This week in Tablet magazine: the 18 best Jewish children’s books of 2013.
And here, as promised, is the longer list of contenders, some of which may please your young gift recipient more than the ones I chose. The ones with an asterisk are the best of the best and are described in more detail in my column; read about them in Tablet.
*Hanukkah: A Counting Book by Emily Sper (Cartwheel Books). Cute baby book with candle-shaped cut-outs.
A Chanukah Present for: Me! by Lily Carr, illustrated by Jill McDonald (Scholastic) Absolutely great design, but the parent will have to explain what the holiday actually celebrates. (And I’m not nuts about the emphasis on presents.)
*Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. My favorite picture book of the year, a fabulous and moving look at an under-sung young heroine who changed history, with multi-media kid-and-adult-friendly illustrations. Do not miss.
*On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. A smart picture-book biography you don’t have to understand theoretical physics to appreciate.
*The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Adorable bio of mathematician Paul Erdos that number-loving kids and kids who feel different (that is, lots of them) will love.
*The Enduring Ark by Gita Wolf, illustrated by Joydeb Chitrakar. Lushly illustrated fold-out Noah story in the Bengali Patua scroll-painting style — it’s stunning.
*Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka. Cuddly, funny, latke-focused.
*Rifka Takes a Bow by Betty Rosenberg Perlov, illustrated by Cosei Kawa. Unusual and sophisticated-looking picture book about the Yiddish theater by a 96-year-old first-time picture book author. Kar-Ben, more illustrations like this, please!
*The Longest Night: A Passover Story by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Catia Chen. Painterly rhyming book about the Exodus.
The Passover Lamb by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. Sweet autobiographical story about a Jewish farmgirl who adopts the runt of the litter, names him Moses and brings him to the seder in a basket. The art, for me, was unmemorable.
Hanukcats: and Other Traditional Jewish Songs for Cats by Laurie Loughlin. I didn’t know many of the songs! But it’s Chronicle Books, so the teeny gift-y size, minimalist amusing art and paper quality are all great, and the songs I did recognize were funny.
*Sam and Charlie (and Sam Too!) by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Stefano Tambellini. Five funny and Jewish-inflected short stories about friendship. Perfect for beginning chapter-book readers.
*Odette’s Secrets by Maryann MacDonald. Lovely verse novel (based on a true story) about a Parisian Jewish girl who survived World War hiding in plain sight in the French countryside.
*Aces Wild by Erica S Perl (Knopf): Funny girl-dog-grandpa story.
*The Sasquatch Escape by Suzanne Selfors, illustrated by Dan Santat. Funny boy-girl-grandpa-Bigfoot story.
The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson. Excellent reminscence by the youngest survivor on Schindler’s List.
B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy) by Jane Yolen and Adam Semple. Such a mixed bag. Love the idea of a bullied kid who makes a golem that winds up as the drummer in the kid’s klez-soul-fusion rock band, and love the kid’s moral dilemmas as he gains power…but the dialogue is sometimes so stilted and un-kid-like as to be cringe-inducing.
The Short Seller by Elissa Brent Weissman. Great choice for a kid already drawn to finance or the stock market, but a harder sell to one with no existing interest.
No Buts, Becky! by José Patterson. You don’t read a lot of kid stories about turn-of-the-century British Jews. This one’s set in the Rothschild Buildings in Brick Lane in 1908, but it feels so similar to the Lower East Side, with the lady who smells like herring and the shabbes goy and the shadchen and the bagel seller. Becky doesn’t want her widowed father to marry the herring lady, plots to stop the wedding, and winds up finding just the right woman thanks to a sneaky cholent swap. Fun and odd. But the art is meh and the low quality of the cover makes it feel self-published.
Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stempel, illustrated by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin. A beautiful cookbook with Sammy-Spider-like collaged art and (perhaps overlong) Jewish stories, legends and recipes. Nice gift for a family that likes to read and cook together.
The Last Train: A Holocaust Story by Rona Arato. The true story of the author’s husband’s survival as a boy in Hungary. In 1945, at the very end of the war, Paul Arato was packed into a boxcar with other Bergen-Belsen inmates as the Nazis try to empty the camps before the Allies arrive, but a group of American soldiers discovers the train and liberates the Jews. The best part of the book is that Paul, as an adult living in Canada, sees a picture of that very train online, which ultimately leads to him meeting some of the soldiers who saved his life (and gave him chocolate). Very moving, appropriate for tweens and teens, but oy, what an unappealing cover.
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
*Proxy by Alex London. Thrilling and thought-provoking speculative fiction. Another must-read. NEED. SEQUEL. NOW.
*Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust by Leanne Lieberman, about a rebellious teenage girl who has to sort through complicated feelings about Judaism, the Holocaust, friendship and romance. LOVED IT.
*The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascombe. Truly exciting non-fiction thriller about the capture of Eichmann.
*Starglass by Phoebe North. Jews! In! Space! In the distant future, a city-sized spaceship full of Jews living under repressive leaders heads to resettle a far-off planet. Family drama, boy drama, political drama. It could have used tighter editing, but I still enjoyed it; I’m eager for the sequel.
The Ninth Day by Ruth Tenzer Feldman. I wanted to love this. Time travel! The Berkeley free speech movement! Medieval Paris! Hallucinogens! Hippies! Jews! Ancient midwives! But I found it frustrating and confusing. Then again, I tend to be impatient with fantasy novels; fans of the genre may be more receptive. For older teens and adults.
The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax, illustrated by Caryl Strzelecki. Somber graphic novel — with an unusual narrow, elongated trim size — about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Happy Hanukah! Happy reading!