Chanukah approaches, and parents’ minds turn to the pleasure and burden of gift-giving. Whether you’re shopping for one gift or eight, lavish or modest, try to include some new Jewish children’s books. There are so many to choose from, and even if they’re left for later, after the newest electronic gadget loses its allure, they can provide pleasure for many hours.
Full-color paintings illuminate "Dreamer from the Village" by Michelle Markel, a picture-book biography of Marc Chagall from Henry Holt. Emily Lisker painted the glowing illustrations in an expressionist style reminiscent of Chagall, and they make this book a pleasure to view. Markel tells enough about Chagall’s childhood and early life to inspire young artists and the pictures do the rest.
Pictures do a lot to help Francine Prose’s rather weak text in "Leopold the Liar of Leipzig," published by HarperCollins. This is Einav Aviram’s first picture book, but the brilliant colors, the slightly grotesque figures, and the use of pattern keep the eye busy. Prose’s story predictably pits the fantastic tales of Leopold against the reports of Doctor Doctor Morgenfresser, who tells of faraway wonders such as the black-and-white penguins, the only inhabitants of Antarctica. An attempt to trumpet the importance of art, the story falters by dismissing the true wonders of the world. Those penguins are just as amazing as Leopold’s gabby gorilla Gertrude.
Art is the draw in "Kibitzers and Fools" too. Author/artist Simms Taback won the Caldecott Award, the most prestigious art award in the world of children’s literature, for a previous book. The busy, vibrant, cartoonlike illustrations in this collection of old Jewish jokes and stories are bursting with fascinating details. Supposedly tales that Taback’s zayda told, the stories range from antique vaudeville jokes to a Chelm tale. The introduction acquaints the reader with some some Yiddish, and Yiddish words are sprinkled throughout the text. Unfortunately, the grammar is often wrong and some words are misinterpreted. For instance, a kalikeh is defined as an oddball, when it actually means a female cripple. Political correctness may explain the euphemism for someone who is physically disabled, but getting the gender wrong? Is there a competent editor in the house? Viking Children’s Books should have done better. Still, the pictures are wonderful to share, and the stories are just right to make 4- to 8-year-olds giggle.
Miriam Chaikin has received the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries for her many charming books for children, but "Angel Secrets," published by Henry Holt, is one of her lesser achievements. The stories, all related by the Angel Raziel, are based on various midrashim, but Chaikin seems to have picked the sappiest ones, the ones without much point or plot. So what we have here is a collection of bland stories about angels without much humor or charm. Still, this may be just right for parents who want a Jewish take on angels for young readers to compete with the ubiquitous Christian versions. Washed-out illustrations by Leonid Gore complement the tales.
Holt has published a much better book called "The Doll with the Yellow Star." Written in a simple, straightforward style by Yona Zeldis McDonough, this book tells the story of a French Jewish girl, Claudine, whose parents give her a doll for her birthday in Nazi-occupied Paris. Claudine names the doll Violette, and it becomes her dearest friend. When the Germans insist that Jews wear a yellow star on their clothing, Claudine sews a tiny star on the inside of Violette’s cape. That small gesture of resistance helps her manage all the terrible changes in her life. Claudine manages to escape Paris and sail to America, where her aunt and uncle live, but her parents must stay behind. McDonough sensitively and honestly describes a child’s adjustment to change and loss. Claudine feels disoriented and lonely, but with a child’s resilience, she makes the best of things. Deeply affecting, this is a fine book about the Holocaust for middlegraders that succeeds in suggesting the era’s terrible consequences without wallowing in horror.
"The Rabbi’s Cat," by French cartoonist Joann Sfar, is not for children, but it’s an extraordinary book for mature teens and adults. A graphic novel, the fancy term for a comic book in hard covers, it tells the astonishing story of a cat who lives with a rabbi and his beautiful daughter, Zlabya, in 1930s Algeria. The cat, a clever fellow, becomes even smarter when he swallows the rabbi’s pet parrot. Suddenly, the cat has the ability to talk. And talk he does! About religion, about philosophy, about romance, and other fascinating human endeavors. He makes up his mind that he wants to be a bar mitzvah and insists that the rabbi teach him all he needs to know. That’s the first tale. Two more introduce wonderfully colorful characters and take the rabbi, Zlabya, and the cat to Paris. The drawings are as witty and complex as the story and dialogue, and one could learn more about Judaism from this outspoken cat than from many rabbis. Sfar has written almost 100 books, including the popular children’s book "Little Vampire Goes to School." This one, published by Pantheon Books, is truly a delight.