When Jessie Came Across the Sea
written by Amy Hest and illustrated by P.J. Lynch
In this gorgeously illustrated book by one of my favorite artists, Hest tells the story of Jessie, an orphaned girl from Eastern Europe who leaves her quiet village life to journey to America. Jessie's parents died when she was a baby, so she was raised by her loving grandmother who teaches her how to make fine lace. In turn, Jessie teaches her grandmother how to read and write--knowledge she acquires from lessons with the village rabbi. When the rabbi receives a ticket to America but decides he needs to stay with his people, he chooses Jessie to go in his place. While Jessie and her grandmother are sad to be separated, they know it is a wonderful opportunity. Jessie entrusts her mother's precious wedding band to her grandmother's care and sets off for a new life. The rest of the story chronicles Jessie's life in America and correspondence with her grandmother and ends beautifully, but I don't want to spoil it for you, so you can read it for yourself to find out the rest! Winner of the Christopher Award.
Across the Alley
written by Richard Michelson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Abe and Willie are neighbors, but they can't play together outside. Instead, they become best friends across the alley that separates the buildings where they live. Through their windows, Willie teaches Abe how to throw a "big-league slider" and Abe teaches Willie how to play his violin. When Abe's grandpa mistakes Willie's playing for his grandson's, he decides Abe is ready to perform at the temple. One day before the recital, Abe is concentrating on practicing his wind-up and Willie is so caught up with his playing that they don't hear Grandpa come into Abe's room. What results is an opening of minds and the opportunity for each boy to do something hitherto closed to him. Lewis's lovely watercolors pair well with this story that illustrates love's power to overcome prejudice, one friendship at a time.
One Little Chicken
written by Elka Weber, illustrated by Elisa Kleven
This book is not necessarily American (the setting is a small country village in an unknown country, in what appears to be a bygone time), but illustrates an important Jewish principle that transcends place. Leora Bendosa is excited when a hen wanders into her family's yard. The Bendosas are poor and a chicken means eggs for breakfast! But Leora's mother reminds her of a law from the Torah that is the very opposite of the modern adage "Finders Keepers". So, Leora and her family decide to care for the chicken until the unknown owner claims it. Meanwhile, the hen has chicks that begin to overrun the house. The family sells all the chickens at market for two silver coins, which they in turn use to purchase a goat. The goat produces so much milk that they must make cheese which they also sell. The money from the cheese is used to purchase another goat, and the cycle continues until the owner of the original chicken one day appears. Kleven's illustrations, rich in detail and texture, are colorful and fun, often portraying the animals up to all kinds of hilarious antics.
One thing disappoints me about this story: In the author's note, Weber explains that this book is a retelling of a story from the Talmud about Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. Though in the original story the Rabbi's wife is praised as being gracious and holy, Weber portrays her as often complaining and grumbling. While I'm glad Weber acknowledges this change in the note, it would have been nice to see a story with such a great message not succumb to the "nagging wife" stereotype, especially when just the opposite is true in the original.
The Memory Coat
written by Elvira Woodruff, illustrated by Michael Dooling
Rachel and her orphaned cousin Grisha live with their family in Russia. Though Grisha is still grieving the loss of his parents, he and Rachel enjoy telling and drawing stories together, and are happy with their life--until the cossacks come. With the cossacks' mission to kill anyone who is Jewish, the family decides Russia is no longer safe for them and prepares to move to America. They knows it's possibly to be sent back to Russia if they are sick or look like they won't be able to provide for themselves in the new country. So Bubba wants to make Grisha a new coat, since his is threadbare, but he refuses--making his coat was a loving sacrifice his mother made before she died. The journey to America is long, harsh, and dangerous, but the family makes it to Ellis Island in tact. However, Grisha hurts his eye while playing with Rachel and a doctor who cannot understand Yiddish or Russian sees his red eye, along with his ragged coat, as an indicator that Grisha is not well enough to enter the United States. Terrified at the thought of her cousin being sent back to Russia alone, Rachel comes up with a simply, yet ingenious, solution to ensure Grisha stays with the family. Dooling's illustrations very effectively evoke a sense of time and place in this story about love and family. Includes an author's note and historic notes.
written by Natasha Wing, illustrated by Robert Casilla
Pablo doesn't know what to take to school for International Day. He's supposed to take something from his culture, but there are so many delicious options at his parents' bakery. Pablo muses on the different choices as he helps his mother prepare pan dulce (sweet bread), empanadas de calabaza (pumpkin turnovers), and chango bars. Later, he makes bagels with his father and together the family creates jalapeno bagels, giving Pablo the perfect solution to his dilemma with a choice that represents both his Mexican and Jewish heritage. Casilla's art evokes a warm sense of family, and though the illustrations may feel a bit dated, the love Pablo's family shares is timeless.
Do you have any favorite picture books about the Jewish American experience? We'd love to hear about them in the comments!