Archive for December, 2010

Why I love children’s books & Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder

I love children’s books. I really, really love them. Frequently, I find that I prefer young adult novels and middle-grade novels far more than adult novels. Very frequently.

I’ve always loved children’s books. I think my problem was that I never really figured out the transition to adult books. Back when I was the proper age to be reading kids’ books, I would sit at the bookstore, often for an hour or so (luckily I had a very understanding dad and a very similar sister) and I would go one by one through the children’s books on the three or four bookcases reserved for books for my age group. That’s how I’d find the books I wanted to read — by going one by one and reading the back and examining the cover. When I became that awful age when people tell you the adult section is more your speed, I was lost. I couldn’t go through all the adult books one by one to figure out what I wanted to read. And so I didn’t know how to find good books. I’d find an author or two that worked for me and read all I can, but then I was lost again. And honestly, I actually stopped reading for a while because I just couldn’t figure it out.

Eventually I got a little better. I started going to the Housing Works Bookstore in NYC where I could go through the 2 bookcases dedicated to review copies. It wasn’t that I wanted to read the newest releases, it was that I could finally go back to my childhood where I could just drop my stuff at the bottom of the bookcase and look through the books one by one.

Now though, I’m letting go of the embarrassment and I’m ready to admit that I just love children’s books and even though I’m much older than (some) authors intend to write for, I am happiest there.

Which brings me to Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder. Because while I readily admit my love for children’s books to some friends, some of the time, this is a book that reminds me that it’s OK to yell from the top of my very snowy roof how much I love children’s books. Because my friends, this book rocks. It is beautifully, so beautifully, written. I know there are many complicated books out there about miserable people who lead miserable lives in miserable third world countries and they get many, many prizes. But in my opinion, Any Which Wall is a perfect book, and far surpasses all those unhappy books. It’s sweet and kind and really lovely.

Officially, here’s the description:

Four kids, a mysterious wall, and a good helping of common magic!

If you had a magic wall that could take you to any place and any time, where would you go? Would you want to visit castles and desert islands? Would you want to meet famous wizards, terrible pirates, beautiful queens, and dastardly outlaws? If so, then you are just like Henry and Emma, and Roy and Susan—and you will probably like this story a lot. In fact, you might even wish something similar would happen to you!

But truthfully, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about a 12-year-old girl whose best friend moves away, and thinks she’s too cool and old for unicorns and kindness. It’s about interesting kids who wish interesting things. It’s about being brave and being scared and the possibility that magic does really exist. And in the absolutely magical chapter I just read to Jonah tonight, it’s about remembering that while just having fun is not usually the subject of children’s book chapters (because nobody was being chased and there was no danger), having fun is worth mentioning. Listen to this:

No, nothing bad happened at all. It was a fun afternoon and free of all disaster, and it didn’t affect anything that happened afterward, not even a little. In fact, I wouldn’t bother to include this particular adventure in the book since it doesn’t matter much to the story.

Except that it does. Because fun does matter. It matters a lot.

Laurel, thank you so much for writing this exquisite book. Not just because I got to read it (twice now) and recommend it to as many people as I can. But because for the last three weeks, Jonah and I have snuggled together and read it every night, and I’ve been able to share it with him.

My recommendation? Buy it in hardcover. Buy a couple of copies — enough to read it out loud to 6-9 year olds; and have 8-10 year olds read it on their own.

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Jews and Christmas

I’m thinking a lot about Christmas these days. There are beautiful lights everywhere, friends have their trees up and it has been a long, long time since Hanukkah for my kids. They haven’t said anything yet, but I’m waiting…

So my first thought is to turn to books. I’m looking for books for children that feature Jews being Jewish at Christmas time — and preferably not Jews doing Hanukkah while others do Christmas since that’s not the case this year. Here’s my top choices:

The Trees of the Dancing GoatsThe Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco. This kind of breaks the rule of not including books about Hanukkah, but I’d argue that the book really isn’t about Hanukkah at all. Here’s the book description:

