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)
Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words, by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Gerard DuBois. Oh, is this a good one. Yes, I know I had a Marceau book on my 2011 list. But you can never have too many books about mimes, a sentence I thought I’d write … oh, never. But it’s true if the mime is Marceau. Last year’s entry, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, offered more biographical detail; this one has more lyricism. DuBois’ oil paintings capture the expressiveness of the mime’s face and body, with touches of surrealism (one spread shows Marceau crossed with a slippery fish), while Schubert’s poetic text leads us through the eventful life of Maurice Mangel (who, like Milton Finger, changed his name because of anti-Semitism)—how he worshiped Charlie Chaplin, worked for the French Resistance, and created his character Bip. The back matter, by a circus director who worked with Marceau, offers basic mime exercises for kids. (Ages 5-8)
Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah, by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler, illustrated by Ursula Roma. You better not buy a kid a cookbook unless a) the kid likes to cook, b) you’re willing to cook with the kid, and c) the parent knows you’re buying the kid a cookbook, lest the parent wind up seething about having to make sufganiyot by herself in an oily, jammy mass of resentment. If you are confident about a, b, and c, you could do worse than this sweet little cartoon-riddled paperback that alternates recipes (coded by level of difficulty) with crafts, stories, dreidel instructions, and Hanukkah party etiquette lessons. (Ages 5-12)
Hereville 2: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, by Barry Deutsch. Yay, Mirka’s back! Her first graphic-novel adventure, How Mirka Got Her Sword, made my 2010 best-books list. This installment is just as weird and delightful. It’s not every day you meet an Orthodox Jewish girl from an unnamed village who battles trolls, bullies, and a mysterious girl from outer space. The Hereville books have a flawed but good-hearted heroine, a non-evil stepmom, an appreciation for daring and wisdom (both!), and a fun and whimsical spirit. A lot of Jewish graphic novels have good intentions but really crappy art; no worries on that front here. Deutsch is a master of layout and line; he varies panel size and structure and makes Mirka seem alive with energy and personality. (Ages 7-12)
Small Medium at Large, by Joanne Levy. A charming, short, funny, middle-grade novel for girls who don’t like anything too scary or heavy. You’d think Small Medium at Large would be more emotionally wrought, what with a plot about a girl who is struck by lightning and wakes up able to communicate with the dead. But no! Twelve-year-old Lilah Bloom has a ball hanging out with her adorable, matchmaking, dead bubbe, helping ghosts and living beings alike with their problems, even getting her first kiss from cute Andrew Finkel. Throw in divorced parents, a cat named Salvatore Lasagna, a Mean Girl, and various dead-undead misunderstandings, and you’ve got a modern-day middle school comedy of manners with otherworldly apparitions. My fave bit was when Lilah and her bubbe and the ghost of a fabulous designer go bra shopping. (“I mean, I was kind of excited about getting a bra, but I had always assumed it would have been one of those mother-daughter bonding moments, not a dead grandmother-granddaughter-dead-fashion-icon bonding moment.” Indeed.) Sometimes Levy sounds more like a trying-too-hard middle-aged matron than a kid (“very stylish”? “really hip young saleslady”? “totally kicking it”?), but that’s a quibble. (Ages 9-13)
Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, by Doreen Rappaport. I hold Holocaust books to a higher standard than any other kind of kid book. The Holocaust should not be used for inauthentic uplift, a narcissistic story of personal growth, a dry means of instilling guilt, or a half-assed tool in forced identity formation. Beyond Courage is none of those things. It’s a rigorously reported yet fluidly written look at Jews from various countries and backgrounds who fought back against the Nazis in different ways. Rappaport educates readers about different kinds of resistance and shows how Jews and non-Jews worked together to save lives and obstruct Hitler’s plans. Beyond Courage is illustrated with maps and vintage photographs and dotted with contemporary poems and letters. Plus Rappaport breaks new research ground; some of the stories in this book have never been reported before. This book has rightly gotten starred reviews from every review outlet that bestows stars; it’s a vital contribution to Holocaust literature as well as a very gripping book. (Ages 10 and up)
Sons of the 613, by Michael Rubens. From the sublime to the ridiculous—this is so not a Holocaust book. It’s a gross, profane, graphic, sometimes sexist, and often very funny coming-of-age story about a bar mitzvah boy learning what becoming a man really means. If I tell you it opens with a scene involving a bimah, a rabbi, and an unfortunate vomit and poop explosion, you’ll get the vibe. The plot: In the days before Isaac’s bar mitzvah, his parents leave on an extended trip to Italy. (As if.) They don’t know that Isaac’s haftarah tutor, a heavy-lidded young Israeli, has basically never shown up. Isaac is woefully unprepared, but his scary, buff, and closed-mouthed older brother Josh steps in to teach him both his portion and the meaning of manhood. Josh’s version of manhood involves brawling, underage drinking, strippers, and various kinds of effluvia. The very somber ending seems to come out of nowhere, and I’m not exactly sure who the audience is (kids mostly don’t want to read about younger kids, which rules out older teens, but the subject matter makes it inappropriate for kids under 11, so I am confused), but this is a singular ride. Full disclosure: I worked with Rubens for a short time a decade ago. Geez, Mike, you kiss your mother with that mouth? (Ages 12-14)
The Whole Story of Half a Girl, by Veera Hiranandani. Sixth-grader Sonia Nadhamuni is half-Jewish, half-Indian, and entirely in transition. Her dad has lost his job, and she’s had to move from her cozy private school to an unfamiliar public school, where she often feels “too dark to be white, too light to be black.” Who should she sit with at lunch? How can she convince her intellectual, serious, hippie-leaning mom to let her go out for cheerleading? How can she explain her Jewishness to people who can’t reconcile the way she looks with the way she identifies, especially when she’s not entirely sure who she is herself? When Sonia’s dad starts struggling with profound clinical depression, life gets even harder. This novel received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly; it’s nuanced and lovely and beautifully written. (Ages 9-14)
