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The Little Critics Return with Jewish Picture Books for Summer

July 27, 2009

Review of Abraham's Search for God by Jacqueline Jules. Illustrations by Natascia Ugliano. (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2007). Sarah Laughs by Jacqueline Jules. Illustrations by Natascia Ugliano (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2008). Benjamin and the Silver Goblet by Jacqueline Jules. Illustrations by Natascia Ugliano (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2009).

In Abraham's Search for God, the biblical patriarch is a sweet-faced little boy living in a beautiful, clean world, filled with smiling people, busy markets, yellow butterflies and religious idols that everyone but Abraham bows down to. The other people in Abraham's world are treated with respect, save perhaps one uncomfortable moment when in response to Abraham's innocent childhood confusion about idol worship, Abraham's father scolds him Abraham's Search for God coverwith nothing more thoughtful than, "Don't question our ways."

It is a pleasure to take Abraham's journey with him. I enjoyed reading the book the first time and the 10th, and I've seen both my 9-year-old and 7-year-old pick up the book independently to reread it. Ugliano's illustrations are colorful and joyful, enhancing the message without ever overwhelming the text. I have seen Kar-Ben Publishing choose art poorly before, but this time they hit the jackpot.

My only criticism of this tale is that it was surely not necessary to have Abraham spend two days and nights alone, outdoors, with no contact from his family. This section of the book might frighten a few children--especially when Abraham cowers in a cave during a rainstorm--leading them to wonder about Abraham's safety and the parenting skills of his mother and father. There will be other children who will be delighted by Abraham's rather astonishing (by modern standards, at any rate) freedom and will consider this with mischievous glee, perhaps even seeing it as suggesting a dangerous precedent they might wish to follow.

Either way, it is very distracting to realize how long he is out there in the wilderness, alone, at an age that appears to be well under 10. It pulled me right out of the narrative and stayed with me far longer than Abraham's thought process or experiences. This is unfortunate, because it really was a lovely book about a child who asked important religious questions and struggled to find a worthy answer--one that untold millions have found deeply satisfying and meaningful.

Sarah Laughs is another gorgeously illustrated story that brings a name in the Bible to life. Sarah's life is told simply, and yet the older reader (perhaps from 7 or 8 with a good discussion?) can see the fear in it, the loyalty and bravery, and the painful, lonely sadness. Without stating it outright, the story even flirts with the idea that God's promise to Abraham was also a promise to Sarah: that the children that would be numbered like the stars would not just be Abraham's biological offspring, but Sarah's as well.Sarah Laughs cover

When I began reading this book to my 4- and 7-year-old daughters, I wondered immediately how Jules would deal with the somewhat difficult reality that Abraham took Hagar to his bed and had Ishmael with her. Would she pretend it wasn't in the Bible? I assumed she would just skip over it and avoid the discomfort, but she took the high road and gently deflated the issue with a simple sentence: "In those days, many men had more than one wife." My girls accepted it with aplomb and there was no discomfort.

I have not a single criticism of this lovely book. The text is thoughtful; it's somehow both sparse like a children's book and rich with depth like a midrash. The intention of the title is woven throughout to skillful effect. Ugliano's illustrations deepen the text and are worth lingering over. The entire book is a joy.

The story of Joseph is a difficult one. It is long, detailed and sometimes confusing. It has multiple sections and it tracks some dramatic changes. Jules decides to tackle it via Joseph's youngest brother Benjamin. Not only was Benjamin Joseph's only full-blooded brother (which Jules does not mention), he was the baby of the family. Thus we skip much of the story, simplifying it and avoiding the morally difficult and painful incidents of Joseph taunting his brothers and Joseph's years of slavery and imprisonment.

The book opens when all the brothers save Benjamin are heading off to Egypt for the first time. We wait with Benjamin and are as surprised as he is by the report they return with. Why does Joseph want Benjamin to come to Egypt? I was particularly pleased with Jules' idea about why Joseph would secret the silver goblet into Benjamin's baggage. I'd puzzled unsuccessfully over that detail for years. Jules' idea about why makes good sense and elevated this reading experience from a simple pleasure with a child in my lap to a truly happy intellectual experience for me!

Benjamin and the Silver Goblet coverJules has a talent for revealing emotions to children via simple language. She cuts to the heart of it with a few words. Ugliano's illustrations only enhance our understanding. Benjamin overhears his brothers remembering selling Joseph into slavery and lying to Jacob about it, and he fears for his own safety. You can see it on his face!

Later he is "revealed" as a thief and fears for his safety again. His brothers treated Joseph like an inconvenience once; will they treat him the same way? Will they value their own comfort over their father's happiness? Over his own life? Suddenly Joseph's machinations make sense. He is testing to see if his brothers have matured. Blessedly, they have, and all is well. The book both begins and ends somewhat abruptly, but perhaps this is an unavoidable side effect of working within a remarkably long and complex biblical story.

I can happily recommend all three of these storybooks. You will enjoy reading them to your children. You will enjoy lingering over the pictures. You will enjoy the opportunity to delve a little deeper into Bible stories that are not simple, not easy and not altogether joyous. They are good to read, look at and discuss. The true beauty of all three of these books, though, is that they will grow up with your children (Kar-Ben must see this as well, since the books have no suggested or appropriate age range listed). My 4-year-old loved the gorgeous pictures, and my 9-year-old could sit for a real conversation about the deeper issues. A far older child could use them as extra background to prepare in advance for discussions in Hebrew school or at the Shabbat table. I hope Kar-Ben will ask Jules and Ugliano to collaborate many more times. The Bible is full of complex and foundational stories that deserve their sensitive treatment. I look forward to reading them with my children as well.

Editor's Note: Vicki and her three children live in a city that does not have The PJ Library, a program that sends free Jewish books and music to children from birth to age 7. Some of the books we've asked her to review here were selections for The PJ Library. If your city is served by The PJ Library, your child could receive some of these books for free--check their sign-up page for details.

Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Vicki Streiff

Vicki Streiff married a convert to Judaism in 1995 and they have three children who all love books. They all live together in Indiana and love it there, to her everlasting surprise.

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