Kids books take new approaches to storytelling

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Reading material for youngsters is becoming less conventional. A new set of children’s books forgoes the cookie-cutter young heroine learning an important value formula for a more unique, interactive experience.

These writers give this generation a lot of credit — from teaching them how to take care of their environment to showing a more human side to an intellectual icon. The Jewish values are the one constant in these stories as readers jump from ancient Israel to war-torn England.

Employing a timely and newsworthy subject, Chaya M. Burstein puts a Jewish spin on respecting the environment with her informational resource book, “The Kids’ Catalog of Animals and the Earth.” This book covers the history of the Earth and humans’ mistreatment of it, focusing on the ways in which Jewish teachings and attitudes can help future generations.

The interactive layout in “The Kids’ Catalog” breaks down each chapter into multiple sections, frequently including “Definition, Please!” and “Did You Know?” blurbs in the margins. Each chapter ends with directions for eco-friendly activities (such as building a paper Earth) and a comic strip enacting a conversation between the Earth and two children eager to learn about it.

Though corny at times “The Kids’ Catalog” presents important information in a user-friendly manner that will appeal to children. And the ties to Judaism throughout show that the faith is grounded in the belief that we should respect the Earth. The anecdotes and talmudic references Burstein chose to include teach children how Jewish values can be applied in their lives.

For a slightly older audience, another new book highlights an important historical figure. He didn’t get along with his schoolteachers and dropped out of high school at one point. He never dressed to impress, usually forgoing socks. But as one of the most famous names in history, Albert Einstein is a symbol of pure intellect and passion for life.

In her biography “Albert Einstein: The Jewish Man Behind the Theory,” Devra Newberger Speregen presents a well-rounded view of Einstein as more than just a thinker, but also a loving family man, human rights advocate and Jewish hero. Written in a casual manner appropriate for a large age group, “Albert Einstein” combines facts with humorous anecdotes to give readers more of a grasp of this complex man. Many additional resources help to focus the book, such as a timeline, an index and a glossary of the important people and events in his life.

Each of the chapters begins with a quote to tie the following pages together. Speregen devotes equal time to Einstein’s professional achievements, his humanitarian struggles and his Judaic experiences, with the tumultuous backdrop of World Wars I and II. Einstein was a major contributor to both secular and Jewish society, and Speregen’s biography does justice to all his passions.

If after reading “Albert Einstein” you have a craving for another life story, Neil Waldman details how he became a successful writer and artist in his memoir, “Out of the Shadows: An Artist’s Journey.” With his story illustrated by many of his paintings and drawings, Waldman shows how the challenging parts of his life pushed him to develop his talent.

Interspersed with artistic imagery, “Out of the Shadows” reads like poetry. The biography is rich with anecdotes and weaves in different aspects of his Jewish identity. The color illustrations in Waldman’s book add an extra visual dimension to his tale.

Waldman creates a world for readers similar to that which he created to escape the misery of his dysfunctional family. The book ends with an inspirational message that anyone can become a “real” artist.

However, even a unique construction cannot save James Riordan’s “Escape from War (My Side of the Story).” In this work, readers initially learn events through the narration of Frank, a child from London’s East End who must escape to the countryside during World War II. Frank meets Hannah, a Jewish girl with a sad past who tells the second half of the story from her point of view, requiring an upside-down flip of the book.

The book’s construction is interesting, but the writing is sensationalized — long on horrible tales and short on character development. It looks at the horrors of Nazi Germany without properly setting up the situation, so the book’s target audience may have a hard time understanding the events.

Providing two character accounts also weakened this story, diluting the plot and background to a very simplistic read.

“The Kids’ Catalog of Animals and the Earth” by Chaya M. Burstein (212 pages, Jewish Publication Society of America, $16.95).

“Albert Einstein: The Jewish Man Behind the Theory” by Devra Newberger Speregen (124 pages, Jewish Publication Society of America, $12.95).

“Out of the Shadows: An Artist’s Journey” by Neil Waldman (144 pages, Boyds Mills Press, $21.95).

“Escape From War (My Side of the Story)” by James Riordan (192 pages, Kingfisher, $6.95).