New Passover books for kids

When Deborah Bodin Cohen immersed herself in rabbinical school in the early 1990s, she expected to spend a year in Israel as part of her studies with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

She never expected that a decade later, the experience of living in Jerusalem would spark her inspiration for a children’s book that has become a popular award-winning series.

“Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush,” Bodin Cohen’s fourth book in Kar-Ben Publishing’s “Engineer Ari” series, is among a trio of new children’s books for the eight-day holiday marking the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

Passover begins this year with the first seder on the evening of April 3.

Other new books for the holiday include Laura Gehl’s “And Then Another Sheep Turned Up” and a rare middle-reader Passover chapter book, “Scarlett and Sam: Escape from Egypt,” by the popular writer Eric Kimmel.

Bodin Cohen, the author of other award-winning Jewish kids’ books including “The Seventh Day” and “Nachshon Who was Afraid to Swim,” credits the idea for the Ari character to her daughter Ariana, who as a preschooler was a train enthusiast. That stirred Bodin Cohen’s memories of living near Jerusalem’s historic train station dating back to the 1890s. “I literally passed it every day,” she said.

Bodin Cohen, the director of congregational learning at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, realized that she could create a story of a train adventure based in historic Israel — a tale that would also entertain her own daughter and her friends.

Each of the Engineer Ari stories has some historical element, thanks to the author’s extensive research and consultation with a curator of the Israel Rail-way Museum in Haifa.

While the book is not about Israel per se, it is the backdrop. “The idea of an illustrated book exposes kids to some of the beauty of Israel, the wildlife and the agriculture,” Bodin Cohen said. Engineer Ari is a friendly train engineer — a character based on Jerusalem’s early railway system transporting people and goods between Jaffa and Jerusalem and dating back to the end of the 19th century in pre-state Palestine.

Ari is in a hurry to make his last run before the start of the seder. His ride to Jerusalem has neighbors offering him foods for his seder plate, including a bowl of haroset made with almonds and dates, a traditional Sephardi custom. Ari promises that on his return route, he’ll deliver newly baked matzah in exchange.

Geared for ages 5 to 9, the book offers a fun adventure for kids and introduces the elements of preparing for the seder.

Israeli artist Shahar Kober’s cartoon-like illustrations feature animated characters dressed in colorful native garb and bustling scenes of city life, rolling hillsides and farms.

And then there were sheep — but not the kind that live in pastures — in Laura Gehl’s delightful “And Then Another Sheep Turned Up,” for ages 3 to 8.

As this friendly family of sheep prepares for Passover, one guest after another arrives — from grandma with the macaroons and wine, to uncles and friends who appear unexpectedly.

As the seder progresses from the Four Questions to hiding the afikomen and dipping the parsley, each page brings another unexpected visitor.

Gehl’s rhymes will tickle young ones. Even non-readers can join the repeating refrain, “And then another sheep turned up.” Kids will be entertained with page after page of Amy Adele’s colorful, lively illustrations of adorable sheep having fun at Passover.

Slightly older readers should enjoy “Scarlett and Sam: Escape from Egypt,” by Eric A. Kimmel.

When twins Scarlett and Sam bicker about who is going to recite the Four Questions at the seder, their magical Grandma Mina cuts the squabbling short: “Tonight, at the seder, we don’t just tell the story of Passover. We become part of it.”

So sets the stage for Kimmel’s time-travel Passover adventure that transports the duo to the Egyptian desert, back to the time of Moses and Aaron as they prepare to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. The ten plagues, Pharaoh’s palace, and the suffering and indignity endured by Israelite slaves come alive for the siblings, who manage to make a podcast of their experience.

Older readers familiar with Kimmel’s hugely popular illustrated books (“Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” “Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock” and “The Chanukkah Guest”) will again enjoy his deft humor and flair for storytelling in the illustrated chapter book that will appeal to school-age kids. It’s a terrific pairing with Kimmel’s earlier “Wonders and Miracles,” a lavishly illustrated seder companion that explains and demystifies the customs and traditions.

“Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush”
by Deborah Bodin Cohen (32 pages, Kar-Ben Publishing)

“And Then Another Sheep Turned Up” by Laura Gehl (32 pages, Kar-Ben)

“Scarlett and Sam: Escape from Egypt” by Eric A. Kimmel (168 pages, Kar-Ben)