Books for Kids, from Toddlers to Teens

September 2012

Books for Kids, from Toddlers to Teens

A Hebrew-speaking dinosaur, a mischievous young wizard, a Jewish boy training to be a boxer in Nazi Germany and cheerful mitzva-teaching meerkats are but a few of the characters whose varied stories enliven the pages of new books of Jewish interest for young readers. Picture books for toddlers, chapter books for elementary school readers and selections geared to adolescents will capture the imagination of their fortunate readers.

Ages 3-8
In Dinosaur Goes to Israel by Diane Levin Rauchwerger (illustrated by Jason Wolff; Kar-Ben, 24 pp. $7.95), Dino fills sand buckets on the Tel Aviv beach, snacks on falafel, floats on the Dead Sea and places a prayer in the Western Wall. Dino’s tale is well told and cheerfully illustrated.

Israeli-born Tommy is teased by his American classmates because of his accent, but he earns their admiration when he speaks Hebrew to a policeman's dog. Speak Up, Tommy! by Jacqueline Dembar Greene (illustrated by Deborah Melmon; Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $17.95 cloth, $7.95 paper) includes a list of English-Hebrew dog commands. Attentive small readers will learn that “heel” translates into ragli, but they might be left wondering why Tommy’s family left Israel.

Wonderfully drawn zany animals demonstrate that it is a mitzva to welcome friends, share food, visit the sick and perform other good deeds, including peacemaking, which gives “the warm feeling of happiness in our hearts.”

It's a ... It's a ... It's a Mitzvah by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman (illustrated by Laurel Molk; Jewish Lights, 32 pp. $18.99), in few words and with apt illustrations, effortlessly teaches these powerful lessons.

Giuliano Ferri’s illustrations of soaring waves and graceful sea birds engage and delight in Eileen Spinelli’s Jonah’s Whale (Eerdman Books for Young Readers, 26 pp. $16). The retelling of Jonah’s story, however, is overly graphic in describing the whale’s digestive process. And important, the whale—seaborne singer of “a joyful song”—is accorded more prominence than the unfortunate prophet.

Sylvia A. Rouss’s latest is Sammy Spider's New Friend (illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn; Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $16.95 cloth, $7.95 paper). This time, irrepressible Sammy and his incredibly patient mother join his young friend Josh in learning the mitzva of welcoming new neighbors (below). As a bonus, the new family is from Israel and Sammy learns that the Hebrew word for spider is akavish, a sweet nugget of information for the world’s sweetest spider.

Tefilat HaDerech: The Traveler's Prayer, adapted by Joshua Buchin and illustrated by Woody Miller (EKS Publishing, 32 pp. $17.95 cloth, $10.95 paper), renders the traditional prayer in both Hebrew and English. It is blended with a simple timeline of Jewish odysseys through the ages. The charming illustrations add to the appeal of this slender volume.

In The Mitzvah Magician by Linda Elovitz Marshall (illustrated by Christiane Engel; Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $7.95), Gabriel learns that actions accompany wishes as he utters the magic words, “One-wish! Two-wish! Jewish.” He then proceeds to perform the mitzva of cleaning the kitchen, organizing the toys and preparing cookies, becoming “a good magician, doing things that make people happy.”

Annie’s grandmother delays baking her chocolate chip cookies as she explains the beauty of careful listening. The story of The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (illustrated by Joani Keller Rothenberg; Jewish Lights, 32 pp. $18.99) is based on a debate between scholarly Rashi and his grandson about how to hang the mezuza—vertically or horizontally.

The issue (which angered the community) was wisely resolved by hanging it at a slant, which reminds us “…we listen. We are one.”

Sasso’s tale is enhanced by Rothenberg’s bold and bright illustrations.

Ages 7-12
Hanukka is not that far off. Be prepared with a copy of Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler (illustrated by Ursula Roma; Kar-Ben, 64 pp. $8.95). Eight menus and celebration suggestions for the eight nights of the happy winter festival include recipes for smoothies, carrot latkes, dreidel cake as well as rules for a dreidel game and directions for making holiday decorations.

