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May 24 2013

Friday Night: What Would Lyle Do?

By at 11:26 am

Lyl, Lyle CrocodileBernard Waber died last week at the age of 91. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for you, then you need to go straight to your local library and pick up one of many beautifully-illustrated kid’s books about a happy crocodile living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with the humans Mr. and Mrs. Primm and their son, Joshua.

Waber was the author and illustrator of the sweet and lovely Lyle the Crocodile books. He wrote over 30 books for children in total, including one of my personal favorites, Ira Sleeps Over, in which a little boy debates whether or not to bring his teddy bear to his friend Reggie’s house for a sleepover (“Will he laugh at me?”).

All of Waber’s work was touched not only by exceptional illustrations, but also by insight. Waber was graced with the talent to truly see into the hearts of children, and to communicate their needs and wishes through the unlikely prism of a brownstone-dwelling crocodile. Waber’s talent lay in the way he conveyed important lessons about empathy, love and goodness in a way that comes across as genuine rather than preachy. Today’s moralistic kid books, in comparison, mostly have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Anyone with more than one child would serve themselves well to get a copy of Waber’s Lyle and the Birthday Party.” In this book, Joshua is having a birthday party and Lyle finds himself swept up in a bitter tide of unexpected jealousy.  In fact, Lyle is so mad about all the attention being paid to Joshua rather than him that he steps on one of Joshua’s gifts and breaks it – and genuinely doesn’t know whether he did it by accident or on purpose. I’ve never read a book that conveyed so well the pull of the tide of envy, or how those who are jealous sometimes genuinely don’t want to be, and hate it that they find themselves so upset.  Isn’t that a great lesson for adults as well as children?

In fact, all of Waber’s books have something to teach adults as well as kids. The New York Times obituary for Waber singled out Lovable Lyle as worthy of note for its subtle and smart take on bullying and prejudice. Lyle is shocked to learn that someone “hates” him, and he doesn’t know why. “Down with crocodiles,” someone writes on a fence near his house, and sends him anonymous letters telling him they hate him.

“Well, Lyle,” Mrs. Primm tells Lyle, “it seems no matter how much we may think we want to, it isn’t always possible to please everyone, or be liked by everyone.”

I could use that lesson myself, personally. In recent days, I’ve been troubled by someone who seems to harbor an irrational dislike of me. Maybe we’d all be well-served to ask ourselves, “What would Lyle do?” In the book, Lyle continues to go about his life as his friendly, super-nice self—and in fact ends up changing the mind of the “hater”  and her mother (the source of the hate) when he rescues her at the beach.  “Be yourself,” Waber implicitly teaches, “and everything else will work out accordingly.” – something I’ve always believed.

Maybe it isn’t something I’ve ‘always’ believed – maybe my viewpoint on this and other topics was formed by the imaginary kindnesses of an Upper East Side crocodile. My mother and father read Waber’s books to me as a child, I read them to my sons, and now I read them to my daughter.

In reading and re-reading them to me, my parents implicitly taught me that Lyle and Bernard Waber had something to say, and something that was relevant to the way that I should live my life. And I hope to teach the same lesson to my children.

In Hebrew, the saying is “L’dor va dor” – from generation to generation, we pass down our values and traditions. While this is usually meant to refer to more explicitly Jewish rituals, I’d say it means our values as well – our beliefs in being the best people we can be, with our actions exemplifying empathy, kindness and gratitude.

There is another relevant Jewish saying: “Teach the child the way he ought to go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I think of that as I light candles on Friday night, as my sons sing the prayers, my daughter puts the coins in the tzedakah box, and my other daughter looks on — and as I re-read, for the one billionth time, the stories of the happy reptile on East 88th Street.

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May 14 2013

Are Bible Stories Way Too Aggressive for Kids?

By at 3:39 pm
daniel in the lion's den

Daniel in the lion’s den.

Living in a predominantly non-Jewish environment, we make a conscious effort to cultivate our kids’ Jewish identities. So I bought a couple of Bible storybooks, wanting to give my kids the main highlights of biblical narrative.

While I love Torah study and recognize that every word is ripe with meaning, I now see how the “juicy” parts of biblical narrative are difficult to digest. And when we cozy up on the couch at bedtime, I am confronted with page after page of troubling tales. There’s the fratricide of Cain and Abel, the slavery and the killing of the firstborn child in Egypt, Samson murdering his aggressors and committing suicide in the Samson and Delilah narrative, and of course, a Prophet Daniel and his brush with death in the Lion’s den (spoiler alert: he comes out alive). Night after night I find myself sanitizing these stories, glossing over the violent acts that are hard for me to swallow.  Read the rest of this entry →

Apr 18 2013

PJ Library Corner: The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street

By at 10:51 am

the cats on ben yehuda streetIf you’ve ever visited Israel, you may have noticed that one thing the small country definitely does not lack is cats. And while this may pose a problem if you, like me, are allergic to anything with fur (or pollen or hay or grass or dust or melon; yes, I’m a mess), cat lovers will find themselves right at home.

Little cat lovers will love The Cats on Ben Yehuda Streeta picture book that gives kids a taste of Jerusalem through the story of its cats. Featuring Mr. Modiano, the curmudgeonly owner of a fish shop who hates cats, and Mrs. Spiegel, his customer and owner of a little gray cat, Ketzie, the book tells the story of an unlikely friendship, of both the human and feline variety.

The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street is just one of the great Jewish kids books sent out by PJ Library this month. If you’d like to get free books delivered right to your home every month, be sure to sign up for PJ Library today. If you live in the New York metro area, you can sign up directly through Kveller here. If you live elsewhere, check out this map to find a PJ community near you.

