New Kids Books for the New Year

August 30, 2018

Ages 0-3

“My First Jewish Baby Book: From Afikomen to Zayde” by Julie Merberg. Illustrated by Beck Feiner. Downtown Bookworks. 
This board book (available in October) is a cute first alphabet book for baby that covers the usual Jewish holidays and life cycle events and (Ashkenazi) cultural references such as bagels, brisket, borscht and Yiddishisms, including “F is for Fiddler on the Roof.” Although the terms “bubbe” and “zayde” are used, and they are depicted as being rather older than the typical grandparent buying this book, the bright illustrations are cleverly stylized by a recognized Australian graphic designer with quite a sense of humor.

Ages 4-8

“The World Needs Beautiful Things” by Leah Rachel Berkowitz. Illustrated by Daniele Fabbi. Kar-Ben Publishing.
Bezalel and the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. But young Bezalel had an eye for beauty and loved to collect pretty things like shiny stones and colored strings, and place them into his “Beautiful Things Box.” When it’s time to escape Egypt and wander through the desert, he takes along his precious box, saying, “The world needs beautiful things,” and he collects more along the way to Eretz Yisrael. One day, Moses tells the people that “God wants us to build a house of beautiful things” called a mishkan, a place for God to dwell. Bezalel is chosen to design the house of God because he understands how the earth can provide beautiful things, such as wood from desert trees, blossoms from prickly cactus and sparkly stones from rock. Eventually, Bezalel (whose name means “in God’s shadow”) is responsible for building the “biggest Beautiful Things Box ever” with the help of the other Israelites. This story is taken from the book of Exodus. It is enhanced by lovely full-color illustrations by a well-known Italian illustrator and animator.

“American Golem: The New World Adventures of an Old World Monster” by Marc Lumer. Apples & Honey Press.
Los Angeles-based writer and animator Marc Lumer has repositioned the medieval Golem legend into early 20th century America. A young Jewish immigrant to New York City is afraid of his strange and crowded new surroundings. He fashions a huge mud-golem for protection as his father did back in the old country, but here his golem isn’t needed in the same way. Kids will enjoy the spirited (and cuddly) golem and his superhero antics when he saves the day and helps a plucky greenhorn make some new friends.

“Write On, Irving Berlin!” by Leslie Kimmelman. Illustrated by David C. Gardner. Sleeping Bears Press.
It’s the 100th anniversary of the song “God Bless America,” and since today’s children probably don’t know who Irving Berlin was, it’s time they got a clue. The fun fonts and art design of this lively book will engage children, and the age-appropriate storyline follows the life of the composer until his death at age 101. It includes information about his Jewish heritage and his first exposure to music in a synagogue because his father was a cantor. Berlin became arguably the most renowned popular composer of his day and all proceeds from “God Bless America” still go to the Boy and Girl Scouts organization.

“Who’s Got the Etrog?” by Jane Kohuth. Illustrated by Elissambura. Kar-Ben Publishing.
This new picture book introduces children to the Ugandan Jewish community of the Abayudaya. The book says the community was started in the early 1900s by an African chief who led his people to reject Christianity and follow only the Torah. Children will enjoy following the antics of Ugandan animals who come to visit Antie Sanyu’s beautiful garden sukkah. Although Camel, Lion, Parrot and Giraffe behave themselves, Warthog gets a bit too obsessed with the sweet-smelling etrog and refuses to share. The delightful rhythm of the rhymes and the African-inspired artwork make this tale a perfect read-aloud in the sukkah or anywhere else.

Ages 8-12

“No Truth Without Ruth: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Nancy Zhang. HarperCollins.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is getting a lot of attention in the children’s book world these days. (This is the third picture book biography of the Supreme Court justice published in the last two years.) Popular nonfiction author Kathleen Krull begins her engaging story of Ginsberg by calling her a “change-maker” and stating that she is a “fierce fighter for fairness and truth.” Krull begins by focusing on the influences young Ruth’s highly intelligent mother had on her, especially the indignities suffered by these unsung women who had few career
options other than being homemakers. When her mother dies the night before her high school graduation, Ruth becomes determined to go to college and law school to carry out her mother’s dream, despite the challenges that being female will bring. This thought-provoking book is longer and has a higher vocabulary than the two previous picture-book biographies about Ginsburg, and it includes a variety of historical and political events that students in grades 4-6 would find interesting. All in all, it’s a remarkable story about a true- life heroine. 

