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Jewish Books for Kids: Less is More

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Maybe I’m still a homeschooler at heart?

(Are you one, too?)

When I asked for feedback about the book I’m currently working on, Elephant Tisha b’Av, I got a ton of helpful comments. 

Sure, some were a little LESS than helpful, like one person who didn’t think we should be observing Tisha b’Av at all:  “In my opinion it is time to stop mourning the past.” 

But others gave me fantastic inspiration.  More people liked the idea but asked for more about the elephants themselves, and I realized I’d jumped right into the “sad memories” part without showing how magnificant and fun these creatures are in their own right.  Some felt the connection wasn’t clear between the elephants and the observance of Tisha b’Av, and I did my best to tighten up that link so it’s clear without being smack-on-the-forehead obvious.  I like a little subtlety.

A lot of people wonder why I'm doing these animal books at all. 

The titles don't make sense, and the books don't teach much about the holiday itself.  But that's exactly the kind of book my own kids need, and I suspect they're not the only ones.

The only negative review that my book Penguin Rosh Hashanah has received says, “I thought this book was going to be about different ways to celebrate Rosh Hashana… It left me wandering what Rosh Hashana was about, instead of understanding what it was about.”

To which I thought, exactly.

Kids don’t need another book telling them what Rosh Hashanah is about.  Do yours?  Mine sure don’t.  I know there are kids and families who are new to Judaism, who are interested in a book that will teach the basics, from the very beginning.  Maybe I’ll do one of those at some point, too.  (That’s what Now You Know: Passover for Kids and Now You Know: Chanukah for Kids are all about, by the way.)

Chan4Kids Israel4Kids cover3_pesachkidsV6SMALL

But the children I write for, primarily, are my kids, and others like them.

As a former homeschooling mom, I feel like our kids are inundated with words.  Aren’t they?  With grownups blaring at them from all sides. 

So I try to create books that hold back; that say LESS than they need to. 

Books that open conversations about Judaism, philosophy, Jewish life, our place in the world.

Yes, it would be cool to hand your kid a book and have him come away knowing everything about Tisha b'Av.  If you want that, this is not the book for you.  But you probably knew that already, from the title. :)

If you see the word “Elephant” in the title of a Tisha b’Av book, or “Penguin” in the title of a Rosh Hashanah book, hopefully you’ll figure out before you’ve paid for it that this is not going to be your typical “All about _____” kind of book.

Then again, kids tend to toss aside books that are too blabby.  Where the answers are TOO obvious.  Whereas if kids ask questions, they'll probably listen to the answers and learn more than they would have otherwise.  Isn't that the message of the seder, too, and of so much in Jewish tradition?

The incongruity in the title is important to me.  I didn’t want connections that made “sense.”  Allison Ofanansky has created a beautiful series of photos books which connect nature and Israel with holidays and significant events on the Jewish calendar.  They’re terrific books, and I love them.  Those connections make sense:  bees with Rosh Hashanah, goats (cheese) with Shavuot, olives (oil) with Chanukah.

Cheesecake for Shavuot, by Allison Ofanansky What's the Buzz?, by Allison Ofanansky Harvest of Light, by Allison Ofanansky

But for my own books, I wanted something that would provoke that holy “Huh?” moment out of which so much deep Jewish learning is born.  Elephants, Otters, Penguins, Pandas…?  Huh.  What will she think of next???

Even I don’t know, which is a beautiful, beautiful feeling.

cover2_PenguinRosh cover3_pandapurim cover4_otter_passover_coverSMALL cover5_ElephantTishabAv_v3SMALL

What I do know is that I’m very proud of this series.  Every time I hold one of them in my hands for the first time, I feel like it’s as perfect as I could possibly have made it.  And that it’s exactly the kind of book my kids – and other kids like them – need to hold in their hands as well.

(“Holding in my hands” is literal.  Sure, I like ebooks and read them, alone and to my kids.  But because of Shabbos and Yom Tov, and the tactile joy of actually holding a printed-on-paper book, I don’t see an end to actual publishing anywhere in sight for me…)

I also just realized that – even though they’re over a month apart – my last two posts here have been about my own books & writing process.  I promise the next one will be about something else.  Okay?  I’ve obviously been giving this quite a lot of thought… but I’ll try to give you something else to think about besides Jewish books.

What do you think?  What kind of books do your kids learn more from?  Leave a comment below to let me know.


[image credit:  Barney Moss via flickr]

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