For Kids: A Few Good Books for a Good Year

September 25, 2019

New books for fall include a number of picture books about the holidays, but also other Jewish-themed books for kids that should get some attention even though they revolve around topics other than Jewish holidays. Of special note is R.J. Palacio’s graphic novel debut, “White Bird,” which likely will appear on many “best” lists by the end of the year.

“Jackie and Jesse and Joni and Jae: A Rosh Hashanah Story”
By Chris Barash. Illustrated by Christine Battuz. Apples & Honey Press, 2019.
Ages 4-6.

This cute rhyming story is useful as a simple explanation for very young children of the tashlich ritual. Four children, along with their rabbi and others in the community, take a holiday walk to the nearby river on a fine autumn day. The four friends consider the times in the year they may have acted “unfriendly” to one another and offer apologies. They toss bread into the river, considering it as “mistakes that we’ll throw” and watch the symbolic crumbs float away. Each “mistake” represents a missed goal of attaining positive character traits important to relay to children, such as friendship, honesty and compassion. Autumn colors and childlike illustrations featuring small animal cameos will appeal to a preschool audience.
Available on Amazon.

“Once Upon an Apple Cake: A Rosh Hashanah Story”
By Elana Rubinstein, illustrations by Jennifer Naalchigar. Apples & Honey Press, 2019.
Ages 7-10.

Ten-year-old Saralee Siegel has an amazing sense of smell. She says she can smell things “like nobody’s business.” She can discern any recipe’s ingredients with a sniff or two, as well as know what shampoo someone used last night. She is part of a hilarious, quirky family who owns a popular restaurant. Saralee’s kin include Aunt Bean, a germaphobe who cleans the glass dessert case with a toothbrush; a 5-year-old cousin who thinks he’s a doctor; her bubbe, who can’t remember names so she calls everyone “Pookie-Wookie”; and youthful Aunt Lotte, who often is on the phone and just can’t be bothered.

Siegel House restaurant is known for its awesome Rosh Hashanah apple cakes, baked by Saralee’s zayde, using a special secret ingredient even her super-nose can’t detect. But three days before the holiday, he falls down the basement stairs and gets a bump on the head that causes temporary amnesia. It is left to Saralee to fulfill all the town’s apple cake orders, but that super-nose of hers just can’t sniff out the secret ingredient. When some sinister newcomers try to sneak into her zayde’s files to bake apple cakes for their rival bakery called Perfection on a Platter, it is left to Saralee to use her wits (along with her sniffer) to save Rosh Hashanah. 

Along the way, she learns much about friendship, patience, persistence and love. This funny and well-plotted story with delightful characters and amusing line-drawn illustrations is a perfect holiday tale for early chapter book readers.
Available on Amazon.

“And There Was Evening and There Was Morning”
By Harriet Cohen Helfand and Ellen Kahan Zager. Illustrated by Ellen Kahan Zager. Kar-Ben, 2018.

Each new year recalls the story of the seven days of creation, and there are numerous books for children on this topic. However, this uniquely illustrated take on Genesis features such clever design elements that it is a pleasure to contemplate the pages and imagine the creative process of the talented illustrator. Taking cues from the Torah text by focusing on how each day feels different (“a peaceful day” or “a fruitful day”), the days of creation are described in rhyming couplets, with illustrations of Hebrew letters beautifully integrated within the design, often creating words of their own. For example, when God creates animals, the letters for “avaz” (goose) and “dionun” (squid) showcase Hebrew letter “vav” as the goose’s neck, along with other long, graceful “vavs” and “nuns” as portions of the squid’s flowing tentacles. 

Zager does this for about 50 Hebrew words, and it is an extraordinary feat. The artist’s note at the end of the book states: “The pictures in this book are also created with words. Because Hebrew is the language of the Torah, these images are in Hebrew. Each image is created with the Hebrew letters for that word.” Flipping back and forth from the pages to the glossary in the back (which contains the Hebrew and transliteration alongside a small image of the featured plant or animal) will delight both children and adults who know their Hebrew letters and love a bit of a puzzle. The chance to learn some new vocabulary is a plus, in addition to spurring ideas of creating an animal of your own by playing with colorful letters on paper.
Available on Amazon.

“Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story”
By Leslea Newman. Illustrated by Amy June Bates. Abrams, 2018.

As some vocal Americans currently may grapple with Emma Lazarus’ words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, this beautifully written and illustrated children’s book helps young readers to understand the perils of immigration to an unfamiliar new country. The story follows 9-year-old Gittel, who attempts to immigrate to America with her mother in the early part of the 20th century but has to go it alone after her mother is denied boarding because of an eye infection.