Trisha loves the eight days of Hanukkah, when her mother stays home from work, her Babushka makes delicious potato latkes, and her Grampa carves wonderful animals out of wood as gifts for Trisha and her brother. In the middle of her family’s preparation for the festival of lights, Trisha visits her closest neighbors, expecting to find them decorating their house for Christmas. Instead they are all bedridden with scarlet fever. Trisha’s family is one of the few who has been spared from the epidemic. It is difficult for them to enjoy their Hanukkah feast when they know that their neighbors won’t be able to celebrate their holiday. Then Grampa has an inspiration: they will cut down trees, decorate them, and secretly deliver them to the neighbors, “But what can we decorate them with?” Babushka asks. Although it is a sacrifice, Trisha realizes that Grampa’s carved animals are the perfect answer. Soon her living room is filled with trees — but that is only the first miracle of many during an incredible holiday season.

What I really like about this book is that it is absent the longing of Christmas and really features two people living side by side, practicing their own religions, and helping each other when they need it.

Elijah's Angel

Elijah’s Angel by Michael Rosen. Again, this does have Hanukkah, probably more importantly placed than the Polacco suggestion, but I really like it. The Amazon review:

A child’s vision of religious tolerance is exquisitely played out in this story about an elderly Christian barber and a Jewish child who befriends him. As a hobby, the African American barber makes elaborate woodcarvings–many of which refer to events or characters in the Bible. Michael, a 9-year-old Jewish boy, often visits the barbershop just to admire old Elijah’s carvings, especially that of Noah’s Ark–a story that belongs to Jewish as well as Christian teachings. One day when Hanukkah and Christmas coincidentally overlap, Elijah gives Michael a special gift, a carved guardian angel. Immediately Michael is filled with a jumble of feelings–gratitude for such a beautiful gift, concern that his parents might disapprove, and an even greater fear that God may frown upon a Christmas angel, “a graven image,” in Michael’s home. The thick sweeps of paint, the heavy uses of wood-tones, and primitive images make the settings and characters look as though Elijah carved them himself. When Michael finally reveals the carved angel to his parents, they help the young boy understand how expressions of friendship, love, and protection can be carried into any home, regardless of the household’s religion.

Again, lovely story about friendship and people being happy with who they are.

A Chanukah Noel

Another new book out this season is the gorgeous A Chanukah Noel by Sharon Jennings. This one takes the very realistic plot of a Jewish child who wants to celebrate Christmas. The Booklist review:

Based on a true incident, this historical picture book is about Charlotte, who has moved to a small town in France. Charlotte feels left out, especially at Christmastime, not only because she’s American but also because she’s Jewish. At least Charlotte can participate in the school holiday activities, but during the grab-bag pull, she realizes that classmate Colette Levert is too poor to purchase a present for the exchange. This gives Charlotte an idea. Perhaps she can bring Christmas to Colette’s family. On Christmas Eve, Charlotte’s family carries a Christmas tree, decorations, food, and gifts to the Leverts. In return, the Leverts ask Charlotte’s family to stay and share their holiday feast and “the joy of Christmas and Chanukah.”The Christmas Menorahs

 And, since we have a good number of Jews help save Christmas stories, here’s a corollary. The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Janice Cohn. The Boolist review:

Based on a true incident that occurred in Billings, Montana, this story begins when a rock is thrown through a boy’s bedroom window in which a menorah is displayed. The boy, Isaac, is frightened and unsure whether he wants to put the menorah back. His parents call the police, and his mother goes on television and to a meeting to talk about hate crimes in the community. Inspired by stories of the Danish people helping their Jewish neighbors during World War II, the people of Billings put menorahs in their windows to take a stand against bigotry. When a schoolmate supports Isaac, he takes his own stand by returning the menorah to its place. Although the plot seems a little stilted at times, Cohn deals with the issues in a way children can readily understand.

