Ilene Cooper knows children’s books. As the children’s book editor at Booklist — the review journal of the American Library Association — her eyes graze the roughly 5,000 colorful mini-tomes that cross her desk each year as their writers gnaw their nails, hoping for positive reviews.
Cooper empathizes: She’s an author herself, with more than 20 children’s books to her credit. She understands the importance of critical acclaim. So she was particularly excited this month when the Jewish Book Council tapped her book “Jewish Holidays All Year Round” (Harry Abrams in association with the Jewish Museum, 2002) for the coveted National Jewish Book Award for children and young adult literature.
One of Cooper’s close friends is a non-Jewish woman who is raising twins with her Jewish husband. The friend “wanted to be able to understand and share in the important Jewish days and had asked for book recommendations,” Cooper said. “I was thrilled to actually write one that could help her.” The book is dedicated to this family, specifically, although she said it is written with an eye to all “mixed families that want to experience their Jewish heritage.”
Cooper told the Forward that she was “surprised and delighted” by the honor. But while awardees tend to be delighted, few are likely to derive the particular pleasure Cooper has: “To actually be able to use my book on occasions such as Passover has been a thrill”.
“Each publishing season,” Cooper said, “there are several very fine books with Jewish themes, but usually they [are] centered on a particular holiday or more in the categories of folk tales or Bible stories.” They also tend to be catered toward either children or adults.
Cooper’s in-depth treatment of the 13 holidays she has selected — including the Sabbath, Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut — makes the book appealing and informative to a wide audience, of all ages, including those unfamiliar with Jewish holidays. It is equally attractive to families steeped in Jewish culture. A variety of suggested activities accompany each holiday and are equally appropriate for supervised young children and for independent middle-schoolers. Playful and evocative, illustrator Elivia Savadier’s colored pen-and-ink drawings enhance the author’s text and activities.
The author’s favorite chapter is the one on Yom Kippur. Cooper focuses on the concept of forgiveness as she explains the High Holy Day prayers and the story of Jonah. “I wanted young people to have a sense of what it means to ‘miss the mark,’ yet continue striving to do better,” she said.
The suggested activity for Yom Kippur, to start keeping a journal, is particularly appealing to Cooper, who admits that choosing the activities posed the greatest challenge. She credits editor Laaren Brown with coming to her aid for these. There are instructions for a Tisha B’Av kaleidoscope and for growing a sweet-potato plant for Tu B’Shvat.
“Jewish Holidays All Year Round” takes readers on a fascinating cultural tour of unusual Jewish artifacts, photographs and art reproductions from the collection of the Jewish Museum. It’s easy to imagine the conversation among the buyers studying crates of etrogim in a black-and-white photograph by Louis Goldman of a Sukkot market in Tel Aviv. Mae Rockland Tupa’s Chanukah lamp, titled “Miss Liberty,” features mini-Statues of Liberty for candleholders and sits on an eye-catching base decorated with miniature American flags. Captions include visual riddles such as finding all 10 scrolls in a painting celebrating Simchat Torah by Solomon Alexander Hart.
During the book’s formative phase, the 50-something Cooper toured the Jewish Museum with Howard Reeves, publisher of Abrams Books for Young Readers. The displays inspired many of Cooper’s ideas for the book.
“It was also fun,” she said of her museum trips, “to see the excited school groups…. These Jewish children came in all sizes and colors, and I was pleased that [illustrator Elivia Savadier’s] wonderful artwork captures that diversity.”
Perhaps most surprising, she said of the museum’s collection, was the Jewish New Year card from a couple in Nome, Alaska, carved on a walrus tusk. “That people tried so hard to celebrate their religion and their holidays, wherever they were, whatever their circumstances, was inspiring to me,” she said. A reproduction of the walrus-tusk card is one of the treasures that graces the pages of Cooper’s book.
Next fall will see Cooper’s return to children’s fiction, with the publication of “Sam I Am” (Scholastic). “It’s about a boy whose father is Jewish and his mother is not,” Cooper said. “They’ve been sweeping religion under the table, but as the first line of the book puts it, ‘Everything fell apart the day the Hanukkah bush got knocked down.’”
Penny Schwartz is a freelance writer living in Massachusetts.