New Children’s Books Enliven the Holiday

[by Penny Schwartz] [Photos thanks to JTA]

BOSTON (JTA) — Over the past 10 to 15 years, as the offering of Jewish children’s books has burgeoned, the style and variety of Passover books for children has expanded, too.

Given the huge selection of Passover Haggadot, perhaps it is no surprise.

There are traditional biblical retellings of the Exodus story, toddler board books, children’s versions of the Haggadah, fanciful picture books starring spiders and frogs, books of songs, historical fiction of celebrating Passover in different times and cultures such as the Holocaust or in the Civil War era.

While they may differ in approach, setting, purpose and even quality, the books reflect the popularity of Passover for American Jewish families.

Here are some new books that will add to the variety for young kids, enlivening and adding beauty to this beloved holiday that celebrates freedom.

The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Paul Meisel
Holiday House, $16.95. Ages 4-8

Time to make the matzah, the Little Red Hen realizes in this Passover version of the well-known tale. The can-do Little Red Hen sets out to grow special wheat as she prepares to bake special matzah for her Passover seder. But who will help with the chores?

“ ‘Not I,’  said Sheep.

‘Sorry, bub,’ said Horse.

‘Think again,’ said Dog, a little bit rudely.”

And so it goes. Little Red Hen is on her own, planting, harvesting and schlepping the wheat to the mill. All along, her lazy friends do nothing but lounge around the farm. This is no ordinary hen. She’s got a Yiddish tongue.

Sprinkled throughout the delightful, lighthearted tale are common Yiddish phrases such as kvetch, chutzpah and Oy Gevalt!, with a glossary in the back.

Meisel’s gloriously bright, whimsical illustrations are a perfect pairing with Kimmelman’s upbeat, engaging prose. Kids watch as the hen bakes the matzah and prepares the traditional Passover food of hard-boiled eggs, parsley, apples and nuts, and gefilte fish.

When her no-goodnik farm friends show up at Hen’s door all ready to partake in the seder, Hen reminds herself of the Haggadah’s imperative to welcome all who are hungry. Together they enjoy a festive seder. Best of all, in the end, Hen gets to recline.

End notes include a short description of Passover and a kid-friendly recipe to make matzah.

A Tale of Two Seders Mindy Avra Portnoy, illustrated by Valeria Cis
Kar-Ben, $17.95. Ages 5-9

In this engaging, thoughtful story, a young girl whose parents are divorced celebrates Passover with two sets of families, in two homes, with many versions of charoset. It’s easier than Thanksgiving, the girl notes, because she doesn’t have to decide where to eat — and there’s still lots of food.

The story takes place over three years; that means six seders and six charoset recipes.

The first year, “Dad’s charoset didn’t really stick together,” the girl says, and mom’s charoset tasted mostly like figs.
The girl is comfortable at her mom’s house and at her dad’s apartment. Wise and inquisitive, the girl expresses her reactions and worries honestly. She understands that her parents worry that she might be unhappy. At night she dreams sometimes that her family is back together.

While the story centers on a serious subject, the author is not heavy handed. It’s a Passover story in a contemporary American family. The girl is likeable, believable and upbeat. She enjoys the seders and comments on the many versions of charoset that seem to differ from home to home and year to year, depending on the cook.

The third year brings a comforting surprise that reminds the little girl that like the many varieties of charoset, each family can be sweet in its own way.

Passover, Celebrating Now, Remembering Then
Harriet Ziefert, paintings by Karla Gudeon
Blue Apple Books, $17.99. Ages 3-7
The history, symbols and traditions of Passover come to life in this lavishly illustrated book by the award-winning team of Harriet Ziefert and Karla Gudeon, who created a similar book for Chanukah. The Passover book contrasts the ancient Exodus story with a joyful family celebration of a Passover seder.

Each two-page spread offers a simple explanation and illustration of how the holiday is celebrated now. The page flaps open to reveal lively portrayals of the holiday long ago.

Colorful, folk-inspired artwork depicts various scenes from the Egyptians chasing the Israelites through the desert to the parting of the sea, to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It’s perfect for young children, who will enjoy the whimsical depiction of preparing for a seder. They can recognize the symbols such as the egg, the glass of wine, matzah. They will delight in opening the flaps of the double pages to reveal the hidden illustrations.

The narrative is simple but informative, presented in poetic style.

Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Jago
Kar-Ben, $8.95. Ages 4-8

Published last year, this elaboration of a tale from rabbinic lore won several prestigious awards, including a 2009 Sydney Taylor Honor Award. The author and illustrator offer a creatively imagined tale of the ancient story of Exodus. Told from a young boy’s perspective, the book inspires courage and faith.

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