Questionable roster of great Jewish Americans

Writing a book for children is no easy assignment. The selection of ideas and their expression in text is a risky business when one considers the assumptions we tend to make about children’s immaturity and lack of sophistication.

Sometimes we apply the criterion of “age-appropriate” to ideas, and try to address younger minds in simpler terms.

On other occasions, there is a patronizing patter about lack of experience.

We also reveal bias by deliberately dumbing down ideas, a habit that may seriously underestimate young readers’ capacities.

Children’s literature is replete with this tension between challenging children and talking either over their heads or down to them.

Doreen Rappaport’s “In the Promised Land: Lives of Jewish Americans” poses the issue for readers ages 5 to 9 (roughly kindergarten to fourth grade).

While a good thematic concept — brief profiles emphasizing the “pivotal moment” for each of 13 Jewish American role models for children — the book neglects to be specific about the connection between these individuals and Jewish values.

The book goes awry because of a lack of explicit object-lessons, all of which could have been briefly spelled out for adult and younger readers in a suitable introduction.

For example, we learn that Solomon Nunes Carvalho was a Jewish photographer hired by John Fremont to map the railroad’s path through the Rocky Mountains.

OK, so what? Is there a Jewish idea or lesson here that merits including Carvalho, but not Louis Brandeis?

What is the point of including Jacob W. Davis, who invented the use of copper rivets in jeans and teamed up with Levi Strauss?

Evidence of business enterprise, yes, but a Jewish role model when Jewish Americans like Saul Bellow and Milton Friedman don’t make Rappaport’s list? I don’t think so.

The quibble here is not only with the selection, which includes other relative unknowns such as Asser Levy, Ernestine Rose, Lillian Wald, Pauline Newman, Lillian Copeland and Ira Hirschmann.

Even when we have some familiarity with the subjects — Harry Houdini, Jonas Salk, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judith Resnick and Steven Spielberg — the text is not salient enough to draw the connection or underscore the object-lesson.

Yes, Salk saved lives, Ginsburg battled for women’s rights (as Copeland, Newman and Rose had done so decades earlier), Resnick showed great courage (she was the second woman in space and died in the Challenger tragedy) and Spielberg’s legacy includes the memorable “Schindler’s List.”

But Harry Houdini? Just how the 33-year old magician’s “pivotal moment,” his “Manacled Bridge Jump” in New Orleans, into the Mississippi River — how this functions as a Jewish American role model is beyond comprehension. Is there something Jewish about escaping from handcuffs, chains and packing crates underwater? Perhaps Democrats would applaud because, as Rappaport breathlessly tells us, Houdini (actually named Ehrich Weiss) “even made a five-ton elephant disappear.”

It is perhaps unfair to expect more depth in books recommended for younger children, and it is true that kids would probably rather read about Houdini than Bellow. And the pictures in the book — full-size watercolor paintings by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu — are interesting and will afford opportunities for attentive parents to draw meaning from the images to illuminate the text.

But there could be better choices for some of the bios and more relevant narrative description.

Perhaps a page or two for parents to help guide their children to the point of each story.

The object of such sketches is to convey values, not to walk away with a little picture in the head of poor old Harry struggling to exit a jail cell.

“In the Promised Land: Lives of Jewish Americans” by Doreen Rappaport (32 pages, HarperCollins, $15.99).