If, as the Haggadah tells us, there are four types of children — wise, wicked, simple and oblivious — then there are two types of Passover children’s books. There are simple books, which give a straight rendition of the Passover story. These usually revolve around a family with an inquisitive child who does not know what is going on, but who gets a thorough explanation. The illustrations are simple and cheery. These books are unpretentious, and often fun.
And then, for the wise, or precocious, child, there are the ambitious books. (There aren’t many books for the wicked or oblivious.) These set the Passover story within a historical Jewish context, or embroider it with elaborate midrash. The pictures aspire to fine art — illuminations, not illustrations. Like the wise child, these books can be brilliant. Or, they can be a little much.
This year’s crop of Passover publications offers one of each kind. “Shlemiel Crooks” (NewSouth Books, 2005) is the ambitious type. The basic story: In St. Louis, circa 1919, two thieves try to steal a shipment of kosher wine. Their horse wakes the neighbors, and the thieves run away, leaving behind the wine, the horse and the cart. From this, author Anna Olswanger concocts a baroque tale, whipping in a midrash about Jews carrying grapes out of Egypt, an eternal rivalry between Pharaoh and Elijah, a talmudic disputation, even a talking horse. She tells the tale in a Yiddish-inflected dialect, with elaborate curses and mangled syntax. The illustrations, by Paula Goodman Koz, portray the gritty streets and tenements of St. Louis, rags and all, in a somber palette of blues and browns.
Alas, it doesn’t always work. The would-be Yiddishisms (“You don’t have to thank me”; “Onions should grow in their navels”) are more patronizing than folksy — and rarely funny. The plot is so elaborate, with so many diversions, that we never come to know the characters. The illustrations skillfully evoke old St. Louis, but they, too, keep the book’s characters at a distance.
By contrast, “Max’s 4 Questions” (published in February by Grosset & Dunlap) is charmingly unambitious. Max is young boy whose family is getting ready for Passover. A curious lad, he wants to know what’s going on, but the family is too busy to explain. (He apparently doesn’t remember Passover from a year earlier.) Relatives arrive, the Seder starts and Max — and the reader — gets the full story on Passover.
The writing, by Bonnie Bader, is brisk and occasionally funny, but Bryan Hendrix’s illustrations are the real treat. They are classics of the storybook style, with loopy, genial family members and chaotic slapstick. In the end, all is well — Max gets an explanation, and the reader gets a bonus: a Seder table to decorate with Passover stickers. Stickers may not be precocious, but as any child (and a few honest adults) will tell you, they are fun. Sometimes it pays to keep it simple.