Saturday, March 3, 2007

Sound the Graggers! Eat the Hamentaschen!

Costumes, raucous silliness, noisemakers, candy, treats, even special cookies--sounds like a great time, yes? Well, it is. Today is the Jewish holiday of Purim, and not only does it feature all the above elements, but it sports one doozy of an origin story (also found in the Book of Esther in any handy Bible).

So you'd think the shelves of libraries and bookstores would be groaning under the weight of all the terrific kids' books about Purim. And you would be so wrong. I work at a Jewish day school, and while we have more great Chanukah stories than anyone could read during the entire month of December (including several by the King of Chanukah Books, Mr. Eric Kimmel), and even a respectable selection of appealing Passover tales, I can barely count the attractive, kid-friendly, read-aloud-able Purim books on my fingers.

And most of those merely retell the story of brave Esther, wicked Haman (boo! booooo, Haman!), good Mordechai, and dopey King Ahashuerus. Granted, it is a fantastic story--Queen Esther the Morning Star, by Mordecai Gerstein, is one of the best versions--but it's as if the only Christmas books you could find to read to kids were retellings of the Nativity: no Grinch, no Santa, no Nutcracker, no nothin' but little baby Jesus in the manger over and over again.

Then there are the books that pretty much just recount how the holiday is celebrated. You'll find these for a lot of Jewish holidays. They tend to go something like this: "I love to celebrate Purim! My friends and I get dressed in costumes. We wave our graggers when we hear Haman's name! We eat special cookies for Purim; they're called Hamentaschen..." While these can be helpful for introducing a non-Jewish audience to Purim, or for preparing very young children as the holiday approaches, they're a yawnfest for most Jewish kids over the age of four. One that the preschoolers at my school enjoy is Sammy Spider's First Purim, by Sylvia Rouss and Katherine Kahn. Sammy Spider introduces several Jewish holidays in his series of books, and while they don't get much beyond the superficial symbols, they're a fun read.

For a long time, the only Purim book I could find that actually tells a good, original story and has decent illustrations was Cakes and Miracles, by Barbara Diamond Goldin, about a blind boy who is inspired by a dream to make and sell special Purim cookies to help his widowed mother. Another strong story is Raisel's Riddle, by Erica Silverman, a Cinderella variation set around a Purim ball. They're both a bit wordy for younger grades to sit through, though.

Then, last year, the Purim book of my dreams appeared: The Mystery Bear, by Leone Adelson. It's short, it's simple, it has big, bright illustrations (by Naomi Howland), it's about Purim, it's not set in ancient Persia, and it's got a real, Honest-to-G-d plot, which I can recount in one sentence: Hungry bear cub wakes up early from hibernation, wanders into Purim celebration, and is mistaken for a costumed reveler in a bear suit; hilarity ensues.

It's perfect. Hebrew school teachers can read it to their classes; public librarians and public school teachers can throw it into the program for a multiculti twist on hibernation and springtime; I can give it to the first grade teachers; and everyone can be happy.

Now, if only I could find a halfway decent book about Lag B'Omer...


liz said...

The only reason I know about Purim (coming as I do from a culturally Jewish family with hardly any religious traditions), is because of reading the All of a Kind Family books.

bookbk said...

Oh! I forgot about those! Yeah, the depiction of Purim in All-of-a-Kind Family is great. I didn’t think of it for this post on account of it not being a picture book.

Actually there's a whole other category of Jewish-holiday compendia, that cover the whole cycle of the year. There are Purim sections in all of those, but mostly they don't exactly make for a riveting storytime.

Genevieve said...

Thanks! It's so nice to see a post on topics like this. I just put Cakes and Miracles and The Mystery Bear on our reading list after reading your recommendation. (The latter reminds me of The Mystery Guest, a similar book about Hanukkah.)

The All-of-a-Kind Family books do have excellent holiday depictions - I should pull them out and read them with the kiddo before holidays. The Beni books aren't bad for Purim and other holidays, since they aren't of the "teach non-Jews all about the holiday" style, but actually have a bit of story themselves.

We love that Mordecai Gerstein book on Esther.

Any great Passover books to recommend, so I can get a jump on the holiday?