Ellen Frankel, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society, has labored for the better part of her career to make Jewish traditional texts more palatable to a general audience. The new “JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible” — a hybrid of JPS’s modern translation, along with Frankel’s reinterpretations of words and phrases that were archaic, awkward or weird — is clean and precise. From the first sentence, it’s clear we’re reading a translation that’s both old-school and vibrant: “In the very beginning, God created a world — the heavens and the earth — out of nothing. But this world was without rhyme or reason.”
Granted, translating tohu vavohu — which some authorities define as mystical energies, and others translate as “formless and emptiness”— into the simple phrase “rhyme and reason” is oversimplifying the case. But the rhythm stays intact, and on a comprehension level it works. We might not know exactly what God’s talking about, but we don’t know it in Hebrew, either. And it communicates the sensation, as well as a certain old-world charm, in expressing that degree of the unknown.
But the problem with the book lies in the art, and it’s not even a problem — it’s just not done in a style that kids will enjoy.
Many figures, especially background people, animals and scenery, are penciled in and half-finished. Others are simply boring. The cover, of Noah lazily herding sheep onto his ark, is a prime example: Any animal in the world could be represented, and we get calm sheep and trotting donkeys?
Even the more colorful illustrations don’t illuminate the stories or catch the casual reader’s attention. The Golden Calf is neither frightening nor impressive; it’s just some guy in robes standing next to a yellow cow. In the picture of Moses as a shepherd, the sheep are white blurs.
The most successful illustrations — a mighty Goliath with a childlike David cowering below him; the ghostly apparitions of the ministering angels and the Witch of Endor’s conjurings — are those that push the boundaries of reality the most.
The layout, too, doesn’t do the narrative many favors. Pages of text feel dense with too many words; others are nearly bare, with only a tiny illustration in the center.
Still, most of the book’s customers will not be children. JPS knows this; the book has a frontispiece with space for a recipient’s name and dedication that makes it perfect for birthdays and bar mitzvahs. It’s an indication of how this book was probably conceived: not for children, but for what adults think children want to read.
As far as reluctant readers go, Frankel’s storytelling captures the hearts of these stories. The Torah has remarkable techniques for setting scenes and crackling dialogue, much of which, in other Bibles, gets lost in a sea of thees and thous. Frankel clips the exact right parts in her retellings, communicating the essence of the story without getting clogged with details.
As an adult — and someone who doesn’t always understand the original text — the “Illustrated Children’s Bible” works exceedingly well for me. It’s simple and direct. The illustrations serve as a visual CliffsNotes, depicting the main point of a story that I already should know. When I glanced at the story of King David’s marriage and saw a woman bathing as a man watched from a few rooftops over, I remembered — aha! David spied on Bathsheva, then sent off her husband to be killed in war.
In the greatest picture books, from illuminated manuscripts to “Goodnight Moon,” the art takes the story and one-ups it. Here, the design shouts a halfhearted “amen.” With JPS’s innovation in other areas — witness its recent comic version of “Megillat Esther” — it seems a shame that the “Illustrated Children’s Bible” has lost sight of what really attracts kids.
Matthue Roth is the author, most recently, of the Russian-immigrant geek epic novel “Losers” (Push, 2008). He’s also the co-founder and educational director of the weekly animated Web series www.g-dcast.com.