Yehuda and Bluma grew up near one another in the tiny village of Tupik. But their lives could not have been more different. Bluma was the daughter of the town baker, raised with plenty to eat and an ever-warm hearth. Yehuda spent his time figuring out where his next meal was coming from and trying to stay out of fights. The two find themselves transported to the Far Country. Yehuda is on a quest to find his father’s soul, which has been added to a demon’s collection. Bluma found herself in an endless cemetery, quickly scooped up by a female demon and her group of demon cat-women. Bluma has in her possession a very special object, the spoon that Death used to take her grandmother’s soul. Bluma found it after Death left her home. In the Far Country of the demons, there are different rules, pacts that are made and reworked, lies and truths. It is a world that shifts and changes right in front of Bluma and Yehuda who must find their own way through and back home.
So there is no way to actually summarize this book clearly at all. It is a great twisting and writhing story that the reader simply must give themselves up to and enjoy the journey. There are deaths and there is Death. There are demons who all manipulate and scheme, telling partial truths for their own gain. There are fathers who are trying to find sons and then sons trying to find fathers. There are spoons that cut and remove and libraries with endless knowledge and answers.
This book is less about the two main protagonists and more about the world they enter. Based on Jewish mythology and folklore, this world is full of jagged points, dangers and despair. But it is also basked in love, the joy of unexpected kindness, and the discovery of new old friends. It’s complicated and unique, a world that readers will likely never have visited before, and what a treat that is!
A delicious nightmare of a novel, this is one to make room for in your reading pile. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Catherine’s War by Julia Billet, illustrated by Claire Fauvel (9780062915603)
This graphic novel from France is a reworking of a novel based on the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II as a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation. Rachel lives at a children’s home in Sevres, France in 1942. Her parents are still in Paris. The children’s home allows its students the freedom to study what they are interested in. Rachel loves photography and developing and printing her own images. She begins to document her experiences of the war. Soon as the danger gets closer, Rachel changes her name to Catherine and gets a new identity. She moves from place to place, leaving friends behind, finding new ways of life with each new place she lands. She works on a farm, helps the Resistance, and along the way finds time to take pictures and find places to develop her film. She even manages to fall in love with a boy who loves photography the way she does. Still, she must leave him behind as well, as she continues to try to find a safe place in a world hunting her down.
Based on her mother’s story, this graphic novel is a dazzling mix of danger and hope. Billet does not minimize the constant danger the Jewish children found themselves in, hiding in cellars and gaining new identities, missing their families horribly. This book is not an adventure across France, but a fearful dash from one safe place to the next, each move causing more loss and anguish. Billet uses hope and the joy of photography to show that life continued despite the war, but always impacted by it.
The art is marvelous and the story works really nicely as a graphic novel which keeps the pace fast. All of the danger and the moves from place to place spiral past the reader, as new people step forward to offer Catherine a safe place to live for even a brief period of time. The journey and the devastation are one and the same, even when walking through beautiful French landscapes, there is a sense of loss and dread.
A marvelous balance of resilience, tenacity and war. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
In a warm, brightly lit home, a Seder is about to start. Outside sits a lonely kitten, looking at the festivities through the window. Guests arrive to the Seder and it begins lit by candles that glow out into the dark night where the kitten sits. The boy washes his hands, dips parsley into salt water, breaks matzo, and listens to the tale of the Israelites leaving Egypt. Outside, the kitten washes his paws, eats a wet blade of grass, drinks from a puddle, and waits. Songs are sung inside and the kitten mewls outdoors. Finally, the door is opened for the prophet Elijah to enter, bringing peace. When the boy opens the door, there is the white kitten who found a home and a name, Elijah.
Newman’s text moves back and forth between the Seder and the darkness outside, cleverly tying the two together in small moments that echo one another. The beauty and solemnity of the Seder works in harmony with the beauty of the night outside and yet contrasts against it as well with the lone kitten and the house full of people. The text is simple and graceful, completed by an Author’s Note that offers more details about Passover, Seders and Ellijah.
The illustrations are done in ink, charcoal and digital collage. They use warm yellows for the indoor Seder and blues and blacks for the night outside. Readers will glimpse the indoor scenes from the kitten’s perspective as well as the darkness outside from inside the home. That connection is maintained throughout the book.
A lovely Passover book with whiskers. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
After a long day on their farm, the small family eats dinner together and then pack their belongings. The moon rises as they say goodbye to the hens and chicks they are leaving behind. The family stops to take shelter in a cave on their journey, wishing the bats that fly around them lilah tov, good night. They say good night to the beach as they climb aboard a small boat. Lilah Tov to the stars and the clouds. Good night to the mountains they walk into and to all the animals along the way, until they arrive at their new home.
Gundersheimer based this picture book on a Hebrew lullaby and weaves in a story of a refugee family leaving their home and heading to a new one. The book is quiet and full of grace, just right for a bedtime story. It weaves together saying goodnight all along the way, embracing the silence of the night.
Naggan’s illustrations are filled with hope. The little girl experiences the entire journey as one of wonder and excitement. The worry on the adult faces though creates somber moments throughout. The illustrations capture that this is a Jewish family as they carry their menorah with them. The pages are illuminated by the light of the moon and the stars.
A graceful and powerful lullaby entwined with the story of a refugee family. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.
Aaron Lansky’s grandmother came to America from Eastern Europe. She brought with her precious books in Yiddish, which her brother threw into the sea along with her other possessions as a sign they must break with the past. Aaron grew up firmly American in Massachusetts. When he went to college he began to study Jewish scholars and had to learn to read Yiddish to be able to read what he needed to. But Yiddish books and the language were in serious trouble in the 1960s after the impact of World War II. Aaron found himself rescuing Yiddish books from destruction. He filled his apartment with books and asked the leaders of Jewish organizations across the country to help save the books. But they believed that Yiddish was no longer worth saving. So Aaron created his own space in an old factory building that he named the Yiddish Book Center. As word spread, he continued to save books from destruction and meet with people who handed their beloved books over to him. The Center continues its work to this day, having saved Yiddish books from destruction for decades.
Macy writes with a wonderful tone in this nonfiction picture book. She shares the importance of what Lansky accomplished with his work but also has a playful approach that works particularly well. The insertion of Yiddish words in the text adds to this effect. The story of Aaron Lansky’s work is one of finding a personal passion and getting swept up in it. It is a story of hard work, resilience and determination in the face of even those who should care not finding your work valuable at first.
The illustrations by Innerst move from playful in depicting things like running in pajamas at night to save books to dramatic when looking back at the Holocaust. They are done in acrylic and gouache with textures added digitally. The images suit the subject well with a feel of modern design combined with connections to the past.
A fascinating biography of a little-known man who saved a written history of his people. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
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.
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:
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.
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.