When it comes to the best in Jewish children’s books, keeping it local is easy to do in Massachusetts, which is home to scores of acclaimed as well as up-and-coming authors and illustrators of books on Jewish subjects.
This spring’s new crop of Passover books for kids includes a trio of award-winning local authors: Jane Yolen, the prolific author of hundreds of books for all ages including “The Devil’s Arithmetic” and dozens of folk tales leading to her being dubbed America’s Hans Christian Anderson; Leslea Newman, who garnered this year’s Sydney Taylor Jewish Book Award for children’s literature for her lifetime body of work; and Joy Nelkin Wieder, an award-winning Boston-area author of more than 30 children’s books and an illustrator who’s exhibited in synagogues and other locations.
A fourth notable book is by Naomi Ben-Gur, one of Israel’s most acclaimed and popular children’s writers.
The Journal caught up with Newman in a phone conversation from her home in Western Massachusetts. The author of some 70 books, including the groundbreaking “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “A Sweet Passover.” Her latest, “Gittel’s Journey,” won this year’s National Jewish Book award and a silver Sydney Taylor award.
Newman hadn’t planned to write another Passover children’s book, but a creative inspiration – and the companionship of her beloved cat (now deceased) – sparked the story of “Welcoming Elijah: A Tale with a Tail.”
“It’s my favorite holiday,” she said, noting that as a child, she especially loved opening the door for Elijah. There’s no telling what surprise awaits as the door is opened: sometimes neighbors walk by, or leaves blow in through the opened door. Once, a dog walked up the driveway, she recalled with a laugh.
“Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With a Tail”
Lesléa Newman; illustrated by Susan Gal
Charlesbridge (ages 5-8)
In this lyrical, poetically told story, a young boy anticipates his family’s festive Seder, celebrated inside his warm, light-filled home with a large gathering of family and friends. Outside, in the windy darkness of night, a small white kitten sits alone. When the boy’s favorite Seder ritual comes, opening the door to welcome Elijah the Prophet, he discovers the kitten meowing at his doorstep, a chance to give meaning to Passover’s theme of welcoming a stranger into a new home.
Susan Gal’s large, colorful illustrations bring the story to life, with each page contrasting the glow of the large Seder gathering with the darker outside world of the small kitty. In an author’s note, Newman explains the holiday, the custom of filling a cup of wine for Elijah and the holiday’s theme of welcoming guests.
“The Passover Mouse”
Joy Nelkin Wieder; illustrated by Shahar Kober
Random House (ages 3-7)
Set in an Old World village, a little white mouse snatches a crust of bread from pile of chametz from the home of a widow who has just finished clearing out all the forbidden bread before the start of Passover. Frenzy follows in this lively tale, when the mouse races over to the cobbler’s home, setting a chain reaction in motion as another mouse and then a cat appear, who have also gotten hold of a piece of bread. Residents parade over to the rabbi’s home wondering if they have to clean their houses again. A young boy comes to the rescue with the perfect solution of neighbors helping neighbors. The book features award-winning Israeli illustrator Shahar Kober’s cartoon-like, high energy illustrations.
“Who Will Ask the Four Questions?”
Naomi Ben-Gur; illustrated by Carmel Ben-Ami. Translated from Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann
Green Bean Books (ages 4-7)
Eitan is a young boy who is excited about reciting the Ma Nishtana, the Four Questions, at his family’s Seder. But trouble starts when his younger sister, Evie, declares it’s her turn for the honor. With the gentle guiding of Grandma Naomi, the quarreling siblings find a way to join their voices for a memorable Seder. Naomi Ben-Gur’s endearing story is enlivened with Carmel Ben-Ami’s illustrations.
“Miriam at the River”
Jane Yolen; illustrations by Khoa Le
Kar-Ben; ages 5-9
Jane Yolen brings her masterful storytelling to a lyrical retelling of the biblical story of the young Miriam, Moses’ sister, as she places her newborn brother in a basket among the reeds of the Nile River. She prays that he will be rescued and saved from Pharoah’s soldiers. Like a midrash, Yolen weaves a narrative that engages young readers who feel as if they are there with Miriam as she shows courage and faith. In simple language, the story imagines the future for the leading role Moses will come to play in the Passover story.
The text comes to life through Khoa Le’s large, vivid illustrations as baby Moses drifts past a lush landscape of storks and a hippopotamus. The back page is an informative author’s note about the origin of the story of Miriam and the often overlooked role she plays in the Passover story.