From Sarah to Heschel, five books to jump-start kids summer reading

howard freedman | special to j.

One of the pleasures of being out of school for the summer is having more time for reading. Here are five new picture books with Jewish content to consider introducing to the children in your lives in the coming months.

I was thrilled to see Richard Michelson’s “As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom.” Inspired by the image of the two great religious figures linking arms in a march for civil rights in Selma, Ala., in 1965, Michelson uses this historical moment to go back into each man’s development against a backdrop of prejudice.

After tracing how King dealt with racism in the South and his growth into a leader, the book follows Heschel’s parallel experience of discrimination in Poland, in Germany and, having been deported by the Gestapo, in Poland again.

The book, which features stunning work in pencil and watercolor by celebrated illustrator Raul Colón, helped reframe my own understanding of Heschel’s activism. I had thought of his involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements strictly as an outgrowth of his religious thought, and had not considered the role of his own suffering.

Jacqueline Jules’ “Sarah Laughs” relates the story of Judaism’s first family with a focus on Sarah, using poetic (or midrashic) license to portray the matriarch’s emotional life in fuller terms than the biblical narrative reveals. With vivid narration and colorful illustrations by Natascia Ugliano, it is a beautiful work that fills a gap in children’s biblical literature.

I’d be willing to bet that the picture book by versatile musician and writer Yale Strom, “The Wedding That Saved a Town,” is the first account of a “cholera wedding” in children’s literature. In times of epidemic, it was the tradition of some Jewish communities, particularly in western Ukraine, to join two poor orphans in matrimony in the cemetery to ward off disease. Strom uses this practice as the background for the story of a fiddler given the job of searching among shtetl denizens for the appropriate groom for the graveyard ceremony.

I like how the search for the groom ends with one chosen for his good character and affection for the bride (although the wedding is arranged without her consent). I am uncomfortable, however, with the blithe presentation of the cholera wedding itself, a practice open to criticism both for embracing superstition and for magnifying the marginalized status of the shtetl’s most vulnerable residents.

As my 4-year-old daughter is obsessed with God, the book’s message that this wedding brings a miracle and “saves the town” means there is an inevitable uncomfortable theological discussion to be had. I’m left wondering, “Do I want to go there?”

Anne-Marie Asner’s “Klutzy Boy” is ready to join his companions “Noshy Boy,” “Shluffy Girl” and others as the fifth title in the cute series from Matzah Ball Books. The books, echoing Roger Hargreaves’ timeless Mr. Man and Little Miss books, feature characters whose Yiddish-derived names express their dominant personality traits.

The illustrations are a primitive and computer-generated — think “South Park” and you won’t be disappointed. What does irk me is that, although the publisher’s mission is “to foster love for and pride in Yiddish and all things Jewish,” these books hobn nisht keyn yidishn tam — there is nothing Jewish or Yiddish evoked in the books beyond the characters’ eponymous qualities.

This would be more understandable if the plot of “Klutzy Boy” were not so unremarkable — perhaps as Asner moves closer to her goal of 30 books, the interplay of the characters will be richer and more humorous. That said, my aforementioned daughter enjoys the books, so her father will now shut up.

Finally, in Fran Manushkin’s “How Mama Brought the Spring,” a mother eases her young daughter’s discontent during a long, cold Chicago winter by sharing how her own mother in Minsk would cook blintzes. In so doing, she transformed her home, bringing the promise of spring to the dreary Russian winter. The vivid, lively illustrations by Holly Berry, full of folk imagery and bright color, bring the story to life.

With its Jewish elements consisting of little more than the family’s name, the Minsk-set memories, and the bonus recipe for blintzes, this is not a book to pick for its Jewish content. But it’s a nice mother/daughter book, a good choice for kids who enjoy cooking, and an appropriate vehicle to help Californian children understand that most other Americans have, as my Midwest-raised wife puts it, “real” seasons.

Howard Freedman is reader services librarian at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

“As Good as Anybody” by Richard Michelson (40 pages, Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99)

“Sarah Laughs” by Jacqueline Jules (32 pages, Kar-Ben Publishing, $8.95)

“The Wedding That Saved a Town” by Yale Strom (32 pages, Kar-Ben Publishing, $7.95)

“Klutzy Boy ” by Anne-Marie Asner (32 pages, Matzah Ball Books, $6.95)

“How Mama Brought the Spring” by Fran Manushkin (32 pages, Dutton Juvenile, $16.99)

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.