Emanuel Aliguar’s family is part of a community of secret Jews in Heidi Smith Hyde’s book Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue(illustrated by Jamel Akib; Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $14 cloth, $7.95 paper). The family emigrated from Portugal to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 18th century. Scarred by memories of the harsh treatment they suffered in Portugal, the community, including Emanuel’s father, refuses to display their Hanukka menoras in their windows. Angered by their fear, Emanuel stows away on a whaling ship but a storm tears the sails and destroys the lighthouse. It is the glow of the Hanukka candles in every Jewish household that guides the ship to shore. Emanuel recognizes his father’s courage and the New Bedford Jews learn about American freedom. An inspiring tale well told.

Like many other Jewish pirates of the Caribbean, the central figure in Jean Laffite: The Pirate Who Saved America by Susan Goldman Rubin (illustrated by Jeff Himmelman; Abrams Books for Young Readers, 48 pp. $18.95) seized and plundered Spanish ships, purportedly to avenge the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Although his devoted Jewish grandmother prized education, Jean chose a life of adventure. His legendary exploits included the capture of sloops, the acquisition of treasure chests, dramatic duels, marriage to a Danish Jewish woman and a luxurious life in New Orleans, where he lived in a mansion on Bartaria Bay. During the War of 1812, his ingenious military skills enabled him to lead General Andrew Jackson to victory in the Battle of New Orleans. The Jewish pirate earned the praise of President James Madison for “good and loyal service to the country.”

Himmelman’s dark drawings are appropriate for the dramatic tale of the privateer and sometime slave smuggler who became an admired, if unlikely, patriot.

Harry Potter, step aside. The young hero of Kaytek the Wizard by Janusz Korczak (illustrated by Avi Katz; translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Penlight Publications, 272 pp. $17.95) has sufficient power to transform his gluttonous classmate’s breakfast into a frog and then to soar skyward and land on the roof of a Warsaw tram. As his proficiency at magic increases, he explores a complex cosmos, interacting with Africans and Americans and zooming across oceans and continents.

The author is the legendary Holocaust hero who voluntarily accompanied the Jewish children of his orphanage to Treblinka. This first English publication of his enduring classic grants Korczak a posthumous victory of a kind. Readers will learn that boy wizards, like all children, must tread carefully as they navigate their way through a complex world.

Edith, the fourth child in an “overcrowded” Jewish family of 12, tells her story in unstructured free verse.Looking for Me by Betsy R. Rosenthal (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 166 pp. $15.99), Edith complains of standing in line for the bathroom, doing drudge work in her father’s diner and being attacked by her anti-Semitic classmates. She also reveals her sorrow at the death of her dream of becoming a teacher. Edith is searching for herself and, despite that “she stinks at spelling,” she finally, triumphantly declares that at last she knows “who I am…I am the one who will go to college someday and become a teacher.”

Rachel dreams of becoming a writer, rebelling against the restrictive life of a Jewish girl in Kiev. That dream is thrust aside when she witnesses the murder of her special friend, a Christian boy named Mikhail. Blame is focused on the Jewish community and Rachel must decide whether to reveal the identity of the murderers. In Rachel's Secretby Shelly Sanders (Second Story Press, 248 pp. $12.95 paper), Rachel’s only ally is Serge, a Christian youth who shares her intolerance of injustice. The grim tale is based on the horrific Kishinev pogrom, and the author reveals Rachel’s secret with skill and palpable sorrow.