Christmas Tapestry

Finally, a book that I’m not sure how to categorize, except to say that it’s a weeper. The Christmas Tapestry by Patricia Polacco is not about Hanukkah or being Jewish at all. It’s really just a Christmas story, but with a really interesting Jewish link. From Booklist:

Polacco is a master at intergenerational, interfaith stories that bring comfort and joy, and this one based on homilies she had heard widely separated in time and place is no exception. Jonathan must adjust when his preacher father moves the family to Detroit. After lots of work, the church is almost ready for Christmas, but then ice damage gouges a hole in a church wall. Father and son find a beautifully embroidered hanging and buy it with the last of their money; as they wait in the snow for the bus, an old woman offers them tea from her thermos. When they finally get to the parsonage, she is astonished to find the tapestry is one she had made as a chuppah for her wedding in Germany, before she was separated from her new husband who was lost in the war. The plasterer, who comes to fix the hole, also recognizes the hanging, and delighted audiences will soon figure out his identity. Christian and Jewish holiday celebrations intermingle with the message that nothing in the universe is random. The tender colors and gestures in the illustrations echo the text to make a satisfying whole.

The story is beautiful and touching and likely missed by many Jews because of the overt Christmas message of the description. It’s really quite incredible.

Nate the GreatAnd a bonus. If your kids really want the Christmas book, offer them Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas by Marjorie Wienman Shermat. Tuns out that everyone’s favorite mystery solving little boy doesn’t celebrate Christmas either. It’s a great surprise for kids, and a wonderful “aha” moment. Jewish characters aren’t just in Jewish books. Sometimes they turn up in the least likely place…

Last thought: Lisa Silverman, a fantastic Jewish librarian and connoisseur of Jewish children’s book writes about A Chanukkah Noel and a new book (that I haven’t seen so didn’t include in this round up because I haven’t read it) called Jackie’s Gift: A True Story of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Jackie Robinson, written by Jackie’s daughter, Sharon Robinson. While I disagree with her Hanukkah book suggestions, I think the article itself is great.

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Aliya Stories

So, the other day’s post about great immigration stories led me to think about some of my favorite stories about immigrating to Israel instead of America. There aren’t as many of them, but they are great.

First RainFirst Rain by Charlotte Herman is lovely. Abby and her parents have decided to move to Israel from North America, and they are really happy with their decision, it’s hard to leave behind Abby’s grandmother. First Rain tells the story of the correspondence between grandmother and grandchild as Abby learns more and more about her new home. What’s nice is that in addition to learning more, Abby teaches her grandmother all about Israel, including some Hebrew words. One of the things that Abby learns about Israel is how everyone waits for the first rain of the year after the long hot summer, much like she used to wait for the first snow. Guess who arrives for a visit on the same day that Abby hears the sounds of rain on the roof? I’ll admit, there’s something sad about this book — the grandmother sure does look unhappy to see Abby and her folks move away. But, it’s a lovely intergenerational story, and very applicable to many long distance grandparents, even if their grandchildren don’t live in Israel. (Great for 5-7 year olds.)

Yuvi's Candy TreeYuvi’s Candy Tree by Lesley Simpson is a fantastic new book. But it won’t be out until March 2011 (sorry!). The story of Yuvi’s trip from Ethiopia to Israel is captured in beautifully poetic language and simple artwork. The story is a little scary (appropriately), but does a great job of conveying the long, hard trip to Israel for many Ethiopian Jews. You can always pre-order… (I think it’ll work best for 7-10 year olds.)

Finally, All the Lights in the Night by Arthur Levine is a more typical “escape from Russia” story, except for instead of escaping to America, the two brothers are heading to Palestine. Israel doesn’t play heavily in the story, but it’s a nice Hanukkah story, and includes a slightly different destination than we usually see in these books. (Good for 8 & 9  year olds.)

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Encyclopedia Brown

Encyclopedia BrownRemember Encyclopedia Brown? I loved the series as a kid, and I have to say that I even love it now as an adult. I remember trying desperately to figure out the mysteries, and never being able to do it. One great thing about getting older is that finally as an adult, I can now figure them out! Now as I listen to them, I hear the out-of-place detail, I can figure out the type of clue that Encyclopedia looks for.

I don’t need to describe the series by Daniel J. Sobel because I’m sure you know them well. They’ve aged pretty well — I think I’m the only one who notices how many mysteries depend on not having had a cell phone or the fact that there’s no internet… There’s a little colorful ethnic stereotyping going on, so you just need to watch out for that.

