A feast for the eyes

Several Jewish children's books raise the bar on illustration and content.

With a passion for children's books so deep that for over a decade an attack of the blues could always be assuaged by a visit to my favorite second-hand bookstores to find treasures for my sons, it's no wonder that I was drawn to the pile on the literary editor's perennially book-laden desk. The topmost eye-catcher was the inky-blue book jacket depicting a multi-media visual medley inspired by Marc Chagall. The arrangement includes a corrugated cardboard shtetl, Shabbat candles, golden onion-shaped domes and the artist with a palette, in place of the fiddler, touching the full moon. Loosely based on Marc Chagall's autobiography, Bimba Landmann of Milan created 17 exquisite and enchanting collages based on the life of the poet-painter. Using cardboard, dried flowers, scraps of cloth and fur and fluff, Landmann brings her vision of Chagall's inner world to life. A feast for the eyes and a penetrating look at the joys and tribulations of one of the 20th century's most significant painters. Peeking from beneath I Am Marc Chagall was a book featuring a fanciful zebra with the provocative word "Lama" (Why?) emblazoned in Hebrew above its head. Written and illustrated by Lila Prap (aka Lilijana Praprotnik Zupanc of Slovenia) and translated into Hebrew by Ephraim Sidon, this charming volume (available in Hebrew and English) encourages children to both invent their own answers to queries about animal anatomy and to create their own animal species. Why? asks: Why do hyenas laugh? Why do zebras have stripes? And poses similar questions about kangaroos, whales, camels and crocodiles, among others. Each fancifully illustrated spread provides three or four humorous explanations and one clear, concise and expert response. On the pages depicting a camel, we learn that the fat in a camel's humps helps the beast survive when food is hard to find, and that a camel can drink up to 136 liters of water at one pit stop. In addition, we are treated to the following possible answers as to why camels have humps: because they refused to sit up straight when they were young; to confuse would-be camel riders; due to a mistake in assembly, etc. The synthesis of nonsense and straightforward information is in no way patronizing. This book relates to the child in a personal way as an intelligent being and is a pleasure to page through. Both funny and informative - a delight. THE MUSCLE man holding a scroll aloft looked intriguing. Izzy Hagbah is another story. A modern-day legend set in Brooklyn, the realistic tale has a magical twist of an ending, complete with letters from the Torah dancing and swirling Kabbala-fashion to the heavens. Izzy is an intimidating mountain of a man. A loner, he introduces himself to a bewildered Jewish congregation announcing: "I'm Izzy, I do hagbah" and demands the right to fulfill the mitzva. And hagbah he does, lifting the Torah "as though it were made of feathers" and spreading it so wide that you could see "nine columns, almost 10 columns." Surprisingly complex, it tells the story of how a sofer chose his profession, while referring to Jewish congregational life in one New York neighborhood, the value of fulfilling even only one mitzva, the need for tolerance and the tendency to forgo kindness because of fear. Warm, touching and a trifle heavy-handed (no pun intended). Cute, appealing illustrations and a curious title - LeMachshavot Yesh Einaim (Thoughts Have Eyes) - drew me to another book. In Dalia Bar-El's sweet story for preschoolers, a little boy and his mother decide that "thoughts have eyes," as the little boy realizes that even when he lowers his eyelids he can "see" things that have already happened and events he wishes would be. The rhyming text moves from visions of memories from a child's daily life - friends in kindergarten, rain and rainbows, grandmother's kisses - to a fantasy world of flying horses and children and umbrella-toting butterflies. Next he visualizes himself as "king of the castle" before concluding with satisfaction that not everything can be explained.