Ages 12 and Up
A new addition to the important “Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers,” To Hope and Back: The Journey of the St. Louis by Kathy Kacer (Second Story Press, 205 pp. $14.95 paper), chronicles the tragic voyage of the St. Louis during World War II and epitomizes Chaim Weizmann’s melancholy assertion that “the world seemed to be divided into two parts—those places where Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”

The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Lisa and Sol, two young passengers who board with their families full of hope, carrying with them visas to Cuba, bought and paid for. The ship’s humane captain, a brave anti-Nazi, treats his passengers with respect and the youngsters enjoy an on-deck swimming pool, plentiful food and the antics of a man on roller skates who skids across the shuffleboard court. All portents seem favorable but, tragically, Cuba refuses to honor the visas. The passengers are plunged into despair: Not a single country, including the United States, offers them refuge.

Archival photographs of the families of the two young people and other passengers contribute a note of authenticity. Ultimately, England, France, Belgium and Holland agree to accept them. Those sent to England survived the war, but the majority perished in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Lisa and Sol are among those who survived—Sol as a practicing physician in Buffalo, New York, and Lisa in Canada as an accomplished weaver. Their testimonies are both moving and cautionary, hopefully helping “to ensure that a similar event never takes place again.”

Born into a wealthy Stockholm family, Raoul Wallenberg seemed destined for a life of serenity and accomplishment. He studied architecture at the University of Michigan and traveled the world, journeying from South Africa to Palestine. In Haifa, he witnessed the arrival of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and recognized the evils of Hitler’s regime. The peaceful trajectory of his life was interrupted and he was catapulted into heroic action, traveling to Nazi-occupied Budapest on a mission to save as many Jews as he could from the death camps. In His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg: Courage, Rescue, And Mystery During World War II (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pp. $18.99), Louise Borden, writing in free verse, offers a clear account of his efforts. This includes cameo portraits of the heroic men and women who worked with him as he issued passes, secured safe houses and evaded the plots of the Arrow Cross and evil Adolf Eichmann.

Photographs and replicas of documents and decrees add important dimensions to the reader’s understanding of a man who was “the world’s conscience and voice.” That brave voice was silenced, and the fate of the great humanitarian hero remains shrouded in mystery, though his legacy endures.

In The Auslander by Paul Dowswell (Bloomsbury, 295 pp. $17.99), Piotr Bruck, a Polish orphan with German blood and Aryan features, is selected by the Nazis to be adopted by a prominent Berlin family. Despite the advantages of being considered “racially pure,” he feels himself an Ausländer, a foreigner, and is increasingly repelled by the fascist doctrine and its barbaric cruelties. Joining his classmate Anna Rieger, he fights the Hitler Jugend, whom they call “seig heiling” robots, and help Jews in hiding. Forced to flee the Gestapo, they engineer a daring and dramatic escape and find refuge in Sweden where, for the first time, the Ausländer can feel free.

Judy Petsonk’s Queen of the Jews (Blair Books, 286 pp. $15.99) is based on the life of a little-known Jewish heroine, Queen Salome Alexandra Shalom Zion, wife of a Maccabee grandson. Her story is a welcome addition to the pantheon of courageous Jewish women who fought for the survival of their people.

Twelve-year-old Sarah Stein, caught up in the maelstrom of her parents’ divorce, is the wry teller of her own tale in which New York as well as its zany populace are featured protagonists.

In The Stranger Within Sarah Stein by Thane Rosenbaum (Texas Tech University Press, 160 pp. $19.95), Sarah, in finding herself, must deal with the elements that contribute to her complicated life: the Holocaust (her beloved grandmother is a survivor); the 2001 World Trade Center attacks; a homeless African-American former firefighter living in a Brooklyn Bridge portal; an entrepreneurial mother (she runs a chocolate business) who embraces a trendy lifestyle; and her artist father’s bohemian insouciance.

The narrative is improbable, impeded by convenient coincidences and awkward segues as Rosenbaum struggles to link the complexities of divorce, homelessness, the Holocaust and the tragedy of 9/11 into a coherent whole.

Still, Sarah is a heroine who will intrigue readers even as her many eccenricities remain elusive and her story’s conclusion undefined. Apparently, the search goes on.

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