Jewish Journal


December 22, 2005

Dybbuks and Heroes Liven Holiday Books


Kibitzers, dreamers, medieval travelers and dybbuks are among the wide array of heroes, heroines and mystical villains in this season's crop of Jewish children's books, as publishers expand their offerings beyond holiday books and biblical retellings.

The roster of publishers is also evolving as much as the books they publish. An estimated 160 new Jewish children's titles were published last year by a growing number of mainstream and religious publishers. This reflects a national growth among religious-themed books.

Ilene Cooper, the children's book editor of Booklist, a trade magazine published by the American Library Association, said that several years ago, Booklist began publishing an annual spotlight on religion books.

"It was hard then to come up with enough books to fill the list," she said, but not anymore.

Here are some of the most notable new titles.

"Angel Secrets: Stories Based on Jewish Legend," by Miriam Chaikin, illustrated by Leonid Gore (Holt, $18.95, ages 5 and up)

Chaikin reveals her mastery of lyrically crafted, endearing stories based on biblical interpretations about the angels who link heaven and earth. Perfect for reading aloud. Chaikin writes warmly of angels of forgetfulness, alphabet angels and the palace of love. Gore's dreamlike illustrations accompany each story.

"Dreamer From the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall," by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Holt, $16.95, ages 4-8)

From the attic window of his home in a small town in Russia, the young Moshe Chagall, better known as Marc, sees the world differently from others. Colors are bolder, houses float in the sky and fiddlers dance on rooftops. Markel chronicles Chagall's young life as he turns from a dreamer to an artist.

Lisker's fanciful, colorful Chagallesque illustrations dance across the pages. A short biography is provided at the end.

"Dybbuk: A Version," by Barbara Rogasky, illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher (Holiday House, $16.95, ages 7-10)

This tale, loosely based on the famous Kabbalist play by S. Ansky, is a mysterious, intricate story of broken promises, retribution and love set long, long ago in the tiny village of Brinitz. Rogasky's retelling is skillful and engrossing. Illustrations by the award-winning Fisher are bold and haunting.

"Hidden Child," by Isaac Millman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18, ages 8-12)

As a young boy growing up in Paris before World War II, Millman, whose name then was Isaac Sztrymfman, lived a happy life, accompanying his father on Sunday mornings to the nearby cafe, where Yiddish-speaking patrons debated politics.

But the German occupation of France in 1940, when Isaac was 7 years old, changed life forever. In straightforward prose and captivating graphic artwork and photographs, Millman recounts the story of his survival as he became one of the "hidden" children of the war.

Millman strikes a perfect balance in recounting the tragic hardships he endured, while revealing the acts of human kindness of people who took risks to protect him.

"A Horn for Louis," by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by James Bernardin (Random House, $11.95, ages 6-9).

Leave it to master storyteller Kimmel to write a flowing and heartwarming story about the unique friendship between the young Louis Armstrong and the Karnofskys, a Jewish family in New Orleans. Great for reading aloud, this early reader about New Orleans' most famous jazzman is made ever more powerful as a portrait of daily life long before Hurricane Katrina devastated this colorful city rich in American cultural history.

"Kibbitzers and Fools, Tales My Zayda Told Me," by Simms Taback (Viking, $16.99, ages 3 and up)

Bedtime reading doesn't get more fun than with these Yiddish tales recast by Taback, Caldecott-winning author and artist of "Joseph Had a Little Overcoat." Be prepared to laugh along with the kids who'll delight in the baffling riddles of kibitzers and shlemiels. Why bring along an umbrella full of holes, asks Mendel. "I didn't think it was going to rain," replies Itzik.

The colorful illustrations are as offbeat and humorous as the narrative. Taback fills his short stories with easy-to-learn Yiddish expressions (and their definitions) and adds a glossary at the end.

"Sholom's Treasure," by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16, ages 4-10)

The two award winners are perfectly matched as Silverman engages young readers with the childhood world of Sholom Aleichem as he grows from class clown to master storyteller. Gerstein's illustrations are delightfully playful as he gives readers a Sholom with rosy cheeks, reddish-brown curls under his cap and an impishly endearing smile.

"The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela," by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17, ages 5 and up)

Shulevitz has created a wondrous, illustrated travelogue just right for children by recreating the little-known voyages of a Jewish traveler who visits Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad and Jerusalem in the 12th century. Shulevitz uses the first-person narrative to draw readers in.

Shulevitz has won awards for several books, including "The Treasure" and "The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship."

"Four Sides, Eight Nights," by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, illustrated by Susanna Natti (Roaring Brook Press, $16.95, ages 4-8)

An offbeat, fun book that goes beyond the traditional Chanukah story to explore the history of the dreidel and spinning tops from around the world. There are dreidel facts from collectors and Sevivon science, including a lesson on friction from Sir Isaac Newton.

Natti is familiar to young readers as the artist of the popular Cam Jansen series, and her light touch and expressive characters enliven the book.

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