By GILAH KAHN-HOFFMANN
JPS Illustrated Children's Bible
Retold by Ellen Frankel
Illustrated by Avi Katz
The Jewish Publication Society
'Nice pictures," my 21-year-old son tosses off over his shoulder as he passes the table where I am sitting and leafing through the JPS Illustrated Children's Bible.
Illustrated by Avi Katz and retold by Ellen Frankel, the enticing, realistic images and nearly contemporary language make the greatest story ever told a compelling, relevant read, even for today's kids.
Katz's brush captures the timeless human emotions - the guile, envy, awe, love, fear, anger, humility, pride and passion expressed by the protagonists. And I came up with that list of adjectives as I turned the pages, deliberately allowing the images to conjure the words.
When David stands opposite Goliath, there is dirt on the young boy's knees, and the giant's five o'clock stubble shadow and "come and get me" gesture - like Sarah's delighted, disbelieving expression as she raises her hands to her cheeks and chuckles after hearing the news that at her advanced age she will give birth to a son - drive home the universal essence of the tales.
The universal emotions in the Bible tie humankind to our ancestors and teach us plainly that in the time of togas or hi-tech, robes or robotics, the forces that drive us and the situations we grapple with are but variations on a theme. And children will understand this instinctively, viscerally, when they read this book or have it read to them as they soak up the illustrations.
This children's Bible comprises 53 stories tailored for today's young readers by Jewish storyteller and scholar Ellen Frankel.
The turquoise and emerald greens of the Garden of Eden and the bright colors of the fruit and flowers become the fiery red destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and then give way to the midnight blues of Jacob's Dream. In the story of Adam and Eve, Frankel chooses lines like, "Then God said, 'It is not good for Adam to be alone. I will make a proper partner for him.'" When Abraham pleads with God for the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah the conversation between the two is fluid and easy to follow; and when Jacob awakens from his dream of God's promise that he will be the father of a nation and enjoy His protection, Jacob's simple and clearly phrased response is, "God, if You protect me and care for me on this journey, and return me safely to my father's house, You will be my Godâ€¦"
As the stories move through the Land of Canaan the colors are warm desert hues of browns, golds, beiges and blues. When we reach David and Bathsheba we see passionate purples, deep blues, a shock of orange and pink, and there are more of these colors as we move toward the last story about Daniel in the Lions' Den. Frankel recounts that David sent for Bathsheba and "â€¦ she came to the palace. She stayed with him, and then went back home."
Later, after telling of how David has Bathsheba's husband Uriah sent to the front line, she writes that "God was unhappy with what David had doneâ€¦" The last two sentences, at the conclusion of the story about Daniel's rescue from the lions, read, "God performs miracles and wonders in heaven and on earth. For God saved Daniel from the jaws of lions."
IN AN "Author's Notebook" at the back of the book, Frankel writes that her chief aim in writing the book was to introduce American children to the language and rhythms of the Hebrew Bible. She explains that she based her rendering on the New JPS Translation that three teams of JPS translators adapted over a period of 30 years. They strove to create a faithful version that was also more accessible to the modern reader than the most recent version, published in 1917, that did not differ greatly from the 17th-century classic King James Version.
Needless to say, since she was adapting her translation for children, Frankel takes into account her audience's "reading proficiency, vocabulary, cultural literacy and maturity." She sums up her editing style by noting, "I have tried not to get in the Bible's way. When I do, it is only because I want to be helpful to my young readers."
There have been numerous friendly debates between visual artists and wordsmiths about which is more "important" - the words or the pictures, when we all know that in books and magazines the two are like yin and yang - where the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Naturally, the same is true in this volume, where the amount of time and thought and talent invested by both writer and illustrator is so apparent.
Biblical personages tend to be depicted in a formal, old-fashioned, "pious" style that distances them from us. Katz's characters look like "real" people and their obvious humanity perfectly offsets what Frankel describes as the "colloquial, fluid, almost contemporary NJPS style" in which she has chosen to retell the stories.
I wish the book had been around when my kids were younger. In the meantime, here it is for current and coming generations to enjoy.
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