Get children to enjoy 3 new books

With all that happens in children's lives these days, it's difficult to get them to read. With the attraction of computers, sports and music, and with homework over their heads, the cry "I don't have time" is probably heard as frequently from kids as from their parents.

Despite this, there is a marvelous world of Jewish children's books available today. Over the past 20 years, the world of Jewish books has exploded, especially for young people. Like everything else, there are high and low points. But overall the range and depth of the field is wonderful.

Though the results are not yet in, 2000 was a very solid year. Among the books that have attracted my attention are these three offerings. They are in many ways very different from each other. But in the end their Jewish content is apparent and they will raise important questions for the young people who read them, and their families.

Lillian Hammer Ross is a retired teacher who became a recognized children's author with her picture book "Bubbe Leah and her Paper Children," now a standard in libraries and schools. Her latest, "Daughters of Eve," examines several women in the Bible.

Combining well-known biblical stories, classical Midrash and her own interpretative skill, Ross has taken eight women and made them real to her readers. Beginning with Miriam, the author explores the dilemmas each heroine faced, making them relevant to children — and older women — in our time. The other heroines include Zipporah, Ruth and Esther.

In addition to the stories, the book is graced with beautiful illustrations. The artist, Kyra Teis, has used different colors for each tale, enclosing each piece of the text in its own pattern. When we read about Esther, we get a different feeling from what we experience in hearing about Ruth, in part because of the frames that surround the stories and the artwork that accompanies them. As a result, the book is a series of set designs that create a wonderful whole.

For those interested in the background of the narratives, each one is preceded by a one-page commentary. At the end of the book there is also a basic bibliography of sources (most of them suitable to older children as well as adults), and a glossary.

Diametrically opposed to the beauty of Ross and Teis' volume is the novel by Maurine F. Dahlberg. "Play to the Angel" is the story of Greta Radky in the dark Austrian winter and spring of 1938. Greta's brother, a musical prodigy, has died and their mother has decided to sell their piano. But resourceful Greta meets a strange old man who teaches her behind her mother's back.

Greta's problems, though, are not limited to her mother. While the girl prepares to audition for the Vienna Academy of Music, the Nazis first threaten and then invade the city, and Herr Hummel, her music professor, disappears. The climax and the secret Herr Hummel has been carrying may be evident to some adults, but they will surprise younger readers.

It is noteworthy that none of the major characters is Jewish, though it is clear that Greta and her mother associate with their Jewish neighbors regularly and well. This is not a book about the Holocaust, but about the time before the war when the world was closing down around the nations of Europe.

The third book is yet another view of the world. "The Blessing of the Animals" by Michael J. Rosen explores the difference between Judaism and Catholicism and asks what is important to its protagonist.

When the parish church across the street from Jared's apartment house announces a blessing for all of the neighborhood pets before its annual street fair, Jared wants to take his beloved dog Shayna. When his mother objects and says the practice isn't Jewish, Jared argues with her and they make a pact. Each of them will ask four people what they think of the idea; they will then exchange their results and make a decision based on the answers.

Jared's exploration of the issues, the people he asks and the answers they provide, will open the eyes of young readers. The questions are not easy ones and the serious treatment each of the respondents gives should please adults as much as children. The replies may be expected (the rabbi says no), but everyone takes both Jared and his inquiry seriously. While his decision is predictable, Jared's investigation is a broadening exercise for his mind.

The breadth of children's Jewish literature should not surprise us. But sometimes its depth and power can make us stop and take a new look at the stories we read in a new light. These three books are good examples of the current state of the field, linking us to the joyous events and the tragedies of our history, and showing us a few of the many ways all of us can grow into a Jewish way of looking at the world.