Torah Stories for Young Children

Modeh Ani: A Good Morning Book coverBIBLE SERIES
adapted by Alison Greengard
and illustrated by Carol Racklin-Siegel
EKS Publishing Company, 2003

adapted by Sarah Gershman
with illustrations by Kristina Swarner
EKS Publishing Company, 2010

adapted by Sarah Gershman
with illustrations by Kristina Swarner
EKS Publishing Company, 2007

In The Beginning coverAlison Greengard and Carol Racklin-Siegel’s series of Bible stories is a thoughtfully laid-out reading experience, but one that also comes with limitations. This series beautifully presents stories excerpted from the Bible, but the deeper themes and meanings are not very accessible for a young audience.

The Hebrew and English text are presented in parallel on pages opposite vibrant pictures. Each story is prefaced by an introduction, which summarizes and situates the story historically, and followed by an English literal translation, along with a complete glossary of every Hebrew word in the text.

My first impression, based on the picture book style and text layout, was that these books are for young children (three to five). However, the simplified, mostly literal translation does not allow for the elements that make children’s picture books most engaging—word play and strong, simple narrative. The nature of the original text makes for a difficult transition to a successful children’s book. One of these difficulties is the rapid progress of time and events in just a few verses. I found In the Beginning to be the most successful book for the very young, in part because this excerpt covers only the seven days of the Creation story and the repeated phrase, “It was evening and it was morning,” provided a rhythm for reading.

Since the series focuses on using simplified language that honors the original, as opposed to additional poetic, interpretive, or playful language, it may be challenging for young children to follow the arc of each story. Although my almost five-year-old daughter very willingly listened to the whole series, our post-reading conversations showed less comprehension than I expected, even with stories that she already knew well. The starkness of the language did not inspire connections with her previous knowledge or capture her curious imagination.

Noah's Ark coverThe language combined with the intensity of the biblical themes makes these books more appropriate for older readers (six to ten), especially if supplemented by discussion with adults to provide age-appropriate context. These are the stories that Jewish scholars have discussed and debated at length for our entire history, and a parent who does not already have thoughts about the context and how these stories can be woven into their family’s practice and understanding of Judaism may feel somewhat at sea. I certainly had this feeling as I read them with my daughter. A parent needs preparation to tackle discussing the implications of the Flood and the worldwide destruction it caused, the havoc wrecked upon Egyptians by the plagues, or what it means to take an individual stand against entrenched power as the midwives Shifrah and Puah did.

The stories are illustrated with full color reproductions of silk paintings. The richly colored pictures do enhance the story and may help to engage a younger audience’s attention. My daughter’s favorite book was Noah’s Ark; she enjoyed the pictures of the animals, and over a few readings, was able to connect the book with her prior knowledge. Overall, I believe her attentiveness while being read these books was due to her ability to follow something of a narrative arc via the simple visuals.

This series is best for early Hebrew learners of at least six years old, or adults learning Hebrew, who will benefit from the simplified translation and glossary. I can see using them in a year or two when my daughter and I start Hebrew lessons together.

In contrast, The Bedtime Sh’ma: A Good Night Book and Modeh Ani: A Good Morning Book, both adapted by Sarah Gershman with illustrations by Kristina Swarner and also published by EKS, are lyrical and engaging books for both the youngest listeners and early readers.

The Bedtime Sh'ma: A Good Night Book coverBoth books include the text of the prayers’ excerpts in both Hebrew and English for the edification of the adult reader. However, the young listener will experience the essence of the prayers through simple, evocative language, such as “It is time to sleep, but I am not alone. Wonder is at my right. Tomorrow will be filled with new adventures.” The text is brought to life with Swarner’s expressive and beautiful non-gender-specific illustrations of a child engaged in familiar activities. I enjoyed the rhythm of these books, and found that altering the God language to the words that our family uses (Ha’Shem or Spirit of the Universe) did not disrupt that rhythm.

Gershman’s two books are beautiful distillations of the prayers that bookend the day and appropriate for ages five and under. Reading these together is a way to create special morning and evening rituals grounded in Jewish practice.


One thought on “Torah Stories for Young Children

  1. Why are you selling Jewish children a bunch of Jewish myths of origin that were never true? Israeli archeology confirms all the Torah stories are bunk, never happened. What sort of education will Jewish children get by being told lies that are also used as political mandates for killing people? It’s immoral to do that. Why are you doing it?

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