“The Length of a String” by Elissa Brent Weissman, Dial Books.
Imani is Jewish, black and adopted. As she approaches her bat mitzvah, she decides to make the plunge to ask about her birth parents because she feels confused about her place in her all-white world. Instead, when her great-grandma Anna dies, Imani discovers an old, forgotten journal from when Anna was her age, escaping Nazi-occupied Luxembourg in 1941 and leaving her twin sister behind. The two likable 12-year-old narrators’ stories mirror each other and are interwoven seamlessly. Historical information about the perils of the war will engross middle-grade readers as Imani delves into research about her relatives and their fates. The “strings” of family unite us all, Imani learns, whether we are related by genetics or experience. This is an absorbing story about identity, with an unexpected and satisfying ending.


Ages 12-18

“Meet Me at the Well: The Girls and Women of the Bible” by Jane Yolen and Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Vali Mintzi. Charlesbridge.
Master children’s storytellers take on the stories of the heroic women of the Jewish Bible who are so often portrayed as minor players in the more important tales about men. Individual chapters include profiles of 14 women, from Eve to Esther, with each story accompanied by attractive artwork. In these more feminist retellings, biblical culture relating to rules of marriage and motherhood is explored, along with answers to modern questions young readers may have, such as, “Why are there two stories of creation?” Or “How do other religions respond to the binding of Isaac?” This useful and well-researched collection not only would make an appropriate bat mitzvah gift, it would serve as an important entryway into popular Bible stories for serious-minded modern readers due to its focus on capable and spirited women.

“Claiming My Place: Coming of Age in the Shadow of the Holocaust” by Planaria Price with Helen Reichmann West. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Here is a true and gripping story of survival during World War II that is appropriate for pre-teens and teens, particularly due to the beginning focus on Barbara Reichmann’s early life growing up in pre-war Poland. Barbara’s (nee Gucia Gomolinksa) story is told in first person by author Planaria Price, who met Barbara and her daughter Helen and felt compelled to write the biography of this determined woman. Helen writes the afterword, which tells of her mother’s life after her 1951 immigration to America with the help of HIAS. Other Holocaust memoirs (particularly for adult readers, such as “The Nazi Officer’s Wife”) have explored the choices that young, blond-haired Jewish women made to change their identities and blend into European society as gentiles, but this one is particularly engrossing. We follow Barbara from her youthful days to life in the ghetto, then her escape through various European countries and finally to America. Readers will be drawn to the well-told narrative of friendships, romances, luck and tragedy — all strengthened by the defiant spirit of Barbara’s life story. 

All ages

“All the World Praises You!: An Illuminated Aleph-Bet Book” by Debra Band. With new translations by Arnold J. Band.
Artist Debra Band collaborates with her father, retired UCLA professor of Hebrew literature Arnold Band, on their first children’s book, but it’s actually a book suitable for all ages.  Subtitled “An Illuminated Aleph-Bet Book,” it can serve as an alphabet book for learning Hebrew letters, or an art book, as readers admire the paintings accompanying each letter and the biblical verses quoted on each page. For example, the letter “shin” stands for “shvil hehalav” (the Milky Way), and is illustrated with a quote from Psalms that includes, “Lord, my God, You are very great; You are clothed in glory and majesty, wrapped in light like a robe, You spread the heavens like a tent.” Explanations of why the artist chose particular quotes and subjects are included in the final pages. Debra Band calls this process “visual midrash” and draws upon rabbinics, modern Bible studies, archeology and science to “convey Jewish thought and values in a joyful, non-didactic way to our entire Jewish (indeed, Judeo-Christian) community.”

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

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