of two brothers whose love for each other sanctifies the holy ground that eventually becomes the city of Jerusalem.

By adapting the story to feature two loving neighbors — one Jewish, one Muslim — living long ago in the “Land of Milk and Honey,” she creates a satisfying account of what could be when neighbors truly are friends.

While “Yaffa prayed in a synagogue” and “Fatima prayed in a mosque,” they each own date groves and sell the fruit at a market. When times get tough, they help each other out, as friends should. Children will enjoy the simple text and large, well-researched illustrations that depict the respective cultures and religious practices. An important and inspiring book that encourages acceptance and sharing of different cultures.

“The Six-Day Hero”

The Six-Day Hero” by Tammar Stein. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

In this compelling novel suitable for readers in fourth to seventh grades, we meet young Motti, an Israeli boy living in Jerusalem in 1967. His brave older brother, Gideon, is in the army, and Motti looks up to him as a role model.

Family life is generally uneventful, with soccer games and schoolwork, but tensions rise as war with the neighboring Arab states looms. Motti’s best friend flees the country and Gideon faces danger. The author does an excellent job at capturing the voice of a smart 12-year-old boy living through a harrowing experience, mirroring a historical moment of a young country fighting to survive.

This work of gripping historical fiction is especially meaningful in this year of the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem. Its subject matter and suspenseful plot will surely grab and keep the interest of preteens who know little or nothing about this important time in Israel’s history.

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