Spring brings flowers; winter brings snow. Both seasons also yield a new crop of children’s books geared to the primary holiday each celebrates. For us, lo, winter is (almost) past so it’s time for Passover books to blossom in all their variety. Some mundane, a few terrific. Pick a bunch to give, to share and to enjoy.
Books on Passover often concentrate either on the Exodus story or on the holiday’s ritual observance. In “Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then” (Blue Apple Books/Chronicle), Harriet Ziefert and gifted illustrator Karla Gudeon use an interesting format to successfully meld the two. Combining lively folkloric art, foldout pages, double-page spreads and an ongoing contrast of current practices with their ancient origins, this visually delightful work provides it all: A simplified adaptation of Exodus, a description of holiday preparations, and a concise guide to the service for this ritual meal. “Now” on the left side, with its charming borders, like the Haggadah, tells us what to do; the facing page shows the described symbol central to this step, and the beautiful foldouts depict scenes from “Then” — the item’s historical origins and significance. Great for use with young children, this is a work Passover and art lovers of all ages can appreciate and will want to own.
Borrowing from Ziefert’s concept, let’s first look at some of the “Now”-type books you’ll see on your local bookstore shelves. As usual, your go-to source for dependable Jewish children’s holiday books is Kar-Ben Publishing. Formerly a small mom-driven, independent publisher and now a division of Lerner Publishing Group, Kar-Ben often has zeroed in on topics very much needed in today’s world. This year, look for “A Tale of Two Seders” by Mindy Avra Portnoy, illustrated by Valeria Cis. Told in the first person, it opens, “The year after my mom and dad stopped being married to each other, I went to two seders in two places — one at Dad’s apartment and one at Mom’s house.” Three years and six seders later, despite her original worries about the future, we see this young girl celebrating with each parent and their friends, all of them adjusting to the new lives and traditions her family has created, both separately and together.
Not all of Kar-Ben’s holiday books are this on target sociologically. They also annually produce picture books with slightly skewed angles such as “Jodie’s Passover Adventure” by Israel resident Anna Levine. Levine uses the Passover school holiday in Israel to take her amateur archeologist Jodie down into Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a famous secret water tunnel in Jerusalem. A little mystery, a little history, a little treasure; not much specific Passover, but interesting.
Want humor? Try the zany rhyming “Izzy the Whiz and Passover McClean” by Yael Mermelstein, another resident of Israel, who, very aware of the cleaning challenges of Passover, sets amateur inventor Izzy the Whiz to work creating a machine capable of miraculously ridding the entire house of chometz — but not without some startling glitches. Then, adding music to humor, Rabbi Joe Black and illustrator Linda Prater came up with their own “Afikomen Mambo,” a picture-book-cum-CD based on one of Rabbi Black’s songs for young children. Lively, colorful pictures, enhanced by a mambo beat, should inspire your young searchers to do their very best.
A more typical tie-in, published by Albert Whitman & Co., is “Hoppy Passover,” by Linda Glaser with simple illustrations by Daniel Howarth, showing a cozy family of bunnies as they move through preparing for, learning about, and celebrating the holiday. Pleasant, happy and accurate, it would be nice for sharing in any pre-school or library setting.
However, I cannot recommend the book “Passover” by Julie Murray, part of the ABDO Publishing Company’s Holiday Series. Some information, while cursory, is reasonably accurate; much is wrong or jarring. Cases in point: The questionable transliteration given for the word “Haggadah” (“huh-GAH-duh); the strange statement that the green veggie we dip stands for human bodies; the misleading information that as the Passover story is told, the food on the seder plate is eaten or removed. So strange. They dressed tiny chapters with a table of contents, index and glossary, avoided fact checking, and stayed superficial to the max (“During World War II, Jews were treated very badly. To stay safe, they honored Passover in secret.”) Puleeze….
My “Then” books don’t recount the Exodus story or revisit ancient times. Instead they show Passover integrated into stories of Jewish life at various times and under various conditions in our history. The first, “Rebecca and the Movies,” is by Jacqueline Dembar Greene (well known for her earlier juvenile novels on Sephardic history). This mainstream book in the popular “American Girl” Series continues the story of Rebecca, a Jewish immigrant girl living in New York City in 1914-1915 as she observes Passover with her family, including Mama’s cousin Max, a glamorous fellow who is, to Grandpa and Bubbie’s annoyance, an actor. When Max takes Rebecca to the studio with him as a special treat, he only intends to compensate for her birthday falling on Pesach, preventing a big party for her friends. Neither Max nor Rebecca ever imagined that, instead of simply watching the cameras roll, she would end up in front of them, a “natural” with a new dream for her future. In the seventh of the Rebecca stories in the American Girl series, Greene integrates Passover, Jewish customs and ideas, and American history in a quick readable work for ages 8 and up.
Moving back in time, two excellent books tie Passover to Civil War days when slavery again was a crucial issue for Northern and Southern Jews alike. The first, “Private Joel and the Sewell Mountain Seder” by Bryna J. Fireside, with illustrations by Shawn Costello, is an earlier Kar-Ben release based on a true story. When Yankee soldiers camped in West Virginia manage to arrange a shipment of matzoh sent to their camp, Private J. A. Joel and his fellow Jewish soldiers hold a seder to celebrate freedom together with three black enlisted men, slaves who had escaped the South and joined the nearby Union forces to fight for freedom for all.
Also based on a true story, “The Yankee at the Seder” by Elka Weber (Tricycle Press) was chosen for Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance “Once Upon a World” Honor Book Award in recognition of its sensitive story of Jews on opposite sides of the civil conflict and its extraordinary illustrations by Adam Gustavson. On the very day after the Confederate cause ended in defeat, a Southern Jewish family is preparing for the first seder, while 10-year-old Jacob, resentful of the Yankees patrolling his town’s streets, sits munching matzoh on his front porch. Shocked when a passing enemy soldier wishes him a good holiday and asks if he might have a bit of matzoh, Jacob is even more shocked when his mother invites Corporal Myer Levy of the Union Army to come eat with them. Their shared Passover meal, though occasionally awkward, demonstrates to everyone how shared values and simple humanity can overcome differences and resentments as they discuss what it really means to be free, then, now, or during the Exodus. This work is highly recommended.
Finally, for 4- to 8-year-olds and everybody else, I urge you to seek out and open “The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale” by Linda Leopold Strauss, set in a “Then” time many Passovers ago, wonderfully illustrated by Alexi Natchev with woodcut prints hand-colored with watercolor.
These give a totally appropriate folkloric sensibility to the tale of the Galinskys and the Lippas, neighbors who for years shared seders together. But not now. An argument has blown out of proportion, and only their children, Rachel and David, who love each other dearly, are determined that their families should once again celebrate Passover together. They enlist the rabbi, who enlists the rest of the neighbors, and the plot for reconciliation begins to thicken. But will it work? Plan to open “The Elijah Door” to find out. Another winner from the appropriately named Holiday House Publishers.
Here’s to a kosher and well-read Pesach.