Toba’s Passage by Libby Herz, illustrated by Dena Ackerman (Hachai 2016)
Babel by Marc Lumer, Chaim Burston, and DovBer Naiditch (Apples and Honey Press 2016)
Former Angeleno, illustrator Dena Ackerman (née Heller), and current Angeleno, author/illustrator Marc Lumer, each have new books out for young readers this year.
Ackerman has illustrated several picture books – including How Red is My Rimon, Hashem’s Candy Store, and the rerelease of Shuki’s Upside-Down Dream – and has now tackled a new genre, the middle-grade chapter book.
Toba’s Passage is the newest title in Hachai’s “Fun-to-Read” series. Like other “Fun-to-Read” books, it highlights a particular period in Jewish history, in this case, Russia and New York in 1905. Toba and her brother, Velvel, travel by ship to join their papa in the United States, accompanied by their aunt, Fronya. On the voyage, they must cope with overcrowded conditions, Aunt Fronya’s disabling seasickness, and the loss of Toba’s treasured prayer book. Once in America, the children reunite with their father and must adjust to life in a new country. Toba eventually solves the mystery of her lost siddur and makes a new friend. The book concludes with historical notes that provide young readers with background on the Jewish immigration to the U.S. in the early 20th century.
While Toba encounters many of the hardships common to immigrants of her time – poor conditions in steerage on the way to this country, health inspections at Ellis Island, the pressure to violate Shabbos in order to keep a job – as an adult reader, I found the characters overcame these obstacles, and more personal ones, too easily. Similarly, I was frustrated with the tidy ending, which relied heavily on hashgachah pratis.
However, my daughters (who are both within the recommended reading ages for Grades 2-4) enjoyed Toba’s Passage exceedingly. They liked the mystery elements, the plucky protagonist, and both singled out the happy ending that I found too simplistic as a favorite detail. Clearly, the author and editing staff at Hachai tailor-made this book for its audience.
Ackerman’s black and white illustrations – on the cover and every few pages – help readers picture life in New York 110 years ago. An image of Toba going to bed on the tenement’s fire escape and another of the bustling street (teeming with wagons, pushcarts, and even early auto mobiles) charmed me in particular.
I’d recommend Toba’s Passage for children 6-8 as a read-aloud, and for independent readers 8-10.
Before reviewing Babel, I must confess – this will in no way be an objective review. This project – written jointly by Lumer, Burston, and Naiditch – has been “under development” for years, and since I know Mr. Lumer professionally, I got my first glimpse of the eye-catching world he was dreaming up quite a while back.
As the title suggests, Babel depicts the story of the migdal bavel from Parshas Noach. The authors had to walk a very delicate line between commitment to the text as it appears in the Torah and child-friendly silliness, and they succeeded. They dipped only slightly into the commentaries on the parshah but retained the most important details in the original text.
Humor sparkles throughout both the words and the images. When “Tower Fever” takes over Babel, its inhabitants eat tower sandwiches and tower cakes and play board games with tower-shaped pieces. And the image of the angels sweeping away knowledge of loshon hakodesh as they sleep is magical.
Babel would make a perfect introduction to the story of the Tower of Babel for both Jewish and non-Jewish children. The authors created an entirely English text – no Hebrew words tossed in – and as mentioned above, they did not introduce midrashim or concepts which would surprise the non-Jewish reader (even commonly known ones like the assertion that the one, original language was Hebrew or that Nimrod and Avraham Avinu were present during the tower’s construction). The lesson is clear, explained in an age-appropriate way, and not heavy-handed. This makes the book not only perfect for home-use, but an excellent choice for classrooms, libraries, Hebrew schools, and Sunday schools. I’d recommend it for ages 3-6.