Off the Shelf: Books for the young at heart

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Books for tweens

“Max in the House of Spies”

My original plan for this review was to group books in order by age (teen first, then tween, followed by picture books), but I couldn’t wait to write about “Max in the House of Spies” by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton Children’s Books) because I loved, loved, loved it! Sorry, I don’t normally go all agog about a book in my reviews, but this one was so much fun and a pleasure even when the author switched tone, creating a very moving section. Oh, but it’s the fun parts that stood out. 

Part of the plot is very realistic: 11-year-old Max came to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport just before World War II and is lucky enough to board with a rich Jewish family, the real life Montagu family. Max misses his parents and wants to do something – anything – to help the war effort; conveniently, a member of the extended Montagu family is a spy and Max, who is extremely clever, is tested to see if he has what it takes to become a British agent and return to Germany.

While reading how Max manages to solve the tasks the spymasters offer him was good fun, that was not my favorite part. When Max left Germany, he was accompanied by two small creatures who sit on his shoulders and comment on his actions: Berg, a kobolt (household spirit) who speaks with an old-fashioned German accent, and Stein, a dybbuk (a Jewish spirit) who sounds like a vaudevillian comedian. Of course, only Max can hear or speak to them. Sometimes they argue with each other about the best path for Max, but it’s clear that Berg thinks Max should absolutely not become a spy.

“Max in the House of Spies” was a delight to read. You’ll really enjoy the part when Max.... oh, can’t give that away, but it was awesome! And he also... well, don’t want to spoil that, either. I do have one thing to say to the author and publisher: Ahhh, how could you end the book with an I-need-to-know-more-right-now cliffhanger? I want book two, “Max in the Land of Lies,” published right this minute! (I would have put a lot more exclamation points there, but Reporter style limits me to just one.) That book cannot arrive soon enough. 

“The Year My Life Went Down the Toilet”

Anyone who has had Crohn’s disease, colitis or IBS will sympathize with 12-year-old Allison (who prefers to be called Al) in “The Year My Life Went Down the Toilet” by Jake Maia Arlow (Dial Books for Young Readers). Life is difficult enough when your mom hovers over you, checking everything you eat before and after your diagnosis. But having cramps and needing to run to the bathroom at all hours of the day and night is not a great way to have a social life. Even worse, her one real friend, Leo, has decided to join the drama club so their alone time is drastically cut. Plus, Al believes she is queer, but has not even told Leo because it all feels to be too much. 

In order to not sit alone in her room when Leo is rehearsing most days of the week, Al decides to join a support group for teens who are suffering from intestinal issues. Although she can’t imagine talking to anyone about her frequent need to poop, she finds friends who not only know exactly what she is going through, but welcome her with open arms. In fact, one of them might become more than a friend if Al can open herself to a real relationship. But that’s part of the problem: Al usually keeps her emotions buttoned up inside where they have a disastrous effect on her intestines. She’s also not good with change: something is happening with her mom, which complicates Al’s life even more. Unfortunately, she’s so (understandably) absorbed in her own problems that she fails to note the problems Leo is facing.

Al’s feelings about her life that year are made clear when she notes that “everything about being a human feels overwhelmingly embarrassing.” How Al comes to terms with her feelings and intestinal problems is what makes “The Year My Life Went Down the Toilet” worthwhile reading.

“On All Other Nights”

The 14 steps of the Passover seder form the outline for the anthology “On All Other Nights: A Passover Celebration in 14 Stories” edited by Chris Baron, Joshua S. Levy and Naomi Milliner (Amulet Books). Each story is connected to specific part of the seder, although that connection can be tenuous at times. But the range of work is wonderful: there’s contemporary and historical fiction, poetry and memoir, many told from the point of view of different communities of the Jewish world. In addition to explanations about the meaning of each step, the editors include four questions for each section readers can use to ponder their own lives. The end of the book features recipes by authors from different Jewish traditions. 

All the works featured were consistently well done. My two favorites – “Chocolate Tears” by Milliner and “The Great Handwashing Machine” by Baron – are about family life and left me in tears. Laurel Synder offers a wonderful version of a rabbinic tale in “Nachshon in the Desert, Alone at the Sea.” In “Growing Up Sandwiched Between Identities,” Ruth Behar writes about being half Ashkenazic/half Sephardic, in addition to being an American of Cuban birth. Sofiya Pasternack presents a sweet and sad story about immigrant life on the Lower East Side in “The Bitter Princess.” Contemporary dilemmas are offered in three stories: “The Awful Omen” by A. J. Sass, whose main character worries about revealing to their family that they are nonbinary; “Music and Matzo” by Laura Shovan, whose narrator wants to include women’s stories in the seder; and “Why I Hate Gefilte Fish” by Sarah Kapit, where a character who has autism finds its difficult to deal with all the smells and noise of the seder.” 

“On All Other Nights” would make a perfect afikomen present, but, better yet, give it to all the tweens who come to your seder. If you like it as much as I did, you might even been tempted to give it to your hostess as a gift since adults may want to read this with – or without – their children. 

