Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates (9781419727474)
When Gittel and her mother are about to get on the boat that will carry them from Russia to America, Gittel’s mother is turned away due to an eye infection. Gittel at age nine, is sent alone to America. She has a note with her mother’s cousin’s address in her pocket. She checks on it constantly to make sure she hasn’t lost it on the long journey. She spends much of it alone, but also meets children on board the ship. However, when she reaches Ellis Island, the ink on the note has run and no address can be read. How will Gittel ever find her family in a foreign land?
Newman tells a story inspired by two real life stories of her family and friends’ journeys to America. The story is firmly rooted in the Jewish faith with the celebration of Sabbath and speaking Yiddish on both ends of the journey. Gittel’s mother gives her the Shabbat candlesticks to carry with her on her journey. The story is beautifully told in slightly longer prose than many picture books, allowing details of the immigrant experience to be shared. The mystery of getting Gittel in touch with her family is solved by kindness and ingenuity and offers a satisfying end to Gittel’s adventure.
The illustrations by Bates have a lovely softness to them that is accompanied by rich color. Gittel herself is distinctive on every page given her small size and red scarf. She also carries a yellow cloth bag filled with her belongings. Gittel’s journey is depicted as difficult but not squalid and even when she is lost there is not a sense of danger but hope thanks to the illustrations.
A lovely look at immigration through the eyes of a child. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The winners of the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Awards were announced at the ALA Youth Media Awards in January. The awards recognize “books for children and teens that exemplify high literary standards will authentically portraying the Jewish experience.” The gold medalists were announced at the YMAs, but the silver medalists were not. Here is the full list of medalists:
All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul Zelinsky
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper
A Moon for Moe and Mo by Jane Breskin Zalben, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life and Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpre
All Three Stooges by Erica S. Perl
The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman
You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Bitter and Sweet by Sandra V. Feder, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker (9781554989959)
Hannah’s family was moving to a new city, but Hannah didn’t want to move away from her friends, her house or her neighborhood. Her grandmother told her about when she moved from the old country to America and how the experience was a mix of bitter and sweet. But when Hannah’s family moved, all she could see around her were bitter reminders of what she had lost. The new house had a smaller porch, the road was too hilly for good biking, and she didn’t know anyone. Even when a neighbor girl came over to meet Hannah, the gift of cocoa she left was bitter when Hannah tried it. The next day at school, the girl talked to Hannah about needing to add sugar. Soon Hannah realized that she had to put forth a little effort to discover the sweet that was always there.
Picture books about moving are plentiful every year, but this one has a lovely feeling about it that makes it stand out. The advice from her elders turns out to be true but I also appreciated that Hannah put her own spin on it in the end. The book depicts Hannah’s Jewish family with warmth and scenes that show their traditions. The advice also rings with Jewish wisdom and brings a traditional feel to a modern story.
The illustrations are done in mixed media that combines paint and collage very successfully. The result are images that have a lovely texture to them, fabrics and paper that layer with one another. There is a beautiful light and color to the images that conveys hope even as Hannah struggles to see the sweet.
A rich picture book that looks at difficult times in life through a lens of hope and acceptance. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert (9780316349000)
Suzette has been in New England at boarding school for the last school year. Now she has returned back home to her family in Los Angeles. She has missed the city itself, but even more so she has missed her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and during the summer decides to stop taking his medication. He starts dating a girl that Suzette also finds compelling and interesting, but Suzette worries that the girl isn’t good for Lionel. Meanwhile, Suzette is dealing with discovering that she is bisexual, having had her first relationship with a girl while at board school that did not end well. Back at home, she begins to date Emil, a longtime friend of her family. Suzette is the only one who knows of Lionel stopping his medication and the secret becomes a problem as Lionel reaches a crisis.
Colbert has created a beautiful novel that speaks to the complexities of mental illness. The reaction of friends is well drawn, showing how people pull away from those diagnosed with mental illness and yet want to talk about them too. Lionel is a great character, someone the reader and Suzette gravitates to and yet someone who is battling a mental illness profoundly and pushes people away. He is in turns riveting and maddening.
Suzette’s character is the center of the novel and she is wonderfully crafted. An African-American protagonist who has converted to Judaism when her mother married Lionel’s father, she is someone who has to make choices about what she shares about herself and what battles she decides to engage in. Suzette is just discovering her bisexuality and even hesitates to label herself that way at first. The depiction of sexuality in the book and sex is handled with honesty and without bias. It’s lovely to see it handled that way with both girls and boys.
A very special book for teens, this book is diverse and filled with moments of triumph and pain. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
The winners of the 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winners have been announced by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Here they are:
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez
A Hat for Mrs. Goldman by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Dreidels on the Brain by Joel Ben Izzy
A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of the Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
The 2016 Sydney Taylor Book Awards have been announced by the Association of Jewish Libraries. The awards are given to outstanding books for children and young adults that “authentically portray the Jewish experience.” Winners, honor books and notable books are named.
Here are the 2016 winners:
YOUNGER READERS WINNER
Ketzel, the Cat who Composed by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates
OLDER READERS WINNER
Adam & Thomas by Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Jeffrey M. Green and illustrated by Philippe Dumas
TEEN READERS WINNER
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
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.