CJ Reviews: Children’s Books

BERYL BRESGI looks at some new titles for Hanukah

by Beryl Bresgi

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Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue

Emanuel & the Hanukkah Rescue

By Heidi Smith Hyde. Illustrated by Jamel Akib. 32pp. Kar-Ben, 2012

This daring adventure set in Colonial America is a welcome addition to the collection of Jewish historical fiction for young readers. Set in New Bedford, Massachusetts, during the 18th century, it tells the story of the religious freedom that Portuguese-Jewish immigrant families found in the New World.

Emanuel’s father is a storekeeper who supplies the whalers who seem to be brave and strong, and whom Emanuel would like to emulate. Emanuel loves listening to Captain Henshaw’s stories of daring and adventure at sea. His father, however, is more cautious, fearful of the open seas and whaling as well as of practicing his Judaism openly. This frustrates Emanuel, leading him to stow away on a whaling ship, hoping to show his father that he is in fact brave and strong.

When a storm overtakes the boat, Emanuel comes to appreciate his father’s fears, thinking, “so this is what fear feels like.” And his father is able to gain perspective about the freedom to practice religion afforded him in his new country. He realizes that “it is not good to be ruled by fear” and boldly encourages all the Jewish families in the town to light the menorah on the eighth day of Hanukkah to guide the distressed ship home.

Akib’s chalk pastel illustrations reflect the tension of the story. Using dark colors to offset the welcome lights at the end, he succeeds in creating an excellent compliment to this tale of courage and freedom.

The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other

Shema jacket.indd

By Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. Illustrated by Joani Keller Rothenberg. 32 pp. Jewish Lights, 2012

Based on a 12-century rabbinic debate between Rashi and his grandson, this vibrant picture book explores the idea of successful conflict resolution. The story’s townspeople cannot agree on the correct way to affix their mezuzot to their doorways. They are unable to come to an agreement about whether they should be placed vertically – as the Shema states, “when we get up in the morning,” or horizontally – as the Shema states, “when we lie down at night.”

After arguing and shouting and not listening to each other, the rabbi takes the opportunity to teach his people how to listen to one another, compromise, and value harmony and unity.

This inspirational story is beautifully packaged, the art skillfully illustrating the disagreement. As emotions get stronger, the font becomes larger, allowing even the youngest of readers to realize how “loud” and unpleasant the argument feels. When the rabbi suggests compromise, the colors are restful and the rabbi’s demeanor peaceful.

This is a valuable addition to any home or school library for teaching both adults and children the value of cooperation and listening to each other.

The Secret of the Village Fool

By Rebecca Upjohn. Illustrated by Renne Benoit. 32 pp. Second Story Press, 2012

Basing her book on actual events, Upjohn retells the story of a “village fool,” Anton Suchinski, to create a powerful tale of resistance and rescue. While the story has been fictionalized, the final pages include archival photographs of the characters during World War II and details of what happened to them after the war.

Brothers Milek and Munio live in the quiet Polish village of Zborow where their mother shows particular kindness to the local village fool, encouraging the boys to bring him food and clothing. Anton is a kind and gentle man who is sneered at by the locals because of his strange habits and behaviors. As anti-Semitic sentiments begin to pervade, Anton is warned not to befriend the Jewish boys, but he defies this warning and finds a way to help his Jewish friends. When the Nazi soldiers invade the town, they round up the Jewish families and take away all the boys. Anton comes up with a plan to disguise the boys and to hide the whole family in his house, contradicting the image of a fool. Munio observes, “Why does everyone call Anton a fool, he’s smart. And he’s brave.”

The real Anton Suchinski hid the entire Zeiger family, as well as Eva Adler and Zipora Stock, until 1944 when the Nazis left Zborow. He continued to care for the survivors until the war ended in 1945. He was honored by both the Polish government and Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for his acts of bravery.

While the publisher recommends this excellent picture book for ages 7-9, it would be more effective for older children. Readers need some background in which to place the events in the story, and to appreciate the extraordinary courage and bravery of the protagonist.

Speak Up, Tommy!

Speak Up Tommy

By Jacqueline Dembar Greene. Illustrated by Deborah Melmon. 32pp. Kar-Ben, 2012

Inspired by a newspaper article about Sgt. Fasket of the Helena, Montana police department and his Israeli trained dog Miky, Greene has created an important book about immigrants. Speak Up, Tommy addresses issues that English language learners struggle with in their attempts to integrate into new settings.

Tomer, or Tommy as he is known in America, is from Israel and speaks English haltingly and with an accent. He is wary of speaking up because the other students make fun of his accent and his inability to read English properly. When a special visitor from the police department is invited to speak at the school, the officer arrives with his dog, a yellow lab who reminds Tommy of his own dog whom he left behind in Israel. The dog is attracted to a tennis ball sticking out of Tommy’s pocket and begins to bark loudly. The officer is unable to control the dog until Tommy, forgetting that he is not supposed to speak Hebrew, shouts the word “sheket” and the dog calms down. Tommy’s knowledge of a different language is valued and he is invited to help the officer train the dog, making him feel included.

Greene has fictionalized this true story, making it relevant to children and highlighting a wonderful organization called Pups for Peace. Melmon’s simple drawings beautifully capture the setting and Tommy’s dilemma.

Be Like God: God’s To-Do List for Kids

be like god cover.indd

By Dr. Ron Wolfson. 138 pp. Jewish Lights, 2012

It’s a challenge to explain theological concepts to children in a way that’s accessible yet not overly simplistic. But in this adaptation of a book he wrote for adults, Dr. Ron Wolfson succeeds in doing just that, for kids between the ages of eight and 12. Like God’s To-Do List for adults, Wolfson bases his teaching on the Jewish notion that human beings are God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation. With his warm, lighthearted voice, Wolfson nudges children beyond the notion of God as all-powerful king in the sky, toward considering what it might mean to be created “in the image of God.”

The rabbis who explained this concept “did not mean we look like God,” Wolfson writes. Rather, they taught that we should act like God. “When we act like God, we become God’s partner on earth: by continuing the work of creating it, repairing it, loving it.” In a series of chapters exploring examples of what God does, Wolfson shows how people can imitate God’s ways, for instance by creating, resting, blessing, caring, and yes, even wrestling with God. Children will see the power they have to use their God-given talents to shape the world for good. They can definitely read this on their own, but with its questions and invitation to create one’s own to-do lists, it’s a great text for families, or teachers and students, to read and work on together.

Beryl Bresgi is librarian of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, New Jersey, and a member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey.