Rabbis book has had kids questioning for 10 years

boston | They may not know who she is, but if a generation of young people has grown more comfortable expressing their views about God, they may want to thank Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

Ten years ago, Jewish Lights Publishing had the foresight to publish Sasso’s first children’s book, “God’s Paintbrush.” The house has just issued a 10th anniversary edition of the book, a children’s best seller that launched a second career for Sasso, a full-time practicing rabbi.

“God’s Paintbrush” has been credited by many in the field of children’s publishing with spawning a mini-industry of books for children encouraging spiritual inquisitiveness and curiosity.

In the decade since she hit the best-seller list with “God’s Paintbrush,” Sasso has accumulated a litany of accomplishments. She has now published a total of 10 books, all award winners, that have been endorsed by religious leaders and educators of all faiths.

More than 100,000 copies of “God’s Paintbrush” are in print, in addition to more than 300,000 copies of all 10 books — which have been translated into Hebrew, Spanish, German and Italian.

In July, Sasso was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Church and Synagogue Library Association, where she was awarded the Helen Keating Ott Award for Outstanding Contributions to Children’s Literature.

Her literary career began to take shape 16 years ago when she was taking a class in religion and children while working toward her doctor of ministry degree.

“I decided to write about God for children,” she said, speaking from her office at Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, where she shares the rabbinical pulpit with her husband, Dennis. In 1974 Sasso became the second woman to be ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi.

“I couldn’t find any material that I wanted to use with my own children at home or with the children I was teaching at the synagogue,” she said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a book.”

When she finished writing, her husband encouraged her to publish the book.

“I said, ‘Are you sure?'” Sasso recalled.

Following her husband’s suggestion, Sasso was inspired to pursue a publisher because “there was nothing out there that helps young children deal with the issue of God in a way that’s open and that encourages a conversation that’s not preachy.”

Six years later, when she was about to file the whole project in the bottom drawer she never looks at, a publisher finally responded.

He liked the book a lot, Sasso said, and had only one question: “Can you take the questions out?”

Sasso’s simple text, placing God’s creations in the everyday world children experience — blades of grass, hurt feelings, echoes in the wind — includes questions along the way, asking children to ponder and discuss their own ideas.

In one section, for example, a mother and father tuck a young girl into bed with her teddy bear. After receiving her mother’s kiss, the girl says: “All these good feelings, I think, are God’s touch. What does God’s touch feel like to you? How can you help God touch the world?”

Though Sasso wasn’t pleased about removing the questions as per the publisher’s suggestion, she acquiesced.

As it happened, that publisher didn’t publish her book. She next submitted the manuscript to Jewish Lights, then a new publishing house — minus the questions.

The punch line is obvious. When the publisher contacted Sasso, she recalled, they said, “It’s a great book. Could you do one thing? Could you put in some questions?”

It’s a story Sasso likes to tell.

“The kids tell me that what they like most about the book are the questions,” she said. “It’s a story open to conversation rather than a sermon.”

Sasso’s text is embellished with rainbow-hued, gloriously colored illustrations by Annette Compton.

While Sasso wrote the book to appeal to all different faiths, it is “obviously grounded in my Jewish faith and my Jewish understanding,” she said. Books existed before hers that spoke only to the Jewish community and only to the Christian community, Sasso said.

“No books talked about God for people of all faiths, that they could read and color with their own faith tradition. I was hoping to help young people understand that while we color God with a different paintbrush, we are all searching for something similar. The book offers an opportunity to bring people together as well as recognize how we are distinct.”

Children explore the perennial questions: “Why am I here? Why do people die? Why do people hate?” Sasso said. “It’s important to allow children to give voice to what they’re thinking.”