The newest books for Jewish children are unlikely to appear on school summer reading lists. Included here are some of the latest offerings for children that are characterized by positive Jewish themes and can easily be packed into that camp or vacation suitcase. For some of the consistently best Jewish children’s picture books, visit the Web site for Kar-Ben Publishing (karben.com) and load up on the lightweight paperback versions for your trip.
The most unique picture book storyline this season may be found in “Feivel’s Flying Horses” (Kar-Ben, $7.95), by Heidi Smith Hyde, with pictures by Johanna Van Der Sterre. It is a beautifully illustrated account of Feivel, an immigrant woodcarver who had to leave behind his wife and children in the Old Country to make his way to the good life in America. No longer able to make a living carving three-dimensional figures on Torah arks, he uses his woodcarving skills to carve fabulously ornate horses for the Coney Island carousel until he earns enough money to bring his family to join him. An author’s note describes the life of Marcus Charles Illions — an observant Jew from Lithuania who used to carve his name in the bodies of his horses — and the lives of other well-known Jewish woodcarvers, who became nationally known for creating a new art form that delighted generations of children.
Daniel Pinkwater, National Public Radio commentator and author of dozens of children’s books, has teamed up with his illustrator wife, Jill, for an irreverent picture book that ingeniously combines three languages (English, Spanish and Yiddish) into an offbeat narrative of a “brave and clever” Yiddish chicken. In “Beautiful Yetta, the Yiddish Chicken,” (Feiwel & Friends, $16.99) Yetta escapes from her crate just as Mr. Flegleman, the organic chicken rancher, is unloading his chickens at Phil’s Poultry World in Brooklyn, “with a tear in his eye.” “Where am I? Vu bin ikh?” Yetta exclaims. She is a frightened outsider in a strange new place with no friends until she encounters a little green parrot named Eduardo who is about to be pounced upon by a sneaky cat. “Gay ahVEK, du fahrSHTUNkehneh kahtz!” (“Go away, you stinky cat!”) she yells, and saves the day, to the delight of Eduardo’s Spanish-speaking bird family. Part immigrant story, part language lesson and consistently fun, the Pinkwaters’ newest tale reminds children that if you are confident in who you are and where you come from, friends will never be far away.
Older children who are fans of comics and graphic novels will be delighted to see that Steve Sheinkin, author of the series “The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey,” has just come out with a third installment, “Rabbi Harvey vs. the Wisdom Kid” (Jewish Lights, $16.99). Subtitled “A Graphic Novel of Dueling Jewish Folktales in the Wild West,” this title continues the adventures of comic book hero Rabbi Harvey of Elk Spring, Colo., who has to rely on his talmudic knowledge and assorted Judaic teachings to overcome a variety of humorous villains, such as sweet-faced “Bad Bubbe” Bloom, and her interloper son, Rabbi Ruben, “The Wisdom Kid.” Clearly the town’s not big enough for two rabbis, and that includes the village of Helms Falls, whose inhabitants (think: fools of Chelm) are interviewing candidates for town sheriff. Sheinkin includes an informative afterword explaining the folktale and talmudic sources for each of the stories in the text, along with a detailed bibliography for additional reading. The unusual flat, elongated drawings take a bit of getting used to for adults, but they are unlikely to bother kids who will enjoy Rabbi Harvey’s twist on midrashic logic and lore.
Popular young adult novelist Sarah Darer Littman, author of the excellent Sydney Taylor Award-winner “Confessions of a Closet Catholic,” has another sure winner in her latest offering, “Life, After” (Scholastic, $17.99), in which she tackles myriad themes, including immigration, 9/11, depression and school bullying. Fifteen-year-old Dani and her family escape a crumbling life in Argentina years after her beloved aunt was killed in the 1994 terrorist attack on the Jewish Community Center there. Life in a new country is difficult, especially while dealing with a different language, a depressed father and an American high school environment where people are not particularly friendly. Plus, does she still have an Argentinean boyfriend or has he moved on? Her life before was so much simpler. Littman catches the voice of teen readers with her spot-on dialogue and realistic situations as her characters learn how to heal, forgive and open their hearts as they celebrate their new lives, after.
For those seeking a bit of artistic creativity this summer, the wonderful craft and how-to book by Israeli artist Lorna Sakalovsky may fit the bill. Known for her whimsical ceramic figurines and intricate chess sets, “Grandma Lorna” has gathered up more than two dozen “activities,” as she calls them, that have been joyously shared with her grandchildren throughout the years. Previously published in Israel, her book now shares her original ideas with anyone who loves playing games, drawing, cooking or enjoying creative tasks with children. “Grandma Lorna’s Hugs, Hints and Happiness: For You and Your Grandchildren” (Lambda Publishers, $29.95) includes colorful, sturdy, photo-illustrated pages with instructions for making potato men, mouse masks, cucumber crocodiles, scrambled egg pictures and more, plus games such as “Fresh Fruit Frenzy” or the “Dots and Squares Game.” All activities look easy to do, even “spoon people theater,” made from plasticine (molded onto spoons) that can be purchased at craft stores. Grandma Lorna’s infectious enthusiasm is explained in the opening pages: “This is your precious time to bond with the grandchildren, just loving each other. The grandchildren will remember these moments when they are themselves grandparents and recall the joy they felt being with you.” This book is useful for any family, particularly scout and camp groups, not just grandparents, and certainly worth the investment.
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles and the children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.