Sign up for free books from PJ Library today.

Mar 15 2013

Free Stuff Alert: The Longest Night by Laurel Snyder

By at 10:46 am

the longest night by laurel snyderYou’ve read the interview, now enter the contest!

We’re giving away a copy of Laurel Snyder’s new Passover picture book, The Longest NightA beautiful retelling of the Passover story through the eyes of a young Jewish girl, The Longest Night offers young kids a poetic and accessible look into the story of Passover.

To enter, fill out the form below. We’ll choose a winner next Wednesday, March 20th. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

**The Longest Night is a PJ Library book, as well as Snyder’s previous children’s book, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be KosherTo get great Jewish books like these for free every month, sign up for PJ Library. If you’re in the New York metro area, sign up through Kveller here. If you live elsewhere, check out this map to find your local PJ community.**

PJ Library Corner: Interview with Laurel Snyder, Author of The Longest Night

By at 9:39 am

the longest night laurel snyderOne of the most unique Passover children’s books we’ve seen yet is the new picture book from Laurel Snyder, The Longest Night. Like many books of the sort, it retells the story of Exodus, but it’s told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl. And where other kids books may skip or doll up some of the more violent/sad parts of the Passover story, Snyder stays pretty true to the script. It makes for a compelling read, and we were lucky enough to sit down with Laurel and ask her a few questions.

**The Longest Night is a PJ Library book, as well as Snyder’s previous children’s book, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be KosherTo get great Jewish books like these for free every month, sign up for PJ Library. If you’re in the New York metro area, sign up through Kveller here. If you live elsewhere, check out this map to find your local PJ community.**

It seems like the plagues get a lot of attention when it comes to celebrating Passover with kids, but they’re usually cutesied upplague finger puppets, plague masks, plague bowling set, etc. The plagues in your book are decidedly not cute (no offense). Why did you choose to present a more realistic view of the plagues, and do those cutesy products mentioned above bother you?

Honestly, there’s something fascinating about taking the gruesome and making it playful. I’m not offended at all. But we should ask what we’re trying to accomplish when we do that. Read the rest of this entry →

Feb 13 2013

PJ Library Corner: The Best Books for Purim

By at 1:56 pm

sammy spider's first purim

Purim is a week and half away (starting on February 23rd) and if you’re looking for more ways to pump your kids up for this joyous holiday (besides costumes and noisemakers) there are some great books out there that we recommend.

All of these books are PJ Library books, meaning you can get them FOR FREE, along with other fantastic Jewish children’s books, every month. If you live in New York, you can sign up for PJ Library through Kveller by clicking here. For everyone else, you can find your local community here.

But enough with that shpiel (get it?). Onto the books!

1. Sammy Spider’s First Purimwritten by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherin Janus Kahn

The Shapiro family is getting ready for Purim. Josh is making a grogger to take to the synagogue Megillah reading. Sammy Spider wants to participate, but as Sammy’s mother reminds him, “Spiders don’t celebrate holidays; spiders spin webs.” This time Sammy’s curiosity gets him stuck inside a grogger, spinning noisily among the beans. How will he escape? Ages 5 and up. Read the rest of this entry →

Feb 5 2013

Free Stuff Alert: The Purim Superhero Picture Book

By at 4:20 pm

the purim superheroLast month, we co-sponsored the launch of The Purim Superhero by Elizabeth Kushner, winner of Keshet’s National Book-Writing Contest. The picture book is the first ever LGBT-inclusive Jewish kids’ book published in English, and it tells the super cute story of a little boy named Nate.

Nate has a Purim dilemma. He loves aliens and really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes and he wants to fit in. What will he do? With the help of his two dads he makes a surprising decision. Read the rest of this entry →

Jan 24 2013

Why I Won’t Be Reading the Giving Tree on Tu Bishvat

By at 4:05 pm

the giving tree shel silverstein tu bishvatTwo months prior to my birth, according to the date on the inside cover in my mother’s handwriting, my parents received a copy of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. A gift that, based on an unscientific survey of people in my demographic, was a very popular birth gift in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

When I was growing up, Tu Bishvat included an annual reading of The Giving Tree. It was a tradition that I dreaded. A rather unpopular reaction at the time and one that I learned to keep to myself. After all, it takes a certain kind of crazy to publicly decry a beloved children’s book. Although I wasn’t yet able to articulate it, there was something about the relationship between the boy and the tree that greatly troubled me. Read the rest of this entry →

Jan 16 2013

We Proudly Present: The Purim Superhero

By at 9:50 am

the purim superhero

As you may have guessed, we’re huge fans of Jewish children’s books, which is why we were very excited to co-sponsor the launch of The Purim Superhero, the first LGBT-inclusive Jewish children’s book in English!

This book, written by Elisabeth Kushner and illustrated by Mike Byrne, was the winner of Keshet’s National Book-Writing Contest, and we couldn’t be happier to finally see it released from Kar-Ben Publishing.

So what’s it all about? Read the rest of this entry →

May 8 2012

What Maurice Sendak Taught Me

By at 12:48 pm

maurice sendak where the wild things areThere are so many things to say about Maurice Sendak, the incredible children’s writer and illustrator who died today at 83 years old. In the famous book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote that the most truly magical works of children’s literature were the ones that allowed children to face their terrors and fears through symbolism. Sendak was a master of this–and not only for children.

Facebook feeds will surely be full up today with status message tributes to Sendak’s legacy. Read the rest of this entry →


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