For kids: mensches, talking birds, the aleph bet

A recently released study by the British Psychological Society claimed that watching television may damage a child’s brain development, leading to increased anti-social behavior — or, as the Brits would put it, anti-social “behaviour.”

This all fits in a bit too neatly with a pet theory some have that the generation raised on “Barney” or “Blue’s Clues” instead of “Sesame Street” will all turn out to be ax murderers.

Whether you buy into the theory or not, the writing — and we do mean writing — is on the wall: Be a mensch and get your kids a book, for God’s sake!

In fact, being a mensch is something of the raison d’etre of the first of three kiddie books that found their way to j.’s office, “A Kid’s Mensch Handbook.”

The colorful, graphics-heavy paperback by Scott E. Blumenthal is laid out in a splashy, compartmentalized style with plenty of pink or blue text-boxes, random meaningful quotes slapped across page tops and bottoms and cartoon characters commenting on the action. This, apparently, is how to keep readers in third- to fifth-grade attentive.

Someone seems to have emptied out the clip-art file, however, with snapshots of a 1980s-vintage toolbox (along with the “tikkun olam — repairing the world” section), a 1980s-vintage baseball mitt (along with the “be a team player” section) and a 1980s-vintage peanut-butter sandwich with a bite taken out of it (along with the “do you tease the new kid at school to be cool or be cool to the new kid to be a mensch?” section).

The most disturbing graphic, though, is the book’s mascot, “Izzy the Mensch-In-Training” — a cute little cartoon boy with a red-and-white striped shirt, blue jeans and untied sneakers. Illustrator Jim Steck has, inexplicably, chosen to include a suspicious brown stain on Izzy’s clothing in just the wrong place.

Granted, the stain disappears 40-odd pages in when Blumenthal explains how a proper mensch cannot evince the personal hygiene of the guy everyone stays away from on the 38 Geary bus. It’s great that the kids are being informed that it’s not mensch-like behavior to walk about with noticeable accumulations of filth on one’s body, but, come to think of it, that’s setting the bar a bit low.

As for the actual content of the handbook, that is notably less objectionable than Izzy’s pants. Writing in a talky, informal manner, Blumenthal manages to be convincing yet not preachy when he pushes kids to behave altruistically. This is also a book that actually encourages kids to write in it (always a thrill for children in the same way it is to throw trash and spit on the ground with parental approval at ballgames).

And don’t think all the written exercises are so easy. One asks the reader to list three mistakes he or she made this year; you will recall that our president was unable to handle this query during a debate last year.

Finally, questions aimed at children can take on an unintentionally hilarious nature when answered by adults. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to discern the humor of the fill-in exercise: “My favorite exercise is (blank), which I do: A. All the time. B. Sometimes. C. Almost never.”

“The Aleph Bet Story” by sisters Lily and Diana Yacobi doesn’t request young readers to write within its pages, but it certainly requires them to put pen to paper to learn the Hebrew alphabet.

The authors cleverly compare the letters to various everyday elements: A “tet” looks like a popcorn machine, “lamed” a bolt of lightning, “gimmel” a high-heeled shoe (for Kiss frontman Gene Simmons, maybe). I must admit that by the time the Morse Code-like vowels were introduced, I was l-o-s-t lost; I’d have an easier time learning quantum physics than a new language. But for a child with Hebrew school in his or her near future and a semi-fluent parent or two, this attractive book could be a real help.

“Sereena’s Secret” also features massive amounts of Hebrew characters, and, for that matter, the only Yiddish-speaking parrots this side of the family pet at a Chabad household.

The book, a publication of the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture in Coral Gables, Fla., is a charmingly illustrated parable in English and Hebrew-charactered Yiddish about a trio of green tropical birds forced to flee a disaster on their home island.

They land on an island where green birds are shunned by the native red, yellow or blue birds, so Sereena decides to mask her emerald-hued feathers by rolling in the red sand.

Now, this is an allegory even more blatant than that old “Star Trek” episode with the guys with the split black-white and white-black faces, so forgive me if I don’t reveal the ending.

But, suffice to say, you could do a lot worse, especially if the British Psychological Society is even half right.

“A Kid’s Mensch Handbook” by Scott E. Blumenthal (118 pages, Behrman House, $9.50).

“The Aleph Bet Story” by Lily and Diana Yacobi (56 pages, Sarah and David Publications, $15.95).

“Sereena’s Secret” by Rae Ann Harris and David Weintraub (40 pages, Pitspopany Press, $9.95).

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.