Ratcheting up a legend as ethics lesson for young

Ratcheting up a legend as ethics lesson for young

Children’s book author Elka Weber discusses her latest effort, “One Little Chicken,” which poses a lost-and-found dilemma for her readers. David Leshaw

“Finders, keepers” is for losers.

The Jewish message behind “One Little Chicken” (Tricycle Press, 2011), by Teaneck children’s book author Elka Weber, is that real champs return misplaced items to their owners every time.

Following a book launch party and signing at her home on Aug. 14, Weber explained to The Jewish Standard that her newest title was written at the request of the publisher, which wanted a picture book for a broad audience about Jewish values.

“My kids and I all sat around the kitchen table and talked about what would be a good story to illustrate this,” she said. Menachem, now 18, thought of a talmudic anecdote about Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa illustrating the biblical imperative of “hashavat aveda,” or returning lost things.

As the Talmud records (translation by www.yeshiva.org.il): “Once it happened that a man passed by his house and left there hens and the wife of R’ Hanina ben Dosa found them. Her husband, however, forbade her to eat of their eggs. As the eggs and the chickens increased in number he was very troubled by them and he therefore sold them and with the proceeds he purchased goats. One day the man who lost the hens passed by again and said to his companions, ‘Here I left my hens.’ R’ Hanina, overhearing this, asked him: ‘Have you any sign [by which to identify them]?’ He replied: ‘Yes.’ He gave him the sign and took away the goats.”

Weber liked the idea of “ratcheting up” this legend for 21st-century 3- to 8-year-olds, who will inevitably face the ethical dilemma of finding something they’d like to keep. Hashavat aveda “is a good example of a Jewish value to work with,” she said, “and since we know that Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa had a daughter, we get to introduce a female character, too. That doesn’t always happen in traditional Jewish stories.”

Weber’s previous picture book, “The Yankee at the Seder” (Tricycle Press, 2009), won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award and the Once Upon A World Honor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This book about a Union soldier sharing a Passover meal with a Confederate family was based on a true story she heard as a child growing up in Montreal.

Weber turned to historical fiction after earning a doctorate in Islamic history and teaching history in high school and college. “As much fun as it is to study history and learn about things that have really happened, it’s even more fun to imagine what might have been,” she writes on her website.

“One Little Chicken” was written at home a couple of years ago, just before the family of seven made aliyah to Efrat. The Webers – Elka and Eli; Rachel, 20; Menachem; Yitzchak, 16; Hadassah, 14; and Malka, 10 – summer in the Teaneck house they lived in full-time for 18 years.

At the launch party (Rachel’s idea, her mother related), friends were interested in learning more about the illustrations for the book, done by Elisa Kleven. “The pictures have a very folktale/Marc Chagall kind of appeal,” Weber said, explaining that publishers generally contract independently with the author and illustrator. “After I’ve done my work, the illustrator gets to do hers. She’s really captured the spirit of it, and you get a sense of the fun in the story.”

Frustrated children’s book authors may be heartened to know that Weber was not an overnight sensation. “When you hear about a success, you have to know it usually comes after many rejection letters, as it did for me,” she said. “I had a generous and thoughtful publisher willing to take a chance on a newcomer. It’s a really hard market to break into, especially given the economic climate. But if you’ve got a unique angle, the world is always waiting for good stories.”

“One Little Chicken” has been purchased for free distribution to families affiliated with the PJ Library Jewish literacy project for children, run by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. A Hebrew version of the book, with different illustrations, will come out in October for distribution in Israel through PJ Library’s Israeli arm, Sifriyat Pijama.

The book is available for purchase at Internet sites such as amazon.com, and locally at Barnes & Noble in Hackensack and Judaica House in Teaneck.

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