Rosh Hashanah: Kids books googly-eyed fish, Sukkot mystery, new baby

A giant googly-eyed fish, mischievous magicians and sukkah-eating squirrels are among the characters in a new crop of engaging Jewish children’s books that relate to the observance or themes of the High Holy Days.

The story of Jonah read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur is retold by award-winning children’s writer Tilda Balsley in “Oh No, Jonah!,” a lively, rhyming beat that will get the kids to listen. When the prophet Jonah refuses God’s request to persuade the people of Nineveh to change their wicked ways, he runs off to a ship, is tossed overboard and swallowed by a big fish. After Jonah prays for forgiveness, the fish spits him onto dry land and Jonah convinces the Ninevites to repent.

Balsley’s verse, which features the refrain “Oh No, Jonah!,” opens the door for discussion about misbehavior, apologies and forgiveness without being overbearing. Jago’s colorful illustrations — the fish is a golden giant with a humongous mouth and large googly eyes — will have young readers wading into the plot. The artist won the National Jewish Book Award for his illustrations in “Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim.”

“The Vanishing Gourds” is a lighthearted backyard mystery that captures the seasonal spirit of the joyous celebration of Sukkot, reflecting its appreciation of the natural world. Susan Axe-Bronk’s first children’s book is brightly illustrated by Marta Monelli.

With Sukkot’s themes of gratitude, simplicity and appreciation of all things green, it’s no wonder the holiday is gaining popularity. The book is a PJ Library selection.

In Axe-Bronk’s tale, readers meet Sara, a spirited young girl who loves to decorate the family sukkah with colorful and unusually shaped gourds from a local farm. But one year the gourds hanging from the roof slats mysteriously fall to the ground, scattering their seeds. At night, while Sara and her brother Avi are sleeping in the sukkah, they discover a family of squirrels eating the gourds. Sara dreams that the squirrel family apologizes, explaining that they were hungry. They promise to bring new gourds to Sara next year. In a heartwarming and happy ending, Sara discovers an unexpected gift the following Sukkot. Monelli’s large-format illustrations reflect the colors of the season.

In Linda Elovitz Marshall’s “The Mitzvah Magician,” an ordinary young boy wearing a tall black hat and carrying a wand in his hand transforms himself into a mischief-loving magician, emptying glasses of milk onto the floor and mistakenly poking his younger sister, Julia. In a time-out for his misbehavior, the young fellow thinks about his mother’s warnings that good magicians do good deeds, or mitzvahs, and don’t hurt people.

With a wave of his magic wand, Gabriel creates new magic words — Jewish words. “One-wish! Two-wish!” Jew-Wish!” he proclaims. Young kids will pick up the beat of Gabriel’s magic command, as he sneaks off the time-out stool to magically clean up the spilled milk from the kitchen floor, tidy his overturned toys and even set a party table with cookies for the family.

Marshall provides a lighthearted setting for the Jewish value of doing good, and Christiane Engel’s illustrations are lively and engaging. Figures and scenes are brightly colored and large enough for kids to enjoy reading the story through the expressive artwork.

Michelle Edwards’ deft touch and sense of humor shine through “Room for the Baby,” a delightful tale — and PJ Library selection — that follows a do-it-yourself-family through the Jewish holiday calendar. It begins at Passover, when Mom announces the family is going to have a baby.

“Where will the baby sleep?” wonders the young boy. The sewing room that will be used for the new baby overflows with his mom’s stuff that she’s collected for many years when neighbors bring her their extra sheets, outgrown kids pajamas, sports clothes, sweaters and more. Who won’t relate?

As the family observes Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and finally Chanukah, old sheets are torn apart and sewn into tiny baby sleepers; chopsticks and an old sweater sleeve become a flag for Simchat Torah, and so forth through the Jewish holidays. By Chanukah, all the stuff has been repurposed into beautiful and useful items for the new baby or happily shared with neighbors.

This warmly imagined story by the award-winning author of “Chicken Man” touches on many themes — anticipating a new baby, celebrating Jewish holidays, dads who bake challah, living in a multicultural neighborhood and, of course, inventive ways to reuse our “stuff.” Jana Christy’s illustrations glow with colorful collage patterns. Even the family cat gets in on the action.

While “Speak Up, Tommy!,” by the award-winning author Jacqueline Dembar Greene, is not about the High Holy Days, it is an outstanding new title that is timely as the school year gets under way.

Set in a classroom, the story hits all the chords about getting along with others and not teasing classmates, new or old. Tommy, a boy from Israel, is teased because his English is not perfect and he hasn’t learned the difference between Israeli and American football. But his perfect Hebrew comes in handy when Officer Sweeney visits the classroom with Samson, a specially trained dog who shares Tommy’s Hebrew language. There are fun Hebrew-English word bubbles with dog commands such as “sheket,” meaning quiet; “tavi,” for fetch and “kelev tov!” for good dog. In the end, classmates become helpful friends.

Deborah Melmon’s cartoonlike illustrations are lively and action packed.

“Oh No, Jonah!”

by Tilda Balsley, illustrations by Jago (32 pages, Kar-Ben, $17.95, ages 5-10)

“The Vanishing Gourds, A Sukkot Mystery”

by Susan Axe-Bronk, illustrated by Marta Monelli (32 pages, Kar-Ben, $17.95, ages 3-8)

“The Mitzvah Magician”

by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Christiane Engel (32 pages, Kar-Ben, $17.95, ages 3-8)

“Room for the Baby”

by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by Jana Christy (32 pages, Random House, $17.99, ages 3 and up)

“Speak Up, Tommy!”

by Jacqueline Dembar Greene, illustrated by Deborah Melmon (32 pages, Kar-Ben, $17.95, ages 3-8)