The Best Kids’ Books of 2012
From pirates to dinosaurs, superheroes to baseball, the best of the year’s Jewish-themed children’s books
It was the best of publishing years; it was the worst of publishing years. OK, mostly it was the worst. But it was a remarkably good year for books aimed at the 8- to 14-year-old crowd. I can’t remember another year with such a diverse, well-written, and fascinating crop of books with Jewish themes. Here’s a list of the best of the lot.
As usual this year, I thought most of the picture books were pretty meh. Why are so many Jewish picture books so didactic? Why do they feature tooth-achingly cutesy or smeary-sappy pastel art? Why are the texts so leaden, the rhyme schemes so awkward? Don’t ask why. Just celebrate and buy the few good ones.
How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?, by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. The holiday season can make wee Jews feel like the odd kid out. So, it’s nice to be able to give them a book from a series familiar to the majority culture but aimed specifically at Jewish audiences. Most will already know the gazillion-selling “How Do Dinosaurs” series by Yolen and Teague. In this installment, naughty dinosaurs model bad Hanukkah behavior (a Dracorex dances around maniacally, sticking out its tongue as the text tsk-tsks, “Does a dinosaur act up/on Chanukah nights/when Mama comes in/with the holiday lights?”). Good dinos, of course, sing along with the prayers, take turns with the dreidel, clear the table, and are gracious to Bubbe and Zayde. Charming, oversized, beautifully published. Teague’s illustrations are funny, and your kid will learn new scientific dino names (written in tiny letters alongside each creature) along with good manners. What more do you want? (Ages 2-7)
Jean Laffite: The Pirate Who Saved America, by by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Jeff Himmelman. How the hell did I not know the pirate was a Jew? Lafitte led a double life as a dashing privateer on the high seas and a handsome, respected Jewish citizen of Louisiana. He grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the late 1700s, then saved New Orleans during the War of 1812 by foiling a British plot to invade the city. In an author’s note, Rubin explains that after the Spanish expulsion of 1492, many Jews hated Spain and were happy to hire themselves out to plunder Spanish ships. (One pirate-rabbi even had a kosher chef aboard his vessel!) I loved learning about this swashbuckling Hebrew and appreciated Rubin’s thoughtful afterword about Jewish piracy and Lafitte’s ambivalence toward slavery. The book is utterly compelling even though the stately, slightly stilted illustrations (done with Photoshop and paint) are not my thing. (Ages 6-10)
A Hen for Izzy Pippik, by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Marie LaFrance. A new book by the author of Bagels From Benny should make all Jewish parents sit up and take notice. This one is based on both Jewish and Islamic folktales. A little girl finds a gorgeous chicken, whose emerald green feathers have golden speckles. She knows it belongs to the absent Izzy Pippik and protects it and its ever-growing band of babies from the irked and greedy denizens of her village. The faux-naif, scratchboard-esque art is fun, with chicks running crazily all over the place. Spoiler alert: The little girl’s menschiness is rewarded, and the village lives happily ever after. (Ages 4-8)
Zayde Comes to Live, by Sheri Sinykin, illustrated by Kristina Swarner. Rachel’s zayde is dying: “Now he lives in a sleeper-chair in our living room. The sun wakes him each morning.” A nurse comes to check on his oxygen, and a rabbi comes to check on the whole family. Rachel wonders what will happen to Zayde when he dies. She asks Rabbi Lev, who says, “He’ll take one last breath … then his energy will live on with your ancestors in the World to Come—what we call Olam Ha-Ba.” Rachel closes her eyes and imagines “a zooming, happy Zayde,” dancing with his own zayde and bubbe and parents and all the relatives Rachel never got to meet. Zayde himself tells Rachel he will live on in her memories, and Rachel reflects on the good times she and her family have had with Zayde. She inhales his familiar scent of peppermint and lime and focuses on making more memories while she can. The story is gracefully written, calm and reassuring, and the illustrations—linoleum prints with colored pencil and washes of watercolor—are just as soothing. I love Kristina Swarner’s work; she illustrated two lovely books by Howard Schwartz: Before You Were Born, which was on my best-books list in 2005 (when I was at the Forward) and Gathering Sparks, which was on my best-books list in 2010. (Ages 4-10)
Bill the Boy Wonder, by Marc Tyler Nobleman. I’m not a huge superhero fan, but I found this fascinating; I can only imagine how Batman and comics history fans will rejoice. Of course, even clueless wonders like me know that Batman was created by Bob Kane … but guess what! This is wrong. Bill the Boy Wonder argues that for years, Kane suppressed the creative role of another writer, Bill Finger, in the invention and development of Batman. Finger, who changed his name from Milton Finger because Jews faced discrimination in getting writing jobs, allowed Kane to take all the credit for Batman. But Finger was the one who came up with Batman’s scary and poignant origin story; Finger was the one who gave Gotham City its name; Finger was the one who created the series’ liveliest villains. After he died, obsessive Batman fans began calling for DC Comics to give him credit. Today, like the Dark Knight himself, those fans still fight for Finger’s rights and for justice. The author’s note at the end explains Nobleman’s own detective work in seeking Finger’s heirs who might be entitled to royalties from DC. It’s illustrated in the style of a comic book, but with blocks of text plunked down on white backgrounds; I do wish it were a true graphic novel, with the text better integrated into the pictures. (Ages 7-11)
Oh No, Jonah!, by Tilda Balsley, illustrations by Jago. A straightforward verse retelling of the story of Jonah, with a refrain younger kids will love to chime in on: “Oh no, Jonah!” (Jonah screws up a lot.) I appreciated that the text correctly refrains from calling the big fish a whale and tells the story of the sheltering plant as well as the one about the fish. And Jonah comes off, properly, as a whiny pill.
“Preach,” said Jonah. “That’s not fun—
Ragging, nagging everyone.
Who will thank me when I’m done?
I’ll tell you who: Not even one.”
Jago’s textured, luminous illustrations look painterly, but they’re digital, made entirely on a Mac and with an iPad. (“I could tell you how I make each picture, but then I’d have to kill you,” he says cheerfully on his website.) (Ages 3-8)
As we endure a season of destructive storms and surging seas, why on earth would we pray for rain?