For my money, the best children’s book — the best Jewish children’s book — is “Where the Wild Things Are,” Maurice Sendak’s gentle hallucination of what we today might call a little boy’s “time out.”
When it was published in 1963, I was 4, and so I absorbed the story of Max’s odyssey with a child’s steady-state belief that the book had always been there. It was only as an adult, when I began giving the book as a gift, that I realized its beginning was not so far from my own.
The story works as myth — that’s a key to its greatness, no less than “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Jack in the Beanstalk.” It begins in mid-action, without exposition: “The night Max wore his wolf suit.” It also works as a coded Jewish folktale: The wild things are Sendak’s immigrant relatives, both loving and grotesque. And it covers time — “And he sailed off through night and day / and in and out of weeks / and almost over a year” — and no time at all in 338 words.
Children’s books continue to be written, both Jewish and general. And children’s books continue to be bought. “Children’s books are holding up the U.S. book market right now,” Kristen McLean, director of new business development at Nielsen Book said in Book Business.
The $28 billion (in 2014) publishing industry is being pulled by the little engine that could, the children’s book market posting double-digit growth between 2012 and 2014, according to Book Business.
As children’s author Daniel Pinkwater puts it, “The children’s department pays the rent on the publishing house.”
Pinkwater is Jewish, but he says he never wanted to be a Jewish children’s book author. He did write about a Yiddish-speaking chicken — “Beautiful Yetta: The Yiddish Chicken” (2010) and a follow up — but, he says in a phone conversation, that “Yetta” is a Yiddish book, not a Jewish book. “If she had spoken French, it would have been a French book.”
Well then, what makes a great children’s book, Jewish, Yiddish or otherwise? Who would know better than the people who write them.
“A great book has to be enjoyable to read,” says Pinkwater, whose many titles include “The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death,” “Fat Men from Space,” “Borgel,” and the picture book “The Big Orange Splot.” When someone saves a book for their own children, “that’s a great book.”
“I used to judge my books by when my kids said, ‘read it again,’” says Judye Groner, who with fellow Rockville resident Madeline Wikler, started Kar-Ben Copies in 1974 when the then-young mothers self-published “My Very Own Haggadah.”
A good children’s book needs to be aware of the era it is being written in, says Groner. She and Wikler sold their company in 2001 to Lerner Publishing. “You want to be contemporary. The Jewish community has changed [since Kar-Ben started] and Jewish children have changed. You want to speak to them.”
Contemporary topics that Jewish children’s book should address include families of mixed religious or ethnic backgrounds and LGBT issues, she says.
Groner still has favorites from her own childhood: “Pat the Bunny,” “Madeline” and “The Poky Little Puppy.” “I still remember my mother reading that 25-cent Golden Book to me over and over and over,” she says.
A good children’s book does what “Wild Things” does: confronts the anxieties of children, she says. And a good Jewish children’s book uses Jewish life is a “central character,” not as an add-on or gimmick.
“One of the best series we did was the Noah series, about a preschooler. It used Jewish life as a backdrop for what he was going through: On Chanukah, he didn’t have the dexterity to turn the dreidel. On Pesach, he didn’t want to eat the charoset, because it was mushy and brown.”
The “Three Bears Celebrate Chanukah” is derivative, she says. “The Runaway Dreidel” is a parody. “It’s imposing something Jewish onto something else. It isn’t authentic.”
Tapping into a child’s imagination
“I have a problem with Maurice Sendak,” Pinkwater says. “Same problem with William Blake,” the 18th century English poet and painter. “I know that Sendak admired me and I admired him. But in certain books, the way he drew the philtrum, the upper lip and nose, gave me the willies. I couldn’t quite dig him.”
Sendak died in 2012.
Pinkwater became a children’s author by accident. He began as an artiste, he says, an illustrator. “Then I became a writer so I’d have something to illustrate and double the money.”
He says he’s made a good living. But children’s books are product now and competition is fierce. So people who fancy themselves as the next Pinkwater or Margaret Wise Brown, author of the sublime “Goodnight Moon,” are advised to not quit their day job. Or at least wait until they retire on a government pension.
That’s the route Leon Weintaub of Potomac took. Late of the diplomatic service, he says he was affected by the death in 2003 of Fred Rogers — Mister Rogers to several generations of children.
“He spoke to kids not like a cartoon and not like ‘Sesame Street,’” he says. “I wanted to figure out how to make the lessons of Mister Rogers live on.”
In a lifetime of travel, Weintraub had seen commonalities between people. “The things they do with their kids, we do with our kids,” he says.
And so he wrote a children’s book about it.
“We’re All Alike and Different,” illustrated by Pritali Joharapurkar, begins with a question: “Do you ever wonder how all the people you know are alike and different at the same time?” After showing those likenesses and differences, seen and unseen, the book ends this way: “But in what we can’t see, I’ll bet we’re all very much alike. What do you think?”
Deborah Bodin Cohen, a local children’s book author and rabbi, had only a short picture-book phase as a child. “I loved ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’” she says. Dr. Seuss books and “Wild Things” are great because they “tap into a child’s imagination and empower them to create their own world.”
“A good children’s book needs to draw children in. It needs to entertain them,” she says. “They fail when they focus too much on teaching a lesson and not on telling a story.”
Among Cohen’s books is the Engineer Ari series of holiday-related stories. Ari runs the train from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Next spring, she will publish “Engineer Arielle,” Ari’s granddaughter, who runs the Jerusalem light rail on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
‘I write the way I want the world to be’
Rachel Packer calls writing a children’s “book a very humbling process.” Packer, an Olney resident and a former regional director for the USY youth movement, says she got the idea for “Sky-High Sukkah,” when her first child was a baby. That daughter is now 15.
In the book, illustrated by Deborah Zemke and published last month, Leah, a girl who lives in a high rise, wishes she could have a sukkah. A sukkah eventually is built on the roof and a non-Jewish neighbor surprises her by decorating the hut.
“I write the way I want the world to be,” Packer says. She based the character Al on a neighbor her family had in Queens when she was growing up. “He helped my dad build a sukkah on our porch. In Haiti he used to build them in the fields to shade them from the sun.”
When she was growing up, there weren’t books with contemporary Jewish characters, she says. “Either they were very religious, or there was no story.”
So what makes a good children’s book?
A good story, says Packer. It’s well written and has believable characters.
To all these I’d add: the language. Deceptively simple, playful, dreamlike, gathered together in a wild rumpus of iambs, mostly. Exactly like this:
The night Max wore his wolf suit
and made mischief of one kind
His mother called him “WILD THING!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
Words that after all these years I can recite by heart.