Notes from a Children's Librarian: Books on Jewish Heritage

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

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These stories showcasing Jewish heritage will be enjoyed by all ages, from Kindergarten to Grade 6.

In Ten Old Men and a Mouse, by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Gary Clement, a party of elderly characters keep the synagogue alive by shuffling there daily, even with their aches and pains. When a mouse appears, the party sets out to catch it, but they fall in love instead. They create a mouse home, complete with dollhouse table and cut-up magazine pictures on the wall. The “boy” mouse becomes round and reclusive—and has babies! They drive the burgeoning family out to the country to a perfect new home in a hollow tree. After some time, the lonely empty-nest mother returns in a hilarious ending. “Don’t worry…” the men tell her, “You’ll hear from your kids again…when they need something.”

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Oy! Feh! So?, also by Cary Fagan and Gary Clement, is a playful little book that needs to be read aloud. Aunt Essy, Aunt Chanah, and Uncle Sam visit every Sunday and although the children create dramatic disruptions—being eaten by a dragon or kidnapped by aliens—their aunts and uncle deliver the same predictable blasé reactions: “Oy,” “Feh,” and “So?” The children try one last ditch effort—imitating their relatives, complete with curly wig and pillow under the shirt. Will this elicit a different response?

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Book Cover The Gift

The Gift, by Joseph Kertes, with illustrations by Peter Perko, is a picture book the size of a slim chapter book. It’s a sweet story that perfectly captures the way a child thinks, and the feeling of being surrounded by a dominant culture. It’s Christmas, 1959, and as a new Canadian from Hungary, Jacob wishes for two things: to be British Canadian and to be Christian. He wants the Christmas sugar cookies and the “what-did-you-get-from Santa?” conversations. His best friend, Larry Wilson, invites him for Christmas Day lunch but Jacob has to convince his parents first. Then he has to buy a present. The stores are closed all except one, and after much deliberation, he spends his $2 on a plaster cast of The Last Supper. Of course, Larry is not happy—it is absolutely the wrong gift.

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In the Days of Sand and Stars, by Marlee Pinsker, illustrated by Francois Thisdale, is packed with tales of women from the Old Testament. Pinsker has woven imaginative sketches of women whose lives are connected by experiences of marriage, pregnancies, and birth. From Eve to Noah’s wife, to the mother of Joseph and the multi-coloured coat, this collection is also a reflection on how stories are handed down. And it’s not without humour. In one story, Joseph tells Dina a dream he has about his family bowing down to him and Dina replies, “I know some people who are going to be steamed when they hear that one.” He refines his dream, saying, “They all bowed down to my star.” “Oh…that should go down better,” Dina says sarcastically. (Grades 4–6)

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Even Higher, by Richard Ungar, is a touching story of a rabbi who is rumoured to ascend to heaven on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Reuven sets out to follow him, and sees him disguised as a woodcutter, walking through the village. He passes the synagogue, the bakery and finally ends in the woods, where he is seen cutting a pile of logs. Then the rabbi continues to a widow’s house, where Reuven watches through the window. The widow is in bed, unable to light her fire, unable to pay the woodcutter. The rabbi agrees to keep the fire lit until she is able: “Just so you will not miss seeing the money when it arrives." (Kindergarten–Grade 6)

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The Market Wedding, by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Regolo Ricci, is based on Abraham Cahan’s 1898 story, A Ghetto Wedding. This version is set in Toronto, in Kensington Market, with classic, old-world illustrations. Morris sells fish. Minnie sells hats. They fall in love, but Morris won’t marry until he can give Minnie the wedding she deserves. Thinking they can furnish their barren apartment with wedding presents, they splurge their savings on a lavish wedding, beginning with gold-ink invitations with red seals, hand delivered by a uniformed livery. But no one shows. Their neighbours are too intimidated, and can’t afford the gowns that such a wedding commands. Morris and Minnie confront their “guests” which leads to a surprising outcome.

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Just Stay Put: A Chelm Story, by Gary Clement, is about a town called Chelm, populated by fools. Chelm is a part of Jewish folklore. Gary Clement’s playful drawings accompany the story of Mendel who dreams of travelling to Warsaw. He starts out on his dream journey, but gets literally turned around. He has a nap and, in order not to get lost, takes off his boots and points them in the direction he’s going. But a shepherd turns the toes around while he’s asleep (deciding the shoes are shabbier than his own and not worth taking). Mendel arrives back at Chelm, thinking it’s Warsaw, thinking people seem to know him, including a woman named Malka, who looks just like his wife and lives in a house that looks exactly like his own. He decides to stay until the real Mendel comes home.

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Book Cover The Always Prayer Shawl

In The Always Prayer Shawl, by Sheldon Oberman, illustrated by Ted Lewin, the realistic watercolour pictures change from black and white to colour, as the story shifts from past to present. In the old days in Russia, Adam collects eggs from the chickens and rides in a horse cart. School is in his grandfather’s house, where Adam, amidst a changing world, learns the value of continuity—things handed down through generations, such as Adam’s name. When soldiers come to Russia, Adam has to leave his home and his grandfather, but the prayer shawl remains constant throughout his long life.

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A Sack Full of Feathers, by Debby Waldman, illustrated by Cindy Revell, is a cautionary tale about gossip. Yankel hears many things in his parents’ store, like the Baker putting salt in the rugelagh or a tug of war over a bolt of fabric. But sometimes Yankel runs out to tell his friends before seeing how these stories end. The eavesdropping Rabbi decides to teach him a lesson. He instructs Yankel to place a feather on the doorstep of everyone in the village, and then he tells Yankel to collect them all. The moral: a story “goes where it goes.” So too, the feathers.

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Something From Nothing, by Phoebe Gilman, based on the old Yiddish song “I Had a Little Overcoat,” includes rhythmic, repetitive text and sometimes rhyming dialogue. Joseph’s grandfather makes him a blanket. But when it becomes ragged, he makes a jacket, then a vest, and so on, down to a button, which gets lost and grandpa’s only option is to turn the ‘material’ into a story. Detailed pictures give an entertaining glimpse into Joseph’s home life. (This one is more for Kindergarten to Grade 3.)

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On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

June 14, 2021
Books mentioned in this post

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A Sack Full of Feathers

A Sack Full of Feathers

by Debby Waldman
illustrated by Cindy Revell
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Audiobook eBook
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