The Wren and the Sparrow by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (InfoSoup)
This Holocaust story tells of an old man who weaved carpets on a loom and spent his evening singing to a hurdy-gurdy. His student, the Sparrow, learned at his side. The town in Poland was dark and dismal, all of its trees harvested for kindling. Food and clothes were rationed and even the music was starting to disappear. One day music was removed from the village as soldiers arrived to gather all of the musical instruments and take them away. Everyone had to give up their instruments, but the old man sang one final song before he put his hurdy-gurdy on the pile. And he would not stop singing, even as he was dragged away. That night, the Sparrow returned and took the hurdy-gurdy from the pile and hid it away. Then she too disappeared. It was found years later with a note that spoke of the bravery of both the Wren and the Sparrow and the importance of music in keeping spirits alive in dark times.
Based on the musicians who played in the Lodz Ghetto, a place that housed 230,000 Jewish people in 1940. Only 1000 survived the Holocaust that followed. Music was a part of their life and that celebration of music as a way of expressing feelings that could not be voiced is very clear in this picture book. Lewis writes with intense beauty in this book, the strong feelings showing in his sentences such as “The town shriveled up like a rose without rain.” And the image of “the gift of music soon dwindled to a sigh.” The entire book sings with prose like this, adding its own music to the story.
The illustrations by Nayberg, a native of Ukraine, show the darkness of the times. The illustrations swim with the colors of war, khaki ground and the gray of despair. When the instrument and music are present though, there is a glow and a warmth that shines in the illustration visually capturing the impact of the music on people around.
This allegorical tale captures the impact of the Nazi regime in Poland and elsewhere, offering a lesson about the power of music to carry hope in the darkest of times. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Kar-Ben.
Chik Chak Shabbat by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker
Every Saturday, the residents of one apartment building spend the day smelling marvelous smells drifting down from the 5th floor. And every Saturday evening, everyone gathers on the 5th floor for Goldie’s cholent, a traditional Jewish stew. But then one Saturday, there was no wonderful smell and when little Lali Omar went up the stairs, she found that Goldie was too sick to get the cholent cooking and it was too late to start the slow-cooking stew. All is not lost though, as the neighbors look through their own pantries and refrigerators and create a Saturday meal that is not cholent but has many of the same ingredients incorporated into foods from their own personal heritages. There is Korean barley tea, tomato pizza, potato curry, and beans and rice.
Rockliff’s Shabbat tale is an amazingly diverse story. While it follows Jewish traditions in the beginning, including Goldie sharing memories as a little girl of Shabbat with her extended family, the magic comes when Goldie gets ill. Not only does the reader quickly realize how important this shared meal and time is for the entire building, but suddenly the heritage of each person is shown through their food. It’s a clever way to show community and diversity in a single situation.
Brooker’s illustrations combine cut paper art with rich thick paint. The result is the same winning combination of dishes served at the community Shabbat table. The different textures and colors come together to be something more than their individual parts, creating a dynamic world.
Celebrating community, this book shows how diverse people can come together in friendship and harmony to save the day. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
In the fall, the congregation gave Rabbi Benjamin a vest in honor of the new year. It was yellow with four bright silver buttons down the front and it was a perfect fit. Rabbi Benjamin wore his vest to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, which also involved a lot of food. Each family offered their own special food for the holiday, and Rabbi Benjamin’s vest was a lot tighter by the end. During Sukkot, Rabbi visited each of the families and again had lots of food and his vest grew even tighter. Until on the last day of Sukkot, one of the silver buttons popped right off his vest. Chanukah came and Rabbi Benjamin ate lots of latke, and he lost a second silver button. Spring came along with Passover, and the rabbi lost the last two buttons that had tried to stretch across his growing belly. He was very upset about how he had ruined his special vest. So he changed a few things. He got out and moved more along with his congregation. And when he tried on the vest for Rosh Hashanah, it was far too big to wear. But don’t worry, Rabbi Benjamin had a loving congregation ready to help him again.
This book has a wonderful radiance about it. The heart of the book is really the love felt between the congregation and Rabbi Benjamin. He is unfailingly kind and giving as are they, perhaps a bit too giving when it comes to the food! At the same time, the story is a smart and very enjoyable way for readers to learn about the various Jewish holidays throughout the year and the traditions associated with them. The book has an index of the holidays at the end, including recipes for each holiday. There is also a glossary of Jewish words.
Reinhardt’s illustrations also capture the loving community on the page. Rabbi Benjamin almost glows on each page, not only due to his shining yellow vest but also with his popping and vibrant personality. The diverse ethnicities of the congregation is also appreciated.
A cheery look at Jewish holidays and the bounty of friendship and community, this book will be appreciated by people of all faiths. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Max Makes a Cake by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by Charles Santoso
Max was growing up, he could dress himself, almost tie his shoes, and he knew the Four Questions for Passover in Hebrew and English. It was his mother’s birthday and he wanted to make her a cake. But when his little sister started to cry and Max’s dad took her for her nap. Max waited and waited for his dad to come back to bake the cake, but his sister just kept waking up and crying. So Max decided to make some frosting to help. It turned out very nicely, a mix of jam and cream cheese. Max knew that to bake a cake, he had to wait for his father. But then he had a great idea, one perfect for Passover.
Edwards has written a story that organically incorporates Passover and its meaning. She shows a warm and loving Jewish family with a father who takes expert care of his children. Max’s clever solution to the cake is nicely foreshadowed in the book but is also a wonderful surprise solution that readers will not see coming. It is also a pleasure to see a picture book about a child who solves a problem himself with creativity.
Santoso’s art conveys the same warmth as the text. He uses humor throughout in his images, with a cheery note. His depictions of Max are particularly well done as he solves the problem but not without a little mess.
Clever and creative, this is a welcome addition to public library’s Passover collections as well as a great choice for birthday story times. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss and Random House.
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.