My editionMy seven-year old has been reading my old copies, and then we’ve been listening to the stories in the car. Just good clean stories — the kind that still makes me smile. Do you remember any Encyclopedia Brown mysteries from when you were a kid?

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This Totally Bites

I can’t believe I hadn’t blogged about this before (OK, so it’s probably because it’s been a little while since I last blogged).

This Totally Bites

This Totally Bites by Ruth Ames ROCKS. Emma-Rose Paley is a fantastic heroine who looks a little more vampire-ish than the rest of her family. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that her great-Aunt Margo is coming for a visit from Romania and looks a lot like Emma-Rose. And for the fact that Great-Aunt Margo is clearly up to something other-worldly. Could it be that Emma-Rose’s aversion to garlic and sunshine are more than just a question of taste?

Clearly, This Totally Bites is playing off the current vampire craze, setting this story up for the 8-12 crowd who are a little young for Twilight. But it’s way more than that. The storytelling here is way beyond what you get in most young chapter books — it really moves and the plot builds and the characters are remarkably developed. I’ve given this to a few reluctant readers who plowed through it and demanded more! What I really like about the story though is the ending, which I won’t give away. I expected that she couldn’t be a vampire. Or maybe Ames would make her a vampire? But the ending is much more inventive than I could have predicted.

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Immigration Stories

OK, let’s not talk about  how long it’s been. The point is, I’m writing again, right?

So, I’m inspired by my 2nd grader who is studying immigration, but probably more so by his wonderful teacher and the creative ways she is introducing this topic to her class. As I looked at her book box of immigration stories for the kids, I was surprised by how few Jewish titles she had. Now, some were in the hands of happy children, but it did make me think, what are the best Jewish immigration picture books? So, here’s the list:

Best for the Ellis Island experience:

The Memory CoatThe Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff is probably my favorite for the Ellis Island experience. Rachel and her cousin Grisha have made it to Ellis Island, along with Rachel’s family. While horsing around (see, kids in the olden days did that too!), Rachel knocks into Grisha and causes his eye to get scratched. Wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that a damaged eye earns Grisha the scary white chalk mark on his coat, the sign that he won’t be admitted to the United States and will have to go back home. Luckily, Rachel is a plucky heroine who saves the day with some quick thinking. Great for 7-9 year olds.

Best for younger kids:

Mendel's AccordionI’m sure I’ve written about Mendel’s Accordion by Heidi Smith Hyde elsewhere. Beautifully illustrated, it tells the story of Mendel from Melnitze who is a Klezmer player. When things get bad, Mendel leaves Melnitze with old his accordion. Everywhere he goes, Mendel makes friends and makes music. Mendel eventually has children in New York, and it’s his grandson Sam who finds his accordion one day and learns to play again. A simple (no Cossacks!) immigration story, with a lovely intergenerational feel, not to mention the accordion! For fans of Mendel’s Accordion, there is now Feivel’s Flying Horses by the same author and illustrator team. This time taking place at Coney Island, it’s a lovely quiet choice, though some will see sadness in the fact that Feivel has to go to America without his wife and children. Luckily, at the end of the story they are reunited! (Mendel’s Accordion is great for 4-6 year olds; Feivel is better for 6 & 7s.)

Best for older readers:

When Jessie Came Across the SeaWhen Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest is beautiful and really quite perfect. Jessie is chosen to come to America by the rabbi of her small village. Sadly, it means leaving her beloved grandmother. Luckily, in addition to settling in with her extended family and proving herself to be a great lace maker, she falls in love with Lou. She waits until finally she has enough money to send for her grandmother, before agreeing to marry Lou. Sigh. (great for 7-9 year olds)

Best Link to the Statue of Liberty:

Naming LibertyOK, this is a made up category, clearly. But I did want to talk about Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen. This book parallels the story of French artist Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s creation of the Statue of Liberty, with the story of a Jewish family immigrating to America. The story goes back and forth between the two “stories,” finally coming together nicely at exactly the point when you’d expect them to come together. Throughout the story of the family though, Gitl, the young girl, is concern about finding the right American name. What does she decide on? Liberty! (But you can call her Libby.)  (Good for older readers 8-10 years old.)

Next post will be dedicated to all the great immigration stories I forgot to mention…

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