April 23, 2019

A Graphic-Novel Haggadah, Three Picture Books and Two Award Winners for Kids

There’s a new graphic novel haggadah out this season, along with new picture books about the holiday. For older readers, included here are two award-winning Jewish-themed children’s novels that are highly recommended.

Haggadah:

“Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel” by Jordan B. Gorfinkel. English translation by David Olivestone. Illustrated by Erez Zadok. Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2019.
It’s best to let Jordan Gorfinkel, the creator and writer of this graphic-novel approach to the haggadah, explain his intent through the words of his narrators, a family of human-like goats from the “Had Gadya” song: “We’re connecting a new generation to our living history, by illustrating the fully unabridged, authentic text in the sequential storytelling style of comics — a Jewish innovation, you know. Everything you need to conduct your seder is right here — the Hebrew and transliteration of the text pages and the English translation in the word balloons on the art pages. It’s all kosher … for Passover.  Any time there’s a seder ritual to perform, we’ll pop in and provide instructions.” 

And thus, it begins — a highly engaging and truly instructive text that zips in and out of depictions of modern, multicultural families celebrating seders mingled together with fabulous artistic scenes of the Hebrews’ struggle in ancient Egypt. There’s a lot happening on each page, but the flow is impressive and well thought-out.

The narration is serious, but little jokes of familiarity aimed toward children are scattered throughout the illustrations. For example, in a drawing of the first of the four questions asking why we eat only matzo tonight instead of bread, we see a boy spreading Nutella on his matzo only to throw his hands up in frustration when it breaks easily. When his sister then asks why we eat bitter vegetables, a cousin snickers at the exaggerated disgust she displays upon tasting maror.

Even the staid recitation of quotes from Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya and Ben Zoma take on new and relevant meanings through illustrations of other historical rescues of Jews throughout our long history. The “Four Sons” are translated as the “Four Types of Children”: Astute, Rebellious, Innocent and “One Who Cannot Even Put Thoughts Into Words,” demonstrating how the graphic-novel format can deliver a striking emotional effect. Ditto the Ten Plagues, where a picture is surely what’s needed to convey the heft of this part of the story. 

Erez Zadok, the talented illustrator, provides gems on almost every page that reflect the universality of the text throughout the ages. Whether it’s a small panel of the “Four Mothers” from the “Echad Mi Yode’ah” song appearing as four heads on Mount Rushmore, or Jews from history crossing the Red Sea. This full-page spread depicts that scene as reflected in a sort of FaceTime iPhone app that serves to amplify the well-known words: “In every generation, we must imagine that we ourselves actually left Egypt.” Young people will be particularly engaged by this graphic-novel version of the haggadah and surely be enticed to read it on “all other nights.”

Picture Books:

“Around the Passover Table” by Tracy Newman. Illustrated by Adriana Santos. Albert Whitman, 2019.
Here is a bouncy and straightforward explanation of what happens at a seder that is aimed at very young children. An extended family arrives at the grandparents’ home for the seder, and eventually everyone is happily seated with a pillow at their backs, drinking “yummy” grape juice and going through the rituals most prized by children. The dog, cat and goldfish illustrations in the background steal the show. The text rhymes but not in typical couplet form, and therefore has a more appealing rhythm. (“And now welcome guests to drink from their cups/We swing the door wide/Ask Elijah inside/Fill Miriam’s cup/Lift it high. Lift it up.”) All men wear kippot and women are modestly and colorfully dressed. The end glossary provides definitions of key terms. Overall, the book is appealing and upbeat and provides many instances for adults to comment on each ritual or Hebrew term to offer more context if needed.

“Pippa’s Passover Plate” by Vivian Kirkfield. Illustrated by Jill Weber. Holiday House, 2019.
Passover will arrive at sunset, but poor Pippa the Mouse seems to have misplaced the seder plate, and that won’t do. In this sweet rhyming story, preschool age readers will follow Pippa on her search to find it.  She must conquer her fears, however, because each creature she approaches (cat, snake and owl) is also a mouse’s natural enemy. “Quiver! Quaver! Shiver! Shake! Snakes make Pippa cringe and quake.” In a nod to the benefits of bravery, Pippa offers friendship and outgoing gestures to these animals and they respond with kindness, eventually getting an invitation to Pippa’s seder when her plate has been found. The naïve-style art here truly stands out, providing multiple occasions for young children to find hidden animals among the bright outdoor scenes of nature. Kids will also find it amusing that the culprit is the goldfish, who is then invited to the seder and is depicted literally as a fish out of water.

“The Best Four Questions” by Rachelle Burk. Illustrated by Melanie Florian. Kar-Ben, 2019.
Young Marcy has just learned how to read, so she is excited that she gets to ask the four questions at this year’s seder. Her older brother smirks and opines that she will surely mess it up. Unfortunately for her, she is unaware that the four questions at the seder are actually quite specific. So Marcy spends much time thinking up fabulous kid-like questions that she is curious about: “How many matzah balls are there in Grandma’s soup? Why does Uncle Benjy always fall asleep during the seder? Is horseradish made from horses?” Happily, everyone at the table takes turns answering Marcy’s earnestly asked questions until she turns to her older brother for a bit of help with reading the real ones from the haggadah. Bright, engaging illustrations combined with kid-pleasing humor and helpful information about Passover rituals make this a fun read-aloud.

Middle-Grade Novels for Older Children:

“Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster” by Jonathan Auxier. Abrams, 2018.
This recent winner of the Sydney Taylor Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries (and finalist for the National Jewish Book Award) is the adventurous story of a spunky but impoverished orphan girl in Victorian London and the golem who saves her life. Nan Sparrow, the young chimney sweep exploited through virtual enslavement by a cruel master, is befriended by a magical golem who springs to life one day from a special lump of clay that she has kept in her pocket for years. It was a gift bestowed upon her by the one adult who once cared for her but has now mysteriously disappeared. Charlie, as the golem is eventually called, uses his immense strength and powers to save Nan and her powerless chimney sweep pals from cruel bosses and bullying children. The Jewish themes include both Nan’s budding friendship with Esther Bloom, a once-observant Jewish teacher whose kindnesses inspire Nan to overcome her harsh circumstances; and her relationship with Toby, a scrappy Jewish vagabond who manages to survive the oppressive world of London’s child labor by his wits alone. The writing is luminous; kids will be searching for their flashlights in order to read under the covers each night in anticipation of Nan and Charlie’s exciting adventures. 

“All Three Stooges” by Erica S. Perl. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018.
A humorous book with a dark theme was this year’s deserving winner of the National Jewish Book Award (from the Jewish Book Council) and a Sydney Taylor Award Honoree. Noah and his best friend, Dash, are typical seventh graders trying to juggle family life, friendships, girls and their upcoming bar mitzvahs. Noah idolizes Dash’s dad, Gil (Noah has two moms), and is unaware that he suffers from depression. Gil and the two boys share a crazy sense of humor, and Noah is seemingly on track to become a stand-up comedian through his fervent studies of old comedy records and YouTube clips. When the tragedy of Gil’s death by suicide occurs, Noah is unsure how to console his pal or if joking around can still form the basis of their friendship. The (non-stereotypical) depiction of the understanding and funny rabbi helping the boys prepare for their bar mitzvahs is particularly welcome. The author has taken on the difficult subject of how to be a friend to someone who has experienced loss, which serves to be quite instructive for young readers. The inclusion of so much humor, history of Jewish comedians, and plain, old seventh-grade angst makes this book a standout title that deals with an important subject.


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