The author states the narrative is based on two true stories from her childhood: one from a family friend and one from her grandmother. In the author notes, Newman shares a photo of the brass candlesticks she inherited from her grandmother that also appear within the story as the one family heirloom Gittel brings with her on her solitary journey. Gittel’s mother also gives her a piece of paper with the name and address of her New York cousin and tells Gittel to keep it safe. Gittel does as she is asked, but the constant handling of the paper over the two-week voyage rends it illegible by the time she arrives at Ellis Island. A clever Yiddish-language interpreter gets her photo in the newspaper; her relative sees it and comes to greet Gittel the following day. This part of the tale also is an element of a true story the author heard while growing up. 

Newman ends her notes by stating, “To this day, thousands of people, including many children traveling alone, immigrate to America each year in search of a better life and a safe place to call home.”
Available on Amazon.



“Walk Till You Disappear”
By Jacqueline Dembar Greene. Kar-Ben, 2019.
Ages 9-14.

Middle-grade readers who love a good adventure will be turning pages eagerly in this new novel blending historical fiction with a survival story. Jewish kids who liked Elizabeth Speare’s popular “The Sign of the Beaver” will discover a bit of their own heritage while delving into the very modern issues of diversity and acceptance of differences. Miguel Abrano and his family are ranchers in Arizona territory near Tucson in 1872. He is a devoted Catholic, considering a career in the priesthood, and impatiently awaiting his 13th birthday so he can be allowed more adult privileges. After an “Israelite” peddler visits his home (at a Friday night dinner when his mother bakes her usual challah and lights candles at a festive meal), he discovers to his dismay that he is a descended from Converso Jews who fled the Inquisition.This revelation sets in motion a panicked flight from his home into the unforgiving desert on a borrowed horse. He promptly loses his way and is captured by a band of Apaches, who do not treat him well. When hope is almost lost, he is rescued by a friendly member of the Tohono O’odham tribe who is running away from an American mission school. A lot of danger, adventure and eye-opening scenes are included. Scorpion bites, rattlesnake and horsemeat consumption, American Indian survival tips and a literal “cliff-hanger” keep the narrative moving at a fast pace.There are more than a few (age-appropriate) descriptions of cruelty, both from American troops toward the Tohono O’odham boy and from the tribal men toward their white captive. The author has created a realistic youth in transition. His wilderness experience sets him on a path to question his stringent beliefs that the “truth” can only been seen through the eyes of the church. As he learns that kindness toward others with varying beliefs is more important than forced adherence to both intolerant church and unfair government policies, he reconciles his past heritage with the type of man he wants to become.
Available on Amazon.


“White Bird.”
Written and illustrated by R.J. Palacio.
Knopf, 2019.
Ages 8-12.

The first graphic novel by the author of “Wonder” is a dramatic story of a young French girl hidden from the Nazis by brave gentile neighbors. It serves as a bit of backstory to the character of Julian, the antagonist who had bullied Auggie, the main character from “Wonder” with a genetic condition that affects his appearance. Portions of this particular story previously were in a chapter of “Auggie and Me: Three Wonder Stories,” but this graphic-novel format expands it and makes for a particularly affecting novel that should touch the hearts of readers of all ages.

Julian has reformed and transferred to a new school. He has an essay to write for a class, so he calls his French grandmother on Facetime to interview her about her childhood during World War II. He opens with a quick comment about his regret for his past behavior and she replies, “We are not defined by our mistakes, but by what we do after we’ve learned from them.” Thus commences Grandmere’s story, beginning in France as the Nazis restrict Jewish movement and start rounding up children from their schools. Grandmere, whose name is Sara Blum, recounts her teenage escape with the help of a classmate named Julien, whose family takes her in, brings her food daily, and does much to keep up her spirits when her parents are deported. She lives in the hayloft of their barn for the duration of the war and eventually feels more than just friendship toward her kind classmate.

Those familiar with Palacio’s work will appreciate the twist that distinguishes this tale from other middle-grade Holocaust fiction: Julien is disabled from polio and has suffered intense bullying since he contracted the disease and began using crutches to walk. Although Sara sat next to him in school for three years, she had never acknowledged him or objected to her friends’ verbal disdain for him. While in hiding and under his family’s dedicated care, she reflects on her previous behavior and realizes, “Evil will only be stopped when good people decide to put an end to it.”

The story itself is exciting, with a couple of surprising turns and some fantasy elements connecting her life to that of a free white bird. These elements provide some of the most affecting scenes. It is written at a perfect level for readers in grades 4 and up who are into graphic novels and ready to learn about the Holocaust in an accessible way. Although not based on any one survivor’s story, this novel would be an excellent companion to any of the other books young people first read on the subject, including “Number the Stars” or particularly Anne Frank’s diary, to which it draws a number of parallels.

The final scenes when Sara finishes telling her story to her grandson (and we now realize why he is named Julian) move easily from 20th-century injustice to contemporary 21st-century events, as the author encourages her readers to stand up to prejudice when they see it. A well-researched glossary and excellent list for further reading are included. This is a grand achievement by the author in both story and graphic-art illustration.
Available on Amazon.

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

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