Book Review: Jonah, Joseph tales teach about forgiveness

Gerstein's "Jonah" is by far the richer book, painted in oil on vellum in jeweled tones, with decorative patterns reminiscent of Gustav Klimt. Gerstein embellishes the story of the reluctant prophet, moving beyond the biblical tale by bringing in some of the Jewish legends about Jonah.

Going to Ninevah to tell the wicked inhabitants they will be destroyed in 40 days is not Jonah's idea of an appealing assignment.

"I am not ready to be a prophet," he says. "I will forget what to say. I will stutter and the people will laugh at me."

Certainly, his reluctance is understandable to kids and their parents, and should trigger lively discussions.

But Jonah cannot run away from his calling, even though he tries — first boarding a boat, then jumping overboard when God causes a storm, and landing in the all-too-luxurious belly of a fish, replete with four-poster bed and a sumptuous table.

God, of course, doesn't want Jonah to live in comfort — even under the sea — so he sends a bigger fish that doesn't provide first-class accommodations. Instead, Jonah shares his quarters with 36,500 jewel-toned baby fish. To us, the interior has a lovely Chagall-like quality, but Jonah wants out and is willing to do whatever God wants.

At this point, the tale follows the biblical story. Jonah goes to Ninevah, the people change their ways and God doesn't destroy them. But Jonah is unhappy, believing that God has made a fool of him. Naturally, God offers the final lesson — the importance of compassion — and Jonah recognizes that he has been a fool. "Forgive me for my selfish anger," he asks God.

Forgiveness and selfish anger are also themes in the "Joseph" story, by Kassirer with illustrations by Danuta Jarecka. This "Starting to Read" book from Simon & Schuster's "Ready-to-Read" series also can be introduced to preschoolers.

While it doesn't have the sophistication of the "Jonah" book, it distills the biblical story and offers bright, intriguing pictures, painting a series of grim blue faces to illustrate the jealousy of Joseph's brothers.

Just as it isn't easy to be a prophet, being one's father's favorite carries its own burden, as this tale from Genesis illustrates.

The brothers repeat a favorite childhood refrain — "It's not fair!" — before stealing the coat, dumping their brother into a pit and selling him to the Egyptians.

Eventually, Joseph becomes a ruler. His brothers, needing grain, visit him, unaware that he is Joseph. Should he forgive them?

Children and their parents can debate the moral message of this biblical favorite. Certainly, the edition provides a lively introduction, and the gracefully drawn pictures have a stylized Mideastern quality. But the book pales before the more unusual "Jonah" edition, which is a work of art.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].