December 11, 2019

Shavuot inspires children’s books

Shavuot — the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai — is not often associated with the variety of children’s literature inspired by other holidays, such as Chanukah or Passover. This year, however, one of the main publishers of Jewish children’s books, Kar-Ben, is offering two new holiday-themed titles.

And in another book, a Los Angeles author tackles the difficult task of explaining the Ten Commandments to a pre-school audience and creates a lovely, inclusive read-aloud story, appropriate for Jewish families of every denomination.

The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story” by Allison and Wayne Marks. Illustrated by Annie Wilkinson. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

This story is based on Eastern European Jews’ custom of decorating their windows with Jewish-themed papercuts during the Shavuot holiday. Children should enjoy this cleverly imagined tale of a girl who loves spending time doing art projects with her talented grandmother. Young Shoshana dresses in her treasured artist’s smock and black beret for her weekly visit to the home of Grandma Jacobs, who stocks an art studio that would enchant any child. Calling her granddaughter “My little Chagall” or “My little Modigliani,” she stirs creative juices as she instructs Shoshana how to make papercuts — “something my bubbe taught me how to do when I was a little girl.” When Shoshana gets frustrated with what she believes are meager efforts, her grandmother encourages her to use her imagination to define success and states lovingly that “Every papercut is special. Just like you.” Adults will appreciate the various references to famous artists’ styles that the illustrator has hidden among the pages, helped by an author’s note explaining Grandma Jacobs’ use of nicknames. Simple instructions for a Star of David papercut are included.

“Yossi and the Monkeys: A Shavuot Story” by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod. Illustrated by Shirley Waisman. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

Fun, colorful and off-kilter comic illustrations set the tone for this Ashkenazi-flavored folktale, an echo of the children’s classic, “Caps for Sale,” by Esphyr Slobodkina. When Yossi tries to sell his wife’s lovely handmade kippot at the local market, he meets a mischievous monkey who steals the merchandise. But Yossi and the monkey join forces when he realizes the animal’s antics charm customers. Yossi names the monkey “Zelig” (“Blessing”), and his business flourishes until rains come and Zelig is nowhere to be found. When Yossi realizes a circus is in town, he knows where to go find his new friend. The title, however, is a bit misleading as the Shavuot content is rather sketchy. In the final pages, Zelig joins Yossi and family at a festive Shavuot meal of blintzes as Yossi presents Shavuot flowers to his wife. A short author’s note explains a bit about the holiday.

The Greatest Ten” by Janice Surlin. Illustrated by Rivka Krinsky. (Hummingbird Jewel Press, 2017)

Los Angeles author Janice Surlin has been writing stories for Jewish children for years, and this first effort in self-publishing is a great success. She takes pains to show respect for all denominations of Judaism in the text and illustrations. Examples include depicting figures dressed modestly and all males wearing kippot, while the theme of universal ethics as depicted by the Ten Commandments is appropriate for all. The commandments are explained by a rhyme scheme that can be delightfully sung to the tune of “This Old Man,” such as the first verse, “I am God, I am One, I am God for everyone.” When dealing with the commandment not to commit adultery, readers observe a wedding couple under a chuppah and sing this verse:

When you love someone who

Cares about and loves you too,

How you act is the only way for your love to show

And be loyal, God says so

The bright watercolor illustrations will engage pre-school children at Shavuot and any other time of year.