Rifka Takes a Bow by Betty Rosenberg Perlov, illustrated by Cosei Kawa
Rifka’s parents are actors in the Yiddish theater community, they work at The Grand and perform regularly. So Rifka has grown up behind the stage, seeing them transform into different characters. Sometimes they are so different, she isn’t really sure they are the same person. When she goes to work with them, she gets to ride the subway and have a snack at the Automat. She gets to look behind the stage and discover all of the illusions that go into doing theater. Then one day, Rifka is climbing a set of stairs behind the stage and accidentally steps out during a performance! What is a girl with acting in her blood going to do?
Written by a woman who herself grew up in the Yiddish Theater where her parents worked, this book captures the wonder of that lifestyle for a small child. Perlov also shows us the intimate details of that world with the tricks of the stage, the joy of viewing a performance from the wings, and the obvious charm of having parents who are theater people. This is a beautiful look at a world that has disappeared with the times.
Kawa’s artwork is very unique. It has a wonderful modern feel thanks to the interesting proportions of the heads and bodies of the characters. Perhaps the best touch are the little objects that dance in the air. Whenever people are performing or communicating, they are there and flowing between them. They offer a sense of the flow of this family and the flow that happens with the audience as well.
A joy to read, this book truly is a look at a lost world from the perspective of someone who actually lived it. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Passover Lamb by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss
Miriam has been selected to sing the Four Questions at the seder, the special Passover meal, at her grandparent’s house. She has been practicing over and over again. When she discovers that Snowball, one of their ewes, is going to have a baby, the family wonders if it will disrupt their Passover plans. Snowball has her lambs in time, but her third lamb is ignored and she refuses to nurse him. Miriam is very worried for the little lamb, but also wants to head to the seder and sing her part. So she comes up with a clever plan to care for the newborn lamb and be able to be with her extended family. This Passover story is a gentle reminder about compassion and a beautiful introduction to Passover.
Marshall writes with a gentleness that weaves throughout the entire story. She allows Miriam to really be the center of the story, her family members are important but Miriam is certainly the lead. She is the one who discovers that the ewe is going to have a baby, bottle feeds the newborn lamb and figures out the solution, all on her own. This is child-led compassion that comes from a deep and natural place.
Mai-Wyss’ art is done in watercolors. The results are rich and colorful, nicely capturing a small family farm. Just as with the text, Miriam is often front and center in the illustrations.
A superb book about caring and compassion, this is a strong addition to any public library. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Books for Young Readers.
I Will Come Back for You: A Family Hiding During World War II by Marisabina Russo
Based on real life stories from the author’s family, this is a story of survival during the years of the Holocaust. A little girl tells the story of her family in Italy during World War II. The book shows the transition from seeing soldiers around to the growing restrictions and imprisonment of Jewish families. The story starts in Rome where the family has been living, but then their father is sent away into the mountains with the other Jewish men. The family would travel into the mountains to see her father on the weekends. Even this did not last long, because soon there was talk of concentration camps coming, so her father ran away to hide. The Nazis then tried to take her mother, but through a series of skillful tricks, she was able to prevent being sent to a concentration camp. This book takes a very challenging time in history and makes it accessible and understandable for children.
Russo successfully uses the lens of a small girl to explain the situations during World War II for Jewish people. Focusing on the breaking apart of families rather than the atrocities of the Nazis, makes this book powerful on a different level. The horrors of the Holocaust are evident in the story, but do not take center stage. It is very skillfully written and conceived.
Russo’s art has a gentle simplicity to it. The paintings have a flatness that works well and the images are clearly set in the past. The story is compelling and fascinating, yet is definitely suitable for younger readers.
This picture book speaks to the horrors of World War II in a way that children can understand. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.
One Little Chicken by Elka Weber, illustrated by Elisa Kleven
When Leora finds a chicken has wandered into their house, her mother reminds her that finders aren’t keepers. When her father returns from work, he agrees. But it is their duty to take care of the chicken until its rightful owners claim it. So, they build a chicken coop. When the hen lays eggs, they do not eat them but the eggs hatch into chicks. Soon there are chicks everywhere. So they take them to market and sell them for coins that they use to purchase a little goat. They milk the goat, turn the milk into cheese, but again do not eat it, because it is not their cheese. They sell the cheese for coins and buy another goat. Soon they have a family of goats who are often causing mischief, creating odors, and wreaking havoc. Finally, Leora’s mother has had enough and runs off down the road with the goats chasing after her. And who do you think she meets on the road?
