By Penny Schwartz
BOSTON (JTA) – Sparkling stars and the light of the full harvest moon comfort a young boy and his older sister as they fall asleep in their family sukkah.
That’s a scene in “Night Lights,” an endearing new illustrated children’s book by Barbara Diamond Goldin, one of the country’s most highly acclaimed Jewish children’s book authors.
It’s one of four new engaging books for kids to usher in the Jewish New Year at a time when holiday traditions are being upended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Having to deal with quarantine and perhaps school at home, families can take pleasure turning the pages of these crisp new reads.
“Night Lights” was published originally 25 years ago. The characters of the mother and sister are featured more prominently in the new shorter, refreshed text, Diamond Goldin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a phone conversation. Amberin Huq’s brightly colored illustrations are new, too.
This year’s crop of newcomers also features the latest in the popular Sammy Spider series that has delighted kids for years.
Earlier this year, the Rosh Hashanah middle grade novel “Rachel’s Roses,” by Ferida Wolff and illustrated by Margeaux Lucas, was named a notable middle grade novel in this year’s Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish children’s books. The heartwarming immigrant story, set in the early 20th century, is perfect for ages 7 to 10.
Rosh Hashanah begins on the night of Sept. 18. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starts on the evening of Sept. 27.
Up next is Sukkot, the seven-day fall harvest festival, when Jews build small huts at their homes to recall the ancient Israelites who wandered through the desert for 40 years after the exodus from Egypt. The fall holidays wrap up with the celebration of Simchat Torah, when the cycle of reading the Torah begins anew.
A holiday with ancient roots, Sukkot resonates with many issues of the day, Diamond Goldin observed, from its environmental and nature themes to a reminder of the plight of those who live in temporary shelters today, including refugees, a point she makes in her author’s note.
“Sammy Spider’s First Book of Prayers”
Sylvia A. Rouss; illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn
Kar-Ben Publishing; ages 3 to 8
Young kids are introduced to daily prayers like the Shema for going to sleep, to blessings for Shabbat and special occasions. Each blessing, explained in lively rhyming verse from the point of view of the friendly Sammy Spider, is written in Hebrew, transliteration and a simple English translation. The blessings recited over Shabbat candles, wine and challah are perfect for Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year on Shabbat. Kids will enjoy spotting Sammy Spider dangling from his web on the brightly colored pages that embellish the book.
“Hillel Builds a House”
Shoshana Lepon; illustrated by Angeles Ruiz
Kar-Ben Publishing; ages 4-8
Meet Hillel, an enterprising young boy who loves building houses — in trees and even under the basement stairs. But on Jewish holidays, his inventive houses seem to get in everyone’s way. Finally, as Sukkot approaches, Hillel finds his groove. In his orange overalls, standing on a ladder, Hillel is gleeful as he helps his family build a sukkah, where they will eat their meals for seven days.
“’Sukkot means hammers and nails and branches and fruits and lots of decorations,’” Hillel said happily.
“Night Lights: A Sukkot Story”
Barbara Diamond Goldin; illustrated by Amberin Huq
Kar-Ben Publishing; ages 4-8
At the beginning of Sukkot, a young boy named Daniel and his older sister, Naomi, get ready to camp out overnight in the family sukkah for the first time without their grandpa, who has a cold. Readers will soon figure out that Daniel is a little anxious. There’s no electricity, his sister teases him, so he can’t have his night light. He brings his teddy bear, but in the shadows, Daniel imagines scary faces in the squashes that hang as decorations.
As the night grows darker, Naomi realizes she needs a little reassurance, too. Looking up through the sukkah’s branches, the siblings see the glow of the star-filled sky and the bright full moon that coincides with Sukkot. Maybe their ancestors did have night lights in the desert, after all.
The sweet story will strike a chord with many kids who fear the dark. Amberin Huq’s expressive illustrations glow with the golden hues of fall and glisten with the lights of the night.
“Worse and Worse on Noah’s Ark”
Leslie Kimmelman; illustrated by Vivian Mineker
Apples & Honey Press; ages 4 to 8
In this upbeat spin on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, award-winning author Leslie Kimmelman infuses a kid-friendly Jewish sense of humor. The story imagines how bad things can get when Noah and his family shelter through 40 days of the biblical flood in the ark’s crowded quarters along with pairs of all their animal friends. The story of Noah is read aloud from the Torah in the synagogue two weeks after Simchat Torah.
In “Worse and Worse,” the animals get seasick, peacocks bicker with the zebras and the skunks make quite a stink. As the troubles amass, Noah’s wife and sons complain, “Could things get any worse?” — a refrain that kids can repeat page after page.
Just when readers think the kvetching will never stop, Noah gets the crew working together to fix a leak that threatens them all. They begin to cooperate and care for each other.
Kids will dive in to Mineker’s cartoon-like illustrations of zebras, parrots, growling lions and sloths hanging upside down. An author’s note prompts conversation about empathy.