This is the season to tally our blessings, settle our debts, evaluate the year gone by and pray for good in the year to come. So, too, for those of us with an eye on the world of children’s book publishing. In years past, while we blessed the bounty — the sensitive authors, talented illustrators, and astute editors who give books the capacity to enchant and delight — we also struggled to forgive publishing its sins: The pictures that disappoint, the text that drags, the editor asleep on the job, the bindings that didn’t bind, and the distribution system that didn’t distribute until the week after the holiday ended.
However, with new technology changing everything, this may be the year when these abuses dwindle and the lives of trees are less apt to be sacrificed in vain. While Kindles, Nooks and iPads can never replace the joyful human connection that comes from holding a real book while reading to a real child, judiciously supporting use of their electronic counterparts can help empower a budding reader and expand an early connection with words.
Meanwhile, here are a few recent works especially suitable to entertain and enlighten your favorite children as the New Year begins.
Jewish life calls on us to observe mitzvot, but as we introduce children to God’s sacred commandments — learning from the Torah, listening to the shofar, observing Shabbat — we usually broaden the meaning to include gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness. Why not use It’s a… It’s a… It’s a Mitzvah (Jewish Lights, $18.99) by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman, delightfully illustrated by Laurel Molk? In this charming new book, a menagerie of appealing animals act out activities that show examples of good deeds even very young children can perform. Whether welcoming newcomers, sharing food, respecting elders, or forgiving mistakes, the exuberant Mitzvah Meerkat and his chevra of happy do-gooders show clearly the warmth and satisfaction to be found in everyday kindness and a commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world).
In What a Way to Start a New Year: a Rosh Hashanah Story (Lerner), Jacqueline Jules presents a perfect opportunity for a community to perform mitzvot as she imagines what it’s like for Dina and her family to move to a new house in a new town just as the New Year begins. A new beginning, it’s true, but one any child will understand is full of difficulties, adjustments and fear of change. With the help of Judy Stead’s bright and expressive illustrations, the story describes how the generous hospitality of Dina’s new community and the warm familiarity of synagogue tunes and Jewish rituals bring with them the promise of a truly happy New Year to be shared with many new friends
Hannah’s Way (Kar-Ben) by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, shows that friends don’t have to be Jewish to do mitzvot. When Hannah’s father loses his job during the Depression, her Orthodox Jewish family has to move to Minnesota, where she is the only Jewish child in her class. Her teacher unwittingly arranges a special class picnic on a Saturday, trying to put Hannah into a carpool. What can she do? She wants to go to the picnic and maybe make some new friends, but she cannot ride on the Sabbath. Maybe she could go, Papa agrees, if someone would walk the two miles with her to the park. But who would be crazy enough to do that, she wonders, when she’s so new and hardly anybody even knows her? The book’s last double spread answers Hannah’s doubts and fears, providing a lovely story of friendship, kindness and community.
Maybe people aren’t the only ones who can share and practice mitzvot. Mitzi’s Mitzvah (Lerner) by Gloria Koster, illustrated by Holly Conger with charm and texture, shows what happens when a lovable puppy is taken to a nursing home to visit the elderly residents on Rosh Hashanah. At first she’s excluded from the holiday gathering while young visitors and the residents eat and play together. But once she’s invited inside, just by being Mitzi, she brings happiness to the residents, showing clearly that you’re never too young and puppyish, or too old, to need (or to provide) attention, companionship and the sweetness of friendship.
In Sylvia B. Epstein’s amusing tale, How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round (Gefen), the rabbi’s wisdom saves the day after Yossi, the baker’s cocky son and assistant, drops a whole tray of long braided Rosh Hashanah challahs. To his dismay, they all roll down the stairs, changing shape on the way. Too late to make a new batch, the baker brushes them off and sells them, even to the rabbi’s wife, who takes two. It’s the rabbi who gives the new shape a special meaning to suit a special day. Ever since, the holiday challah has been round, a shape without end, like each new year holding the promise of sweetness, happiness and hope.
Leslie Kimmelman’s Sam and Charlie (and Sam too) (Whitman, Albert & Company) is an Easy Reader collection of five stories filled with Jewish flavor. The last is “I’m Sorry Day,” a.k.a. Yom Kippur. A silly story but with a serious objective as Charlie and Sam determine to be better friends in the year ahead. However, they reserve the right to make a few mistakes so they’ll have something to deal with on the next “I’m Sorry Day.” Illustrated by Stefano Tambellini.
Sylvia A. Rouss and Katherine Janus Kahn have again collaborated as writer and illustrator to bring you the best Jewishly informed arachnid in town, intrepid Sammy who lives in Josh Shapiro’s house. In Sammy Spider’s First Yom Kippur (Lerner), Sammy is, as usual, greatly interested to listen and learn as his mom explains the Shapiros’ upcoming holiday. Mrs. Shapiro tells Josh to make a list after dinner of everyone to whom he should apologize. Before then, however, Josh’s disobedience affects the welfare of Sammy and his mother. Realizing he has destroyed their web, Josh knows he must add them to the list of those he has wronged.
As usual, the clear story and bright pictures make this Sammy book a great way to introduce very young children to a simple understanding of taking personal responsibility, a basic Jewish value.
To remember those we love on Yom Kippur through the observance of Yizkor is an important facet of the holiday, but not one usually shared with young children. However, let me recommend Zayde Comes to Live (Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.), an award-winning story by Sheri Sinykin, beautifully illustrated by Kristina Swarner. This sensitive work concentrates on what happens before the loss, when Rachel’s grandfather has come to live at her house because he is dying and she worries about what will happen to him afterwards. Her friends reassure her: Megan says he’ll go to heaven if he believes in Jesus while Hakim describes a beautiful paradise waiting for those who believe in Allah. But Rachel is Jewish, so she asks the rabbi what will happen. With great honesty and beauty, he describes to her the comforting continuity of life. At peace, Zayde, too, helps her realize that as long as he is alive and she can snuggle close to him, they are creating memories that will allow him to live forever in her love. The pictures, linoleum prints with watercolor and colored pencil, show the family but backgrounds have a feeling of timelessness and depth. And though the family is Jewish, the situation and the emotions are universal. Zayde’s love and Rachel’s memories are set in a story that opens a door for discussions about many faith traditions and beliefs.