Tuesday, January 1, 2013

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)

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