This Jewish holiday is the one blessed with the greatest number of awesome kidbook choices. So get shopping; go nuts like charoset!
Note: I’m restricting myself to books currently in print. Please do not talk to me about The Carp in the Bathtub. Yes, it is a shonda that it is out of print. And what with pristine copies selling for more than $100, one of you publishers needs to get on this, chop-chop.
Lotsa Matzah by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Akemi Gutierrez. You cannot tell a baby the actual Passover story—what are you, a sadist?—so focus on the unleavened bread, in cute rhyme.
Stone Soup with Matzoh Balls by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Maryam Tabatabaei. Who doesn’t enjoy a Chelm story? The classic village of morons learns the old story from a crafty wise person about the meaning of “let all who are hungry come and eat.” A charming genre mashup. (Age 3-6.)
The Littlest Levine by Sandy Lanton, illustrated by Claire Keay. Shout out to the youngests, who feel constantly shafted, except on this holiday when they get to rock the Four Questions. As I said last year, last-borns “will identify with Hannah’s refrain (‘I hate being the littlest!’), and the book might even ease Mah-Nishtanah-induced performance anxiety.” (Age 3-6)
Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Paul Meisel. A retelling of the classic folktale The Little Red Hen, with a moral for kids about pitching in on this sweat-inducing holiday. Fun to read pointedly to children, especially if you enjoy doing a Yiddish accent. (Age 3-8)
A Tale of Two Seders by Mindy Avra Portnoy, illustrated by Valeria Cis. This contemporary story about dealing with sedarim at two parents’ houses in the aftermath of divorce is humane, honest, and bittersweet. At least the charoset is familiar. As the narrator observes, “Families are like charoset. Some have more ingredients than others, some stick together better than others, some are sweeter than others. But each one is tasty in its own way.” As I said in 2010, the brightly colored art, with lively patterns and delightful outfits, does its part to keep sorrow at bay. (Age 3-8)
Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Diana Breyer. Great for teaching kids that Jews come from very different backgrounds, it tells the story of Sephardic Crypto-Jews. At Easter time, young Jacobo visits his grandmother in Santa Fe and figures out that his family isn’t like other Christian families. Abuelita makes tortillas without yeast. She never cooks pork and lights candles on Friday nights. As Jacobo starts asking questions, his grandmother finally shares their family’s history of escaping Spanish persecution in 1492 and hiding their Jewishness. Wish I liked the clunky, stilted folk art more, but the story’s worth it. (Age 4-8)
The Longest Night by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Catia Chien. You could actually read this ambitious book—a verse retelling of the Exodus story from the perspective of a young female slave, with sweeping, painterly art—aloud at your seder. (Age 5-adult)
Celebrate Passover by Deborah Heiligman. Photography book, holla! See how not all Jews look the same or observe in the same way! The photos are gorgeous and worth the proverbial thousand words (for many kids, the picture of Orthodox Jews in Massachusetts covering their kitchen in tin foil will be just as exotic as the one of Yemeni Jews with their flat woven-grass seder basket). The succinct but smart text by Heiligman (who went on to write the awesome The Boy Who Loved Math and the gorgeous National-Book-Award-nominated Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith) concludes with a recipe for what my family calls Matzoh Crack (matzoh covered with chocolate and caramel), which is always a good idea and better with a sprinkling of sea salt. (Age 5-10)
The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. I have so much respect for this ambitious, thoughtful book (on my Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2009 list), based on a true story about a Northern Jewish soldier joining a Southern Jewish family’s seder in the waning days of the Civil War. Gives your family a lot to talk about—being respectful to those you disagree with, hospitality, contemporary analogies to slave times. Gustavson’s serious, historically detailed oil paintings pair well with the nuance of the story. As Publishers Weekly points out, “Weber deserves much credit for not forcing her characters to hug and learn in the final pages.” (Age 7-11)
Rebecca and the Movies by Jacqueline Dembar Greene. Shut up with your American Girl snobbery. Yes, the dolls are a horrifying fin de siècle excuse for buying tiny 1930s wrought-iron patio furniture that costs more than feeding nine generations of a Ghanaian family, but the historical books are often great. In this one, by the author of (Sydney Taylor Notable Book) The Secret Shofar of Barcelona, Jewish American Girl Rebecca celebrates Passover and her 10th birthday and dreams of becoming an actress. Kids learn about Passover, about life for Lower East Side Jewish immigrants in 1914, and about the heavily-Jewish origins of the American silent film industry. So don’t be such a feinschmecker. (Age 7-10)
Penina Levine is a Hard-Boiled Egg by Rebecca O’Connell. YOU MUST WITH THIS. Sixth-grader Penina is deeply irked when her public school teacher assigns the class to write letters, purportedly from the Easter Bunny, to kindergartners; the teacer threatens to fail Penina, who wants to opt out. So Penina, supported by her feisty Bubbe, decides to take a stand for separation of church and state. The narrative plays out against Penina’s family’s Passover seder, with parallels about standing up for difference. I liked the nuance that some of Penina’s fellow Jewish students don’t see the assignment as a big deal. Given that issues like this come up in public schools today, this funny, smartass book is perpetually timely. (Age 9-12)
The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I am too old to have come of age with this touchstone book that traumatized a generation. I confess that I still haven’t read it, but if you even mention the title to any Jewish female under 35 they start shaking. (It’s fun to see.) As Tablet’s former art director Abigail Miller described it, “Bratty contemporary young girl protagonist Hannah is opening the door for Elijah at her family’s seder when the door magically opens into the shtetl and Hannah becomes Chaya, a Polish girl in the 1940s…Through the doors of the gas chamber, Hannah returns to the door of her grandparents’ apartment and the Chaya within her recognizes her old relatives, Wizard of Oz style. The young reader is, like Hannah, supposed to come away with a renewed respect for crotchety old survivors, but as a child, I was just wrapped up in the terrifying ghost story of it.” (Age 10-14)
Um, I got nothing. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Happy Passover and happy reading!
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.