A Children’s Bible That Appeals More to Adults Than to Kids

By Matthue Roth

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.”

Called Out: An illustration of Queen Esther telling her husband, the king, that Haman is evil and an enemy of her people, the Jews.
JPS
Called Out: An illustration of Queen Esther telling her husband, the king, that Haman is evil and an enemy of her people, the Jews.

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.