Picture This
Wed, 11/13/2013
Culture Editor
A new collection of children’s books approach Jewish culture and Jewish identity from many perspectives.
A new collection of children’s books approach Jewish culture and Jewish identity from many perspectives.

Image is everything, a clever ad spot for a camera company once claimed. And so it is with the writers (and illustrators) of picture books, who try to tell stories that marry word and image, ones that will stay with the reader.

Rochelle Hirsch and Naava Parker spin a story that’s meant to help readers. In “Lumps and Bumps: A Breast Cancer Story for Children” (written by Hirsch, illustrated by Parker), they introduce children to the subject of breast cancer through the tale of a young girl — told in her voice in rhyme — whose mother learns that she has to have surgery and then chemotherapy. It’s a very useful and supportive book for parents who want to begin a difficult conversation with young kids.

When the mother comes home from the hospital, the young girl in her pajamas spends time with her as she is resting in bed. The young girl says, “I tried to make her laugh,/I twirled around like a dancer./That’s when she told me she had/something called cancer.”

The tone is informative and serious, with both cheerfulness and tears, and an ending that looks happy. Parker’s soft and expressive illustrations, in pastel colors, feature whimsical details like patterned wallpaper in the bedrooms and an inviting wig shop.

The book was written by two mothers to help other mothers, and has been recommended by professionals. As the girl’s father tells her, “Life is filled with lumps and bumps.”

Read this book and smile. “My Grandma Lives in Florida” by Ed Shankman, illustrated by Dave O’Neill (Commonwealth Editions), chronicles in rhyming verse the traditional visit to Florida during the winter. Here, the grandmother, son and grandson are a loving trio of alligators. The book speaks to that powerful connection between grandmothers and grandchildren, full of its own distinctive gestures and language and pleasure.

The father and son board their flight in a snow-covered city, where they are wrapped in scarves and hats. When they arrive in Florida, the sun is “round and warm and bright as gold” and they go to Grandma’s cozy house that looks like the others on her street.

The young boy reports, “When we go inside, Grandma gives me a kiss./In fact, there’s no place on my face she will miss./I may wriggle and giggle and grumble and hiss./But only a grandma can kiss you like this.”

Their schedule will sound familiar to anyone who has visited parents or grandparents who’ve retired to the Sunshine State. They pack up lots of food and go to the beach and take in every nearby sight. The young alligator falls asleep on the fluffiest of pillows. But no early bird specials for these gators. In his grandmother’s eyes, he can do no wrong. “Whatever I do, Grandma claps and she shrieks,/And she tells all her neighbors about it for weeks.”

The writer and illustrator both work in advertising agencies, where they met. O’Neill’s paintings contribute suitably bright and humorous visuals for Shankman’s wordplay. They dedicate the book to their grandmothers.

Howard Eisenberg has written a series of books, also in verse, that entertain young kids and help them stretch their vocabulary.  “Guess Who Neighborhood,” “Guess Who Zoo” and “Guess Who Farm” (Mascot Books) are illustrated by Patrick Carlson (Mascot Books) with colorful characters that look like they’ve stepped out of a lively cartoon

Eisenberg wrote his first book in the series about 25 years ago. While traveling on airplanes, he would compose verse to his grandchildren on postcards and then send them when he landed. He recalls writing while on a book tour of Australia and New Zealand with his late wife, Arlene Eisenberg (co-author of the “What to Expect” parenting series), and she suggested that he collect them into a children’s book. He also produced a CD recording of the “Zoo” book.

The books give hints to the identity of an animal or character, and the young reader or listener is urged to guess before turning the page to find the right answer (and even those who can’t read the answer will recognize it by the illustration). There’s a great photo of a dog chasing the mailman in the “Neighborhood” book, and the woman pointing to the small mouse she’s discovered in her kitchen has an unmistakable expression of terror.

The ever-young Eisenberg is now a great-grandfather. He’s an advocate of staying active and not retiring. He just wrote his first musical, is working on a one-man show about baseball and has a new book of toddler poems in the works. He also plans to read from these books in hospital pediatric wards around the city.

Tara Feinstein is about to turn 13. She’s worrying about her bat mitzvah, not so sure what she believes and worried that she’s slighting the Indian side of her family by spending so much time on preparations. “My Basmati Bar Mitzvah” (Amulet) by Paula J. Freedman is a coming-of-age story and also a multicultural feast.

Freedman has a great ear for the way teenagers talk. Her characters are well drawn, especially the spunky Tara. Her father teaches trigonometry and is “not cool.” Aware of his status, he tries to compensate, which makes him double uncool. Tara’s elegant mother, who converted to Judaism, doesn’t even try to be cool, and for Tara that’s an endearing quality. And talk about cool, Rabbi Aaron, who trains her for the bat mitzvah, is the coolest rabbi ever.

As Chanukah and Diwali approach — both holidays that are festivals of light — Tara’s dad perfects their potato latkes with tamarind chutney and yogurt sauce. Meanwhile Tara deals with competing friends, a friend who might be a boyfriend, learning her Torah portion and honoring all sides of her identity. In her speech, she talks of Joseph and his brothers, and connects his multicolored tunic it to a beautiful sari that once belonged to her great-grandmother, now part of the dress she is wearing.

“My Basmati Bat Mitzvah,” full of warmth and color, is a first novel for Freedman, whose career is in digital media. She dedicates the book to her “desi mishpacha.” The glossary at the back is “A Handy Hindi-Hebrew-Yiddish-English Vocabulary Guide (with a little bonus Punjabi.)” Her definition of “latke” cross references to “tikki,” a Hindi word for patty or croquette (“Aloo tikki and potato latkes are practically the same thing.”)

Jerusalemite Shirley Graetz was working on her doctorate at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, studying cuneiform writing. That’s the script used by ancient Israelites to make marks on clay, a system of recording information dating back 4,000 years. Graetz, who learned the ancient language of Akkadian, was drawn to a collection of letters written by women (now bound into 14 volumes) who were part of the naditu, or elite class of women who choose to leave their families for the monastic life. Graetz was inspired to take a detour from her studies to write a novel about these little-known women of the Ancient Near East, imagining their inner lives and their relations with others. She based their stories and her descriptions of what they wore, how they ate and how they lived on information she gleamed in the letters and other archaeological findings.

“She Wrote on Clay” is Graetz’s first novel, set on the banks of the Euphrates 3,800 years ago. It’s a coming-of-age story, full of longings and challenges, as a young woman named lltani tries to find her way. In order to fulfill her dream to become a scribe, she moves into a monastic setting. Young adult readers, as well as readers of every age, will find the unusual historical backdrop of interest. Graetz has now completed her doctorate and works as a licensed tour guide specializing in the Ancient Near East. 

editor@jewishweek.org