Detail of the cover of "Where Is Poppy?" by Caroline Kusin Pritchard
Detail of the cover of "Where Is Poppy?" by Caroline Kusin Pritchard

New children’s books on navigating loss, illness and race

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Book coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

A girl arrives at her grandparents’ house for her family’s annual Passover seder. It’s the first since her beloved grandfather passed away, and she’s forlorn. Her mother tries to cheer her up by telling her, “He’s still here.”

These words send the girl on a quest in “Where Is Poppy?” by Caroline Kusin Pritchard. At first the girl interprets her mother’s words literally, looking for Poppy all over the house. With her brother’s help, she realizes that Poppy may not be there in the flesh, but that his spirit is everywhere.

“Poppy is here when we race to hug each other, and when we cheer for the orange on the Seder plate,” the girl thinks to herself. “Poppy is here when a joke makes us cry happy tears and when we dip our fingers in grape juice.”

“Where Is Poppy?” grew out of a story that Kusin Pritchard began writing as a way to process the grief she felt after her own grandfather, Mel Kusin (whom she also called Poppy), died in 2018. Her grandfather had led the family’s annual seder for decades, and Kusin Pritchard wondered how the family could possibly continue the tradition without him.

She shared a draft of the story with her relatives at their next seder, which was led by her brother and a cousin. Already the author of one children’s book, 2021’s “Gitty and Kvetch,” she had no plans to publish this story. But her agent encouraged her to share it with the world.

“Thinking about memory can be really hard for kids,” said Kusin Pritchard, a Stanford graduate who lived in the Bay Area for 18 years before relocating to Virginia last year for her football coach husband’s career. “I hope the book helps kids who may have already had a loss, or are on the cusp of one, think about what it means to have someone still be here — to feel someone’s presence — and how you can find comfort in that.”

The seder is an apt setting for a book focused on memory because “it’s about the Passover story, and the story of our families, and it allows kids to consider and take stock of their own traditions,” Kusin Pritchard said.

As the mother of four young children who are half-Samoan, she said it was important to her that the family in “Where Is Poppy?” be multiracial, too. The girl and her mother are Asian American, just like illustrator Dana Wulfekotte, who is Korean American and Jewish. A glossary of words and phrases associated with Passover appears at the back of the book for non-Jewish readers.

“Where Is Poppy?” by Caroline Kusin Pritchard, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 40 pages, ages 4-8)

In 2016, when he was 10 years old, Noah Spiegelman began experiencing back pain. It got worse, and the Walnut Creek native was diagnosed with a brain tumor that had metastasized to his spine. Surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments turned his young life upside down.

Noah Spiegelman (Photo/Courtesy)
Noah Spiegelman (Photo/Courtesy)

Now 18 and in complete remission, Spiegelman relates his medical ordeal in “Surviving and Thriving: One Boy’s Cancer Journey.” The Walnut Creek resident and Contra Costa Jewish Day School (CCJDS) alum said he decided to write about it to help other kids with cancer.

“I wrote it mainly for children who are sick, so they know that others have walked a similar path and are thriving,” he said. “This is a big aspect of my life, and it’s never going to go away. I think it’s important to not shy away from it.”

In the book, Spiegelman writes about the physical and emotional challenges he experienced while being treated at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland and Mass General Hospital in Boston. For example, he writes that he was “crushed” when his hair began falling out due to the chemotherapy.

“I noticed more and more hair on my pillow each night, so I decided to take it into my own hands and started pulling out tufts of hair,” he writes. “I already had bald spots, so there was no point trying to avoid losing my hair any longer. Although I had a wig, I chose to wear a colorful beanie instead. It made me feel safe and comfortable.”

After finishing the radiation treatments, he rejoined his fifth grade class at CCJDS. “When I walked in, everyone was wearing a beanie, just like I was, to show their support for me,” he writes. “I felt so cared for by my classmates and my teacher and couldn’t have been happier to be back.”

“Surviving and Thriving: One Boy’s Cancer Journey” by Noah Spiegelman (self-published, 45 pages, ages 5 and up)

For readers of Hebrew, “Hatzeva Shel Emi” (“Emi’s Color”) is the story of an Ethiopian Israeli family that teaches children about differences in skin color.

One day at school, Emi draws a picture of her family and discovers that there are not enough shades of brown crayons to accurately depict her parents and siblings. At home, her older brother Rom shares that he once faced the same dilemma. “We don’t look the same at all!” he says. His mother responds, “Correct, each of us is special — each has his own color.”

Tali Semani, a clinical psychologist and social activist who lives in Rishon LeZion, told J. she was inspired to write this book, her first, after the birth of her nephew, also named Rom.

“I was thinking about the struggles he might have in the world when he grows up to be a Black man in a white society,” she said. “And in general, I was preoccupied with the question, How do Black families talk about their Blackness at home? How can we help children deal with slights to their ethnic background in the environment in which they live?”

Semani added that she wrote “Emi’s Color” to start a “basic conversation” within families about race.

“Hatzeva Shel Emi” by Tali Semani, illustrated by Uzi Binyamin (Niv Books, 22 pages, ages 2-7)

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.