Book review: Children, teens and inbetweens – part two

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The wide range of books for the younger crowd is really impressive. Each book featured here is set in a different time period: from creation to the Middle Ages to World War II to contemporary times. As with part one of this review, not all works focus specifically on Judaism, but religion does play a role in each.

“The Inquisitor’s Tale”
Stories within stories: That partially describes the clever and original “The Inquisitor’s Tale Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog” written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly (Dutton’s Children’s Books). In 1242, three children are rumored to have performed miracles, something that places their lives in danger. Jeanne, a peasant, sees visions when she has a seizure. William, a black-skinned monk, has supernatural strength. Jacob, who is Jewish, can heal the sick and injured. The three are joined by Gwenforte, a white greyhound who has risen from the grave. The king of France is searching for the children whom he feels are a threat to his reign.
The unnamed narrator begins the story while at an inn that just happens to be filled with those who know different parts of the children’s adventures. Each gets to speak his or her piece, filling in the details about how the children defeat demons and a dragon, and find themselves treated well by the nobility – until they use their powers for a great good, one not accepted by society. The children’s future and the narrator’s connection to what befalls them becomes clear only in the latter part of the novel.
Gidwitz does an excellent job showing how peasants and Jews were treated in France during the Middle Ages. His author’s note offers a wonderful introduction to this time period, in addition to showing which parts of his work is based on fact and which are fiction. The illuminations by Aly are similar to those done by illuminators who decorated texts in Middle Ages; they add a touch of beauty to the pages. My only complaint is that the ending felt like a bit of wishful thinking by the author rather than what would really have happened – although I prefer his ending to mine. Still, this doesn’t detract from an unusual work that will delight tweens, teenagers and adults.

“On Blackberry Hill”
Confession: “On Blackberry Hill” by Rachel Mann (CreateSpace) brought back bad memories of my time at overnight camp. The fact that I still enjoyed this work is due to the author’s ability to create two interesting and balanced stories: a contemporary one featuring teenaged Reena and another focusing on her late mother Naomi’s time at the same camp 20 years earlier.
Neither Reena nor Naomi want to attend Camp Tova. Although Naomi enjoyed camp when she was younger, now that she’s in college, she wants to remain in Manhattan for the summer. However, her parents forbid her – threatening to stop paying her tuition if she doesn’t do what they ask. Reena also doesn’t want to go to the camp, but her musician father is touring Japan that summer and can’t take her with him. Nor does he want her to stay in Manhattan with friends. Instead, he arranges for her Aunt Mara, her mother’s older sister, to drive her to the camp. Although her cousin, Lila, is in the same bunk, Lila ignores her, leaving Reena to find her own friends. A mysterious man connects Naomi and Reena – offering one thoughts about her future and the other an understanding of the past.
While not the most literary of the works reviewed here, Mann creates in Reena and Naomi two intelligent young women whose struggles will resonate with readers. The inclusion of another time period – one that focuses on what happened after Reena’s mother died – offers an extra dimension to the novel and an understanding of the tension between Aunt Mara and Reena’s father. “On Blackberry Hill” should definitely appeal to teenagers and tweens.

“Adam and Thomas”
When Adam’s mother takes him to the forest, she promises the 9-year-old that she’ll return later that day. However, life is not that simple or easy. What occurs next is the basis for Aharon Appelfeld’s “Adam and Thomas,” a short novel that includes drawing by Phileppe Dumas (Seven Stories Press).
Adam soon meets Thomas, another 9-year-old he knows from school and the ghetto. The two boys band together to help each other survive. They soon discover how very different are their families. For example, Adam’s family is religious and he believes God will provide for their needs. Thomas’ parents are nonreligious and focused on his secular education; even in the ghetto, Thomas tried continued his studies. While the two boys know their country is at war (World War II, although they don’t call it by that name), their understanding of its implications are limited. The question becomes whether or not they will survive long enough for the war to end.
The novel is well done and Green’s illustrations help set the mood. Appelfeld’s biography notes that he survived three years in the forest after escaping the Germans at age 8. This makes the details of his story ring true. Parents may want to be careful when deciding if this work will be appropriate for their children. The publisher is marketing the book for 8-12-year-olds, but it could be disturbing for those at the younger part of the age range. However, adults may also be intrigued by Appelfeld’s late life view of his escape from the Nazis.

“Creation’s First Light”
The first thing readers will notice when looking at “Creation’s First Light” by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso with illustrations by Joan Rothenberg (IBJ book Publishing) are the colorful drawings. These swirling, expressionistic works create a mood that carries and highlights the prose. A finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, the picture book tells the story of the light God made on the first day of creation – before that of the sun and the moon. There is no real plot: instead, the book seeks to instill a sense of wonder about the light all creation carries within itself. Tales from the Torah – Adam and Eve, Noah, the patriarchs, Moses and Miriam – are briefly mentioned as a way of showing how they carried this “jewel” of God’s light through the centuries. The latter part of the book explains how that light still exists and where it can be found.
“Creation’s First Light” concludes with a section for parents and teachers – offering them information about the biblical characters. A lack of knowledge of the Bible won’t necessarily affect the essential message being taught, but discussing the questions offered would be a great way for parents and children to gain a greater understanding of each other.