This is the retelling of a story from the Talmud and retains the feel of a classic story. The story is not only about “finders aren’t keepers” but also speaks to the responsibility of community to care for one another. Weber’s writing incorporates small details that add to the depth of the story. For example, when Leora and her father are building the chicken coop: “Sawdust flew, wood shavings scattered, nails bent.” It reads aloud with a lovely rhythm and ease.
Kleven’s illustrations are done in mixed-media collage using watercolors, ink, pastels and colored pencils. They have a detail that is very engaging. Some of the panels are framed in flowing flowers, others have interesting textures, and all have a warmth that is welcoming.
A great addition to units on cooperation or community, this book will also be a good pick for chicken story times. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Tricycle Press.
Also reviewed by Journey of a Bookseller.
Nosh, Schlep, Schluff: BabYiddish by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke
Follow a busy toddler through his day and read rhymes that are sprinkled with Yiddish. From preschool to the playground and back home again, there is plenty to keep a little boy and his toy frog busy. Along the way, children and adults will realize how much of what they say is Yiddish. Snyder’s rhymes are clever and bouncy, perfect for a board book for the youngest listeners. Beeke’s illustrations are bright colored and always focused on the child.
This little gem of a board book will have universal appeal unless you are feeling particularly kvetchy. Appropriate for ages 2-3.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House.
Also reviewed by
The Rooster Prince of Breslov by Ann Redisch Stampler, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
When the prince decided to leave the splendor of his life as royalty behind and become a rooster, only one man could save him. The king and queen had tried doctors and magicians, but nothing worked. Only one old man was left to try. The old man joined the prince in his fantasy, also acting like a rooster by removing his clothes and pecking at the floor. This went on for a day. At the end of the second day, the old man pointed to two mattresses that had been placed in the room and asked the prince what they were. The man then asked why people should be the only ones to sleep comfortably and the prince agreed. They both slept on mattresses that night. The next day, black bread arrived. And through similar persuasion, the man got the prince to eat. This progressed until there was a table and chairs and a warm blanket. On the sixth day, they wore clothes again. And on the seventh day, there was the Sabbath feast. In the end, the prince returned to being a prince, but always remembered that he had once been a rooster.
Stampler has taken this beloved Yiddish folk tale and tuned it for modern audiences. She allows the humor of the situations to stand on their own, not overplaying it at all. Her writing has a nice arc that speaks to the overwhelming nature of indulgence and the need to sometimes throw it all away. She also honors the teachers of the world, those that listen and understand, those that join us right in the trenches of life and help us navigate them. The book reads aloud nicely with each day carrying repetition from the first, underlining the folk tale heritage of the story.
Yelchin’s illustrations are wonderfully peculiar, suiting the story well. He uses interesting perspectives to show the man and the prince together, sometimes from above, sometimes from behind, sometimes from the side. It lends a lot of dynamism to the book. The illustrations are brightly colored and unique.
A book about finding wisdom and learning to be a man by becoming a rooster, this folk tale is a delight to read. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Hush by Eishes Chayil
Gittel lives in the closed Chassidic community of Borough Park in New York City. The rules of the Chassidic community are strict and clear. Their lives are separate from modern technologies and a modern lifestyle. Family is to be honored and respected. Marriages are arranged by matchmakers and parents. Children are treasured, but live with strict limitations. When Gittel witnesses her friend being sexually molested by her older brother, the community shuts down any mention of the situation. When the situation progresses to a horrible end, Gittel must decide what to do and whether to betray her family and community or her friend. Painfully, it takes Gittel years to admit what she has seen and bring it to light. This is a remarkable book that exposes shameful secrets in the Chassidic community while equally showing the positive side of their beliefs and lifestyle.