Now, by Morris Gleitzman. The final book in a trilogy (Once, Then, Now) by Australian author Gleitzman, this book stands on its own just fine. Where the first two books told the story of a boy named Felix and his escape from the Nazis, this one is set in 2009, and the narrator is Felix’s 11-year-old granddaughter. I thought the first two volumes were masterful (Once was on my best-books list in 2010), but I was ambivalent about recommending them, because despite the superb writing (simple sentences, vivid descriptions, the genuine sense of the narrator processing horror the way a child would), they’re devastating. They’re just so bleak, and the Nazis’ atrocities are depicted so explicitly, I couldn’t imagine giving them to a child. (That’s why Then wasn’t on my 2011 list, incidentally; it made me physically ill.) But Now isn’t Felix’s story; it’s his granddaughter Zelda’s. And that remove makes it much easier to take. Zelda keeps comparing herself to the first Zelda, the brave and wonderful girl her grandfather rescued in 1942, and finding herself wanting. She’s being bullied at school, and she sees herself as a coward. Her grandfather refuses to even say her name (he calls her “Babushka” or “Margaret”), which makes her feel even more a loser. What she doesn’t understand is that Felix has his own issues with using the name, as well as with the way the world views him as a hero. The book is ultimately about each of them opening up to the other and easing up on their mutual guilt. When the devastating brushfires of 2009 hit (a chapter of Australian history I did not know about, and a very literal sort of Holocaust), grandfather and granddaughter come together in mutual understanding. Once the fire starts, Now becomes a real page-turner. It’s unrealistic, but wildly gripping. The third book helped me make peace with the first two. (Ages 9 and up)
His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, by Louise Borden. Some critics objected to this book being written in verse; they found it odd, given the subject matter. I think the short lines, tons of white space, and large print make Wallenberg’s story more accessible to young readers. (Maybe I’m biased in favor of Borden, since I felt she didn’t get nearly enough credit for her earlier book, The Journey That Saved Curious George, which inspired the traveling museum exhibit Curious George Saves the Day.) Few kids today know of Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat based in Budapest who helped saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. As with the Curious George book, Borden did a ton of research, visiting Wallenberg’s childhood home and interviewing his family numerous times. She offers different theories about his disappearance (Stalin’s officials took him into custody in the early 1940s, and he was never heard from again), but the ending of Wallenberg’s story remains a mystery. Tons of photos and maps help provide drama. (Ages 9 and up)
Looking For Me, by Betsy Rosenthal. Once again, poetry proves an enticing way to tell a complicated story. Looking For Me is the story of author Rosenthal’s mother Edith, kid #4 in a huge Jewish family in Baltimore in the 1930s. (The full title is Looking For Me in This Great Big Family.) Edith’s parents are poor (“in my family/we wear/hand-me-down/down/down/down/downs”), and Edith has to work in her dad’s diner, babysit her younger siblings, and cope with feeling less accomplished than her older sisters. When the family suffers a terrible loss, Edith feels even more invisible. But a teacher sees her potential, and she begins to envision a life and identity for herself as an individual, not only as a member of a big, vibrant, messy family. Rosenthal, a former civil-rights lawyer, creates an affectionate portrait of her mom as well as a clear-eyed, lyrical look at a specific period in Jewish-American history. Photos and a Yiddish glossary add to the sense of place. (Ages 9-14)
Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip, by Jordan Sonnenblick. I raved about Curveball earlier this year, but it deserves a second shout-out. Peter Friedman is a high-school freshman and star pitcher whose baseball dreams are ended by a terrifying injury. His grandfather is a professional photographer, and Peter—grieving, self-conscious about his scars, unable to tell his best friend and former teammate that he’ll never play again—starts taking pictures himself. Angelika, a girl in Peter’s photography class, is a worthy romantic interest. Peter’s grandfather’s decline is depicted sympathetically, not cheesily. Peter is super-likable; the book is funny and sad in equal measure. Curveball feels real and humane and bittersweet and pretty darn perfect. (Ages 10-15)
My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan, by Seth Rudetsky. Do you remember that cheeseball ‘80s teen flick Can’t Buy Me Love, starring pre-McDreamy Patrick Dempsey? This book is a gay version of that fizzy teen comedy. It’s goofy, dopey, and endearing. Our short, chubby, Jew-fro’d hero Justin has only two goals for his sophomore year: to go out with football-playing-hottie Chuck and to become part of the cool crowd in the caf. Chuck, alas, is as straight as the day is long. But Justin, undeterred, hatches a plan in which Chuck’s girlfriend Becky will pretend to date Justin, because Becky’s dad hates Chuck, and Justin will wind up hanging out with the popular kids getting Chuck to fall in love with him. Teen movie! Shockingly, nothing happens the way Justin plans. But I was charmed by Justin’s nebbishy yet confident voice and the sweetness of a gay high-school story presented without heavy drama. (The fact that it’s so frothy, as well as so chaste, makes me think it’s more appropriate for middle-schoolers than high-schoolers.) Bonus: As a theater geek, I appreciated Justin’s strongly held passions. (“You were pretty public about wanting to make the day of the Tony Award nominations a school holiday,” his best friend observes.) (Ages 10-14)
There you have it: 18 books—chai! Books are life, for sure. Happy Hanukkah.
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As we endure a season of destructive storms and surging seas, why on earth would we pray for rain?