A Read Aloud Round Up: Passover Books for Children

4 Apr

Jews celebrate Passover by reading aloud from the Haggadah, a book whose name literally translates as “the telling” or “the narration.”  This is the story we tell, a story that has been passed down from generation to generation, of our people’s liberation from bondage in Egypt and the beginning of our long journey to freedom.

It is not an easy story. It is bloody and full of death. G-d punishes the Egyptians brutally and allows the Jews to escape. There are swarms of bugs, dead beasts, a bloody river, and slain children. It is a story that many find troubling–a vengeful god who favors one people over another and who leaves horrible destruction in the wake of liberation. Others find the triumph of the underdog inspiring. We share it around the dinner table, with old and young alike, skipping none of the gory details in order to get to the glorious ending. Part of the tradition is to stop and question, to discuss, to weave our own experiences and observations into the telling.

Jonathan Safron Foer has said that the trick in telling the Passover story is to find a balance between justice and mercy. This resonates for me because I believe that the Passover story shows us the best and worst of what humans can be, no matter what religion. Moreover, the Haggadah gives us a moment each year when we pause to consider social justice, equality, mercy, and what humans have done (and continue to do) to each other in the name of religion.  We tell our story and remember that we are the stories we tell, and that we can choose how we tell the story, how we live it, and how adopt it as our own legacy.

When Culture Sprout was old enough to listen, I struggled with how to approach the potentially scary moments with her. Fortunately, I had the help of a wonderful children’s bookseller at a local Judaica shop and of the PJ Library, a program that provides free books to Jewish children.

Here is a sample of our favorites:

Only Nine Chairs: A Tall Tale for Passover (by Deborah U. Miller, ills. by Karen Ostrove, Kar-Ben Publishing, 1982 ): What to do when you have 18 guests coming for Passover and only nine chairs? This story in rhyme is a funny trek through the imagination of a child awaiting the arrival of holiday guests: “We have plenty of silverware, Glasses and dishes. Enough food for seconds, the house smells delicious.  For all of those guests, we have seating for nine, will some have to stand while others recline?”  Miller’s rhymes are silly enough for a three-year old and inventive enough to entertain a seven-year old. Ostrove’s illustrations brim with humor and glee.   We truly never tire of this book.

Let My People Go! (by Tilda Balsley, ills. by Ilene Richard, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2008) is another perennial favorite. Moses is commanded by G-d to go to the Pharoah and demand the Jews’ freedom. He does and with each of Pharoahs refusals, the Egyptians are visited by another plague.  The text is color-coded so that children at a seder can present it as a play, complete with a narrator, a chorus, Moses, Pharaoh, and Egyptians.   Repetition compels here. Each time Moses says “Our G-d says “Let my people go!”, the narrator follows with “And Pharaoh shouted, “No, No, No.” Children love to fill in Pharoah’s response.  Richard’s illustrations show how awful it is to be attached by flies or have a river run with blood, but they are done with enough humor to prevent nightmares.  This book is a perfect introduction to the story of Passover, and the harsh blow of the plagues. It ends with the Jews leaving Egypt, providing a great starting point for family conversations.

The Mouse in the Matzah Factory (by Francine Medoff, ills. by Nicole in den Bosch, Kar-Ben Publishing,2003) beautifully explains the rabbinical laws that govern the making of kosher-for-Passover matzah. Through the eyes of a mouse, we learn that wheat destined for matzah is watched from the reaping through the milling through delivery to the bakery. The making of matzah requires strict adherence to rules about how long flour can be in contact with water and how long the bread may be baked. These are all the questions to which I didn’t have an answer. The little mouse who follows the wheat to find out fills us in. Reminiscent of Stuart Little, he is a charming guide.

Need more ideas?

Try:

Too Many Cooks: A Passover Parable by Edie Stoltz Zolkower and Shauna Mooney Kawasaki (Kar-Ben, 2000), a sweet tale about what happens when too many people meddle in Bubbie’s charoset.

P is for Passover by Tanya Lee Stone, ills. by Margeaux Lucas (Price Stern Sloan, 2003), a great primer for the basic elements of the holiday and its rituals.

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