New array of childrens books revitalizes old legends

This year's Jewish children's books bring new versions of old tales, some dressed up with a new twist. Several of them concern moral or ethical dilemmas, and two take moments in Jewish history and paint in the details for today's children. All these books can be borrowed from the Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

*"Gershon's Monster, a Story for the Jewish New Year" retold by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Jon J Muth (30 pages, Scholastic Press, $16.95).

Gershon is an average Jew in an average shtetl. His monster grows out of the accumulation of selfish acts and thoughtless deeds that Gershon tries to toss away, hoping somehow that nobody will notice them. When this monster threatens the safety of his precious children, Gershon takes action and learns the basis of tshuvah, repentance. Dramatic watercolor illustrations produce a powerful impact in this story based on a Chassidic tale.

*"Hannah's Journal: the Story of an Immigrant Girl" by Marissa Moss (48 pages, Harcourt, $15).

Told in the form of a handwritten diary, with simple drawings on lined yellow paper, "Hannah's Journal" captures the Jewish immigrant experience. Through an unusual turn of events, 10-year-old Hannah is chosen to leave her village in Lithuania to accompany a cousin to America. The ordeals of their departure, journey and arrival are carefully illustrated, bringing this piece of Jewish history to life for today's children.

*"The Demons' Mistake: a Story from Chelm" by Francine Prose, pictures by Mark Podwal (30 pages, Greenwillow Books, $15.89).

You can take the demons out of Chelm, but it's hard to take Chelm out of the demons. Chelm's own special demons take it into their heads to go to New York City. What they find there surprises and frightens them in this delightful modern invention that draws on Jewish folk tradition.

*"Come Let Us Be Joyful! The Story of Hava Nagila" by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Rosalind Charney Kaye (30 pages, UAHC Press, $12.95).

Everybody knows the tune to "Hava Nagila," but few people know where it comes from. With unique illustrations made from combining color photographs with paintings, and with a sprightly, simple text, this story of Israel's most popular Israeli tune comes dancing to life.

*"Shalom, Salaam, Peace" by Howard I. Bogot, illustrated and designed by Norman Gorbaty, translated by Faruk Jarrar and Amir Or (29 pages, CCAR Press, $18).

Bogot's lovely book begins with the phrase, "We know what peace means…" Evocative words in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and lively yet thought-provoking illustrations allow even the youngest readers to reflect on the precious notion of peace. One young writer sums up the reactions of children who were asked to contribute their thoughts: "Peace for me is the entire world."

*"The Wisdom Bird: a Tale of Solomon and Sheba" retold by Sheldon Oberman, illustrated by Neil Waldman (27 pages, Boyds Mills Press, $15.95).

In this richly illustrated story, Solomon learns some crucial wisdom from a little bird and rewards the bird with a golden crown. This version takes off from the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba's visit, enhancing it with an African legend and Jewish folk stories from Europe and Yemen.

*"My Two Grandmothers" by Effin Older, illustrated by Nancy Hayashi (29 pages, Harcourt, $16).

A simple tale, in which we are introduced to Lily's Bubbe Silver, who calls her Mamaleh, and her Grammy Lane, who calls her Pumpkin. Although her two grandmothers are as different as can be, Lily invents a way to bring them together.

*"The Peddler's Gift" by Maxine Rose Schur, pictures by Kimberly Bulcken Root (29 pages, Dial Books for Young Readers, $15.99).

*"The Chanukah Blessing" by Peninnah Schram, illustrated by Jeffrey Allon (30 pages, UAHC Press, $12.95).

In two books we're treated to a visit to a poor home from a mysterious guest bringing surprising gifts who just might be Elijah the prophet. Schur's peddler is a bit of a shlemiel named Shnook. In Schram's tale, a traveler arrives on the fifth night of Chanukah. Youngsters in both stories learn not to judge people by appearance, and in Schur's story a lesson in honesty brings its own rewards. "The Peddler's Gift" is written and illustrated with exquisite detail, while "The Chanukah Blessing" tells and paints its story through suggestion and allusion.