Books for teens


Women’s contributions to achieving victory in World War II have often been overlooked. Cambria Gordon’s new novel “Trajectory” (Scholastic Press) features a fictional version of the life of one of the more than 100 women who performed calculations for the U.S. Army in order to better understand how planes, bombs, etc. would act under real combat conditions. The narrator, 17-year-old Eleanor, originally hides her math skills because she believes she caused her brilliant professor father to have a stroke when she was 6 and doesn’t deserve them. But when her skill is accidentally revealed to someone connected to the armed forces, she is recruited to help in the war effort. However, she can tell no one – friend or family – what she is doing.

Eleanor, who has always tried to be invisible, has difficulty at first being part of the group of women working at the University of Pennsylvania. But she’s soon transferred – first to California and then Pearl Harbor – to solve a mystery that may help the U.S. win the war. However, she also faces other problems, including news about what is happening to her relatives in Europe. The reports are distressing and she rightly fears for their lives. In the midst of these difficult emotions, Eleanor meets a pilot who, although not Jewish, is the first man to whom she’s felt a mutual attraction. Yet, unless she comes to understand and reveal her true mathematical ability, she may never solve the Army’s puzzle or feel comfortable in her own life.

The math in “Trajectory” quickly moved beyond my understanding, but that didn’t make the action any less interesting. Although the novel dragged a bit in its middle section, it’s opening was interesting and absorbing, and its concluding chapters were really exciting. Readers will root for Eleanor to both solve her math problems and to understand and truly accept who she really is.


One frequent refrain in memoirs is how the past affects the present. “Replay: Memoir of an Uprooted Family” by Joran Mechner (First Second) shows the importance of relating stories from the past in order for the current generation to understand the history of their family. The graphic memoir offers three different stories: the first and most interesting is a record put together by the author/artist’s grandfather about his life in Austria, first his service in the army during World War I and then his escape from Europe, although Mechner’s father was, at first, left behind in Paris when his father moved to Cuba.

The two other sections focus on the author’s life. One shows him in contemporary times, dealing with his two teenaged children and a failing second marriage. He is trying to create a new incarnation of a video game that once brought him fame and fortune. However, raising funds is now far more difficult and complicated. It would also mean moving to France, which could have a profound effect on his family life. The other section shows how he obtained his first success and the people he worked with then. Readers interested in video games will discover the difference between contemporary times and the days when all that was needed to create a game was desire and a computer. 

The colors used in the graphics are different for each time period, although sometimes the action switches back and forth so quickly that it’s difficult to know which time period the author is featuring. However, that works beautifully when different Passover seders – from his grandfather’s time to present day – are portrayed over several pages.

The story told in “Replay” is messy because it shows real life with all its problems and dissatisfactions. Happy endings are not always possible. Perhaps the real lesson Mechner teaches is reflected during one of the seders: “In the Passover story, bread represents the familiar, comfortable life we know. The matzah reminds us that we need to be ready to walk away from it at a moment’s notice.” The story of Mechnor’s father’s and grandfather’s lives proves just how true that is.

Picture books

“The Tree of Life”

Hope: that is what picture books about the Holocaust try to offer children. That’s true of the real life story “The Tree of Life: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World” written by Elisa Boxer and illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig (Rocky Pond Books). One such ray of hope occurred in the Terezin ghetto when a teacher, Irma Lauscher, asked someone to secretly bring a tree into the ghetto. Both risked their lives to do so, but her students faithfully care for that tree. Even as more and more people were taken from the ghetto, the students kept the tree alive. Once the war was over, the tree became a symbol of freedom and hope. Seeds from the tree were taken and planted across the world. Even as the tree grew old and died, its descendants – more than 600 trees in different parts of the world – continued to grow.

“The Tree of Life” is beautifully done and includes additional information so adults can explain what occurred to their children. Parents will need to gauge whether their child is mature enough to understand the story and how much additional information should be given about the Holocaust. But adults will also appreciate this tale, one which offers a rare sliver of light from that horrific time. 

“Sophie’s Monster Goes to Shul” 

Sophie has an imaginary monster living in her closet. Unfortunately, her monster is going through an identity crisis: he doesn’t have a job now that Sophie is no longer afraid of him. This leaves him crying, “Oy, oy, oy” and worried about finding a new occupation. In “Sophie’s Monster Goes to Shul” by Sandy Asher and illustrated by Alexandra Colombo (Kar-Ben Publishing), Sophie helps her monster by bringing him to religious school where the two of them have a wonderful time. Then, with the use of her imagination, Sophie finds the perfect place for him.
“Sophie’s Monster Goes to Shul” is cute and a bit silly, which is perfect for the story. The resolution is clever and satisfying. Colombo’s illustrations are well done and young (and older) readers will love the drawings of the not-really-scary, large, blue-green, hairy monster. An added pleasure is that Sophie loves religious school and hopefully readers will share in her delight.