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Illustrated by Margot Zemach
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
In a faraway land, on a sunny spring day, the sky was as blue as the sea, and the sea was as blue as they sky, and the earth was green and in love with them both.
This kind of prose always comes as a surprise when I pick up a picture book, a genre in which words are typically chosen for their conciseness. I had assumed - incorrectly - that Margot Zemach was simply adapting an Isaac Bashevis Singer story as a picture book. It didn't occur to me that the Nobel Prize winning author of Enemies, a Love Story and Yentil the Yeshiva Boy was equally well-regarded for his contribution to children's literature, and that he actually wrote picture books.
As far as I can tell, this story springs entirely from Singer's imagination, but it certainly reads like a classic folktale from long ago, beginning with one of my favorite folksy motifs: the wager.
Mazel and Shlimazel - which sounds like something Laverne and Shirley would chant on their way to work - are the names of two spirits, walking unseen through the world of humans, one representing good luck, the other bad luck, and of course they get to arguing about who is more powerful. They decide to test their powers on a young, poor boy.
"What can take you a year to accomplish, I can destroy in one second," boasts Schlimazel.
Mazel, on the other hand, has a full year - an entire year! - to use all of his powers of good luck to turn a poor boy into a great man with riches, with power, with a beautiful princess by his side, the whole deal. Page after page, Singer details all of the great, lucky things which happens to this boy, one triumph begets another, and another, on and on. "Cards and minstrels sand of his deeds. High officials came to him for advice." It seems he could not possibly be more assured of his fortune.
But then, after the lucky year is up, Schlimazel is given exactly one second to destroy absolutely all of it, which he does in an extremely clever and effective manner. I'll leave it to you to find the book and see how he does it.
A part of me kind of wishes that had been the end of the book, that it had ended on such a clever punch line, but it continues on toward a happy ending, in which all is not lost and Mazel is shown to be in the right. Ah well. I kind of wanted Mazel to be taken down a few pegs. I admired Schlimazel's craftiness more than Mazel's altruism.
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
On September 28, 1983, the front page story of the New York Times was the discovery of a new tale by Wilhelm Grimm.
Wilhelm was born in Germany in 1796. He was only 9 years old when he and his brother Jacob began collecting folktales, and was 16 when their first collection was published. Over the next few years, they published many hundreds of found and collected stories.
While they were enjoying their success, the story goes that in 1816 – when Wilhelm would have been 20 – he wrote a letter to a young girl named Mili. Strangely, I couldn’t find anything about who this Mili was. Was her identity intentionally kept private, or is it truly an unknown? Regardless, within the letter was a story he had written. It was not, so far as I can tell, a retelling of a folktale which he had collected, but an original piece from his own imagination.
It begins thus:
The young girl is helped on her return journey by a mysterious young girl who could be her identical twin. They have the same pigtails, the same nightshirt, the same blue ribbons. The doppelganger leads the young girl to the edge of the forest, then points the rest of the way.
All evening they sat happily together. Then they went to bed calmly and cheerfully, and next morning the neighbors found them dead. They had fallen happily asleep, and between them lay Saint Joseph’s rose in full bloom.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
This is a funny one, reads just like a well-told, well-timed joke, building and building until the release of the perfect punchline.
I suppose the subtitle, "A Yiddish Folktale," should have clued me in, but nonetheless, I did not at first realize that this was meant to be a humorous tale. I really thought I was going to be reading an overwrought tale of the suffering of a large Jewish family. The pages are filled with wonderful - yet garish - details, fighting, arguing, bare-bottomed babies toppling bowls. The patriarch of the chaotic family is only ever referred to as a "poor, unfortunate man." He does the only thing he knows to do - go to the rabbi and plead for some holy advice. So far, so desolate.
However, the rabbi's advice is rather peculiar. His solution to the overcrowding seems to be inviting the chickens to live in the house as well!
This does not at first appear to be the best idea in the world. In fact, as one would predict it only adds to the mayhem, and Zemach's chaotic illustrations add to this.
Three times the poor, unfortunate man comes to the rabbi, and three times the rabbi's advice is the same, adding more and more farm animals to the melee.
|"Now with the crying and quarreling, with the honking, clucking,|
and crowing, there are feathers in the soup! Rabbi, it couldn't be worse!"
"Tell me, do you happen to have a goat?"
|And now with goats.|
|And now with cows.|
|"Holy Rabbi, you have made life sweet for me.|
It's so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful... What a pleasure!"
Cue drumroll and cymbal clash. The subtitle of the book is, "A Yiddish folk tale," but I didn't find any more information on the history or age of this particular tale, or how it came to become a part of Margot Zemach's storytelling arsenal, but it seems a real natural story to be adapted visually. Every page is filled with movement and a hundred details, with the final image of the snoozing, slumbering household one of satisfying tranquility.
Illustrated by Susan Gaber
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
This is a Jewish version of the Cinderella story. It does not appear to be based on an actual Jewish folktale, but is an invention of the author, Erica Silverman. However, it does incorporate aspects of the story of Esther and of the Purim celebration.
Indeed, it is the celebration of Purim which serves as the stand-in for the fancy-dress ball. The "prince" in this tale is the son of the village rabbi and the Fairy godmother is a Polish beggar woman.
That is not to suggest that Silverman merely filled in the blanks of the Cinderella tale with Jewish icons to arrive at this telling. There is plenty to distinguish this story on its own terms. First and foremost, the eponymous "riddle" from the title. During the Purim meal (beet soup, roast duck, potato pancakes, noodle pudding) a bevy of young Jewish maidens flirt with the rabbi's son by telling him riddles.
"What has a face but no mouth?"
"Now what is that over my head but under my hat?"
Surely, this is the way to a young man's heart, and Raisel - working in the rabbi's kitchen whilst dressed in rags - also knows a riddle, though she doesn't get the chance to tell it until later that night, after she has helped an old beggar woman who turns out to magic, wishes for a Purim costume and a horse-drawn wagon, and finds herself at the celebration where the young son of the rabbi states with bold impertinence bordering on the scandalous, "In that costume, you are the loveliest Queen Esther here."
What's more precious than rubies, more lasting then gold?
What can never be traded, stolen or sold?
What comes with great effort and takes time, but then -
Once yours, will serve you again and again.