This is Chayil’s own story, a Chassidic Jew who also witnessed a friend’s abuse. Through her writing she has exposed her own pain and truth. Chayil’s writing allows all readers to respect the beliefs of this community. Gittel’s family is warm and wonderful, the ideal family to contrast against the strict beliefs and limitations. They fairly glow with love, the perfect foil for the other family suffering the abuse. Chayil’s writing is subtle and solid. Firmly grounded in reality, it depicts the community with honesty, demonstrating how rules that protect can also become rules that restrict and bind. What is most impressive is Chayil’s ability to show that the responses from various people change when they know the truth, have seen it before, and understand there is an issue. The establishment is not the enemy here, ignorance is.
Gittel is a character that readers see grow from a young girl to a married teen. Through it all, she struggles with the truth and her own guilt about the situation. Her emotions are vivid and blazing, yet they ring with truth. Other characters in the story are just as well written, such as Gittel’s parents and husband.
A brave and amazing book, this is a glimpse for readers into a closed society written by a woman who understands it well. It is also a call for all of us to tell the truth to shout it out in order to save those who we love who are enduring the unimaginable. Appropriate for ages 15-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Walker Books.
Is It Night or Day?: A Novel of Immigration and Survival, 1938-1942 by Fern Schumer Chapman
As anti-Semitism and the Nazis overtake Germany, 12-year-old Edith is put on a boat by her parents and sent to the U.S. She travels alone on a boat with many other children separated from their parents too. She moves in with her uncle and aunt in a small apartment in Chicago. There she works for them more as a servant than a niece. Though her older sister is also in Chicago, they rarely see one another and her sister seems to have had an easier time adapting to her new life. Edith must learn a new language, understand the many differences between the two cultures, navigate the new family she finds herself in, all by finding an inner strength to go on without her parents. Inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother, this book offers a poignant and often painful look at loss and survival.
Chapman’s writing is beautiful. It captures the feeling of loss, the desperation of loneliness, and the small moments that help one survive. The author is so skilled that readers feel deep connection to Edith and her plight without ever feeling manipulated. Instead the emotions depicted are so raw and real that they are impossible not to feel at a gut level.
Edith is a wonderfully human heroine, filled with both good and bad emotions. She is at times naive and at others very wise. She is a complete portrait of a young girl caught in a situation that she cannot fix, trapped in a time without answers. An additional appeal of the book is this glimpse into a history that few know about in the United States, when children were rescued from Nazi Germany.
A gut-wrenchingly personal view of historical events, readers will feel connected to Edith and her plight very deeply. Appropriate for ages 9-12, this book would do well as a class read aloud for learning about World War II from a unique perspective. Get this into the hands of children who enjoy historical fiction with a lot of truth woven in.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Check out the author’s website for more information on the true story that inspired this book.
Under a Red Sky by Haya Leah Molnar
A memoir of childhood under Communism, this book offers a real window into that world. Growing up in postwar Bucharest, Romania, Eva lives with her extended family in one house. This includes her grandparents, her parents, two uncles and one aunt. Eva is surprised at age 8 to discover that her family is Jewish, though readers will know it from the start. All of her relatives are unique and interesting. Her father, a filmmaker, survived the Nazi concentration camps. Her mother is a former ballerina who teachers dance to children. Her Aunt Puica spends most of her time in her bedroom reading romance novels while her husband, Uncle Max is running into trouble at work for joking too much about the Communists. Uncle Natan is a bachelor who still lives at home. Her grandmother is prickly and her grandfather is doting. The mix of all of these strong characters forms the background of Eva’s life. They quarrel, fight, make up, love, and joke. It is a family of very human people who are trapped behind the iron curtain, living lives so similar to our own and yet so very different and frightening.
Molnar has set just the right tone with this book. Its universal qualities of family and childhood are played out against the repressiveness of Romanian Communism, yet it is not grim. Moments of humor and humanity shine against the darkness, incandescent against the horrors of Communism. As the book moves on, Eva begins to understand the dangers of her life, creating a tension that makes for intense reading.
Molnar’s depiction of her relatives is told with great relish and delight. They are the sort of family members who shape who you are, and readers can see them shaping Eva as we watch. Each person has their own distinct style and reactions, they are vividly depicted and as the pressures of Communism grow around them, become more and more themselves. The characters are what make this book a pleasure to read, their colorful lives more than enough relief from what could have been a very grim tale.
Highly recommended, this book offers a memoir that reads like good historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.
Also reviewed by Killin’ Time Reading.