November 15, 2019

Get kids into the High Holy Days spirit with these new books

Of the new children’s books of Jewish interest out this fall, many incorporate themes that go beyond High Holy Days fare. Included here are short reviews of the best of the batch, including a biblical story of King David, life in Shanghai at Sukkot time, a concept book for preschoolers celebrating Israel and a Jewish take on the “Madeline” story.

King David & Akavish the Spider, by Sylvia Rouss. Illustrated by Ari Binus. (Apples & Honey Press, 2015)

Beloved local author Sylvia Rouss, of “Sammy Spider” fame, has a new spider-themed book, but this one is a newly minted midrash about King David that is appropriate for young children. The bold and engaging illustrations draw in readers as we follow young David practicing his slingshot skills and callously tearing a hole in the web of a friendly Judean talking spider named Akavish (“spider” in Hebrew). 

Inspired by famed fable of “The Lion and the Mouse,” David saves the life of little Akavish, and goes on to play music for King Saul and also befriend his son, Jonathan. When David finds himself on the run from Saul’s jealous rage and armed horsemen (with an exciting two-page spread that looks like a scene from an action movie), David hides behind rocks and in caves, but eventually falls asleep. Little Akavish remembers David’s kindness from long ago and returns the favor, thus saving his life. 

The last page states: “David never forgot Akavish. Years later, when he became King, David always remembered that small acts of kindness can make a difference in great and surprising ways.” A good lesson for children this holiday season and beyond.

“Shanghai Sukkah, by Heidi Smith Hyde. Illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong. (Kar-Ben, 2015)

This Sukkot story for children is really different from any seen previously in children’s literature. It is certainly about the holiday, but other subjects include the fascinating history of the Jewish experience in 20th-century Shanghai and a bit about the Chinese Moon Festival, which occurs around the same time of year. Two interesting “historical notes” pages at the end explain why a German family with a young child — such as the one at the center of this story — might find themselves on an ocean liner headed for China in the late 1930s. 

The story begins with the clear statement from Marcus, the young Jewish narrator: “Shanghai was nothing like Berlin.” After his arrival, he meets other Jewish boys at his yeshiva, but this story is about his budding friendship with a Chinese boy named Liang: “Although they spoke different languages, Marcus and Liang soon learn to communicate as only friends do.” When Sukkot arrives, Liang learns about it and parallels it to the Moon Festival, a Chinese harvest holiday, and they both go to experience the joys of brightly colored paper dragons and glowing lanterns. 

Marcus incorporates the colorful “red paper lanterns of all shapes and sizes” into his family’s previously uninspiring sukkah, answering the riddle written on one of the lanterns given to him by Liang: “What adds light and warmth, even though you can’t see it?” The answer is “friendship,” and the charming illustrations light up the last page as the boys from two cultures share a happy holiday moment. This is a lovely multicultural and historically significant story that shares a bit of geography, history and Jewish holiday spirit all in one package.

“The Colors of Israel, photographs and text by Rachel Raz. (Kar-Ben, 2015)

This new book stuffed with great photos of Israel is for those who love Tana Hoban or Lois Ehlert, popular children’s authors who are known for their brightly designed concept books for toddlers and preschool children. Here, we are shown that “blue and white are not the only colors of Israel” by showcasing the vibrancy of the land and scenery — from a red double-decker train in Akko, to brown challah at the market, to the famous white Montefiore Windmill in Jerusalem. 

Each color is written in giant typeface in English and Hebrew and transliterated for non-Hebrew readers. The photographs are vibrant and exciting and will surely stimulate little minds to ask questions about all the geographical locations and Hebrew signage, along with teaching the important vocabulary of colors in Hebrew. More than just a color concept book, this one is a sure winner.

“Avigail,by Chana Zauderer. Illustrated by Mary Abadi. (Feldheim, 2015)

Parodies of children’s books such as “Goodnight iPad” or “The Taking Tree” are often best-sellers. This new title from Feldheim Publishers, a family-owned and operated publisher of adult and children’s books for observant Jewish readers, is a Jewish take on Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline.” It includes the familiar cadence and illustrations but adds a storyline for Jewish kids. 

The opening lines — “In a little brick house with a welcoming air, lived four little girls with bows in their hair” — recalls the 12 French girls in a Paris house covered with vines. The four Jewish girls in this story wake up to recite “Modeh Ani,” read lots of books, play games and melt Zayde’s heart. 

Avigail, the youngest, is always the last to get to do anything. She is the last to “get challah at the Shabbos table,” the last for a pony ride and the last to get tucked into bed. She also is the last to grow, so she never gets new things — only hand-me-downs. When she witnesses her Aunt Mindy trying on her wedding dress, which used to belong to Avigail’s mother, she is shocked that Mindy would not want her own new dress. Aunt Mindy explains, “It’s what’s in your heart and what’s in your head that gives you true happiness inside instead.” 

When it is time for Avigail to find a beautiful new dress for Mindy’s wedding, she makes her own decision to “choose something old, once worn by her cousin, with cuffs made of gold.” The moral of the story is sweet, and the charming pink and purple illustrations, the perfectly metered rhymes, and the topic of weddings, dresses and sisters will please all those “Fancy Nancy” and “Frozen” fans who wish for a bit of Jewish content also.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library.