Bible Books for Children

By Rahel Musleah


Reviews of Young Heroes of the Bible: A Book for Family Sharing (Simon & Schuster, 1999, 144 pages) by Kirk Douglas, King Solomon and His Magic Ring (Greenwillow, 1999, 56 pages) by Elie Wiesel, Pharaoh’s Daughter: A Novel of Ancient Egypt (Harcourt, 2002, 192 pages) by Julius Lester, Daughters of Eve (Barefoot Books, 2000, 96 pages) by Lillian Hammer Ross, Kids’ Catalog of Bible Treasures (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1999, 142 pages) by Chaya Burstein and Bible Story Crafts for Little Hands (Kar-Ben, 2000, 32 pages) by Ruth Esrig Brinn.

Oh, those familiar Bible stories–stories that Jews and Christians share. Abraham smashes the idols. Miriam hides in the bulrushes. But wait, who is “the spoiled brat who grew up to be a hero?” Whose story reads as “the true origins of rubber bands and spitballs?” That’s how actor Kirk Douglas titles two of the five stories in Young Heroes of the Bible: A Book for Family Sharing, one of several new children’s books that reinterpret the stories of biblical heroes and heroines.

Douglas puts a humorous spin on five characters who performed deeds of heroism as kids. The spoiled brat? Joseph. Rubber bands and spitballs? David slaying Goliath. What to do with a very sharp ax? Abraham. There’s also Miriam (Sister, Sister) and Rebecca (Even a camel gets thirsty sometimes). Douglas relates the stories on a child’s level (ages 8 and up), without preachiness. Like a grandpa with a child on his lap, he intersperses reminiscences from his own childhood and from contemporary life.

As the cycle of the year renews itself, these and other portraits of biblical humanity and heroism can link children and grandchildren with their legendary ancestors. One caution: to breathe life into the characters, most of the authors have drawn heavily from the rabbinic commentaries and taken their own poetic license. Many of the stories in these collections amplify the biblical text, but are not found in the Bible itself. Abraham, for instance, never smashes any idols in the Bible; that is a rabbinic commentary.

Another well-known author to try his hand at children’s books, Elie Wiesel, offers “strange and marvelous tales” in King Solomon and His Magic Ring. This is the king who flew to the farthest corners of the earth upon a 60-mile-long-and-wide green carpet braided with gold, whose feats ranged from speaking to the lowliest ant to building the Temple in Jerusalem. Wiesel doesn’t gloss over Solomon’s mistakes: Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter, who brought idols into the palace, and handed over his magic ring to Ashmodai, king of the demons. Mark Podwal’s vivid watercolors enhance the stories.

In Pharaoh’s Daughter: A Novel of Ancient Egypt (for ages 12 and up) Julius Lester follows the fertile path of rabbinic commentaries to create a new character: Almah, a sister of Moses who is adopted by Pharaoh. The son of a Methodist minister who converted to Judaism as an adult, Lester explains in an author’s note that he felt compelled to write about Moses for decades, but found his way to doing so only by fashioning a story through a new voice: that of Almah. When he reread Exodus and discovered that the first reference to Moses’ sister is through the generic word “almah” (young girl), and that Miriam is not mentioned by name until the crossing of the Red Sea, he asked himself, What if Moses had a sister older than Miriam named Almah? The novel attempts to portray the ancient Egyptians as more complex than simply “the bad guys.”

Women are rightly taking their places in the annals of biblical heroism. Daughters of Eve (for ages 8 and up), by Lillian Hammer Ross, illustrated by Kyra Teis, doesn’t tell the story of Eve, but it does recount the dramatic adventures of Miriam; Zipporah, Moses’s wife; the daughters of Zelophehad, who inherited their father’s land because they had no brothers; Ruth; Abigail, one of David’s wives; Huldah the prophetess who served as teacher to the young King Josiah; the Apocryphal hero Judith; and Esther. This more traditional telling from a retired kindergarten teacher shows the strength of women who stood up for their beliefs and, with trust in God, fought off their oppressors.

Zoom back in time to the land of the Bible in Chaya Burstein’s Kids’ Catalog of Bible Treasures (for ages 8-12). Alongside a wealth of information about the Bible, from Genesis to Chronicles, Burstein includes stories, recipes, maps, crafts, quizzes, and brain teasers. There’s even a full-color cartoon version of the Torah, which boils the Five Books down to eight pages. That’s a little scary, even though Burstein does hit the highlights. To illustrate the continuous influence of the Bible on our lives today, she traces Jewish customs and laws like kashrut (dietary laws) and mezuzah (vessel that holds the handwritten scroll of the Sh’ma prayer that is affixed to Jewish doorposts) back to biblical texts, shows how Christianity and Islam grew from Judaism, and describes Israel today.

Bible Story Crafts for Little Hands presents thirty stories from Creation to Jonah, each summarized in a paragraph. Author Ruth Esrig Brinn and illustrator Sally Springer accompany each story with a picture to color and a related project. Make an Abraham puppet out of a cup of rice in a plastic bag, covered by an old sock decorated with fabric scraps; create bracelets for Rebecca out of cardboard rolls and silver foil, or bring Ruth to life from a styrofoam cup. Instructions for making costumes and musical instruments will encourage children to act out the stories.

As Kirk Douglas writes in his introduction, “There’s a lot of good stuff in the Bible that isn’t at all boring.” Here’s to discovery.


About Rahel Musleah

Rahel Musleah is the author of Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration (Simon & Schuster). She presents programs on the Jewish communities of India, where she was born.