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The Beauty of Jewish Board Books By Nancy Churnin

"Encouraging the publication of more Jewish board books by spreading the word of new Jewish board books is one of the best gifts you can give our kids."

 Small, but mighty. Board books, aimed at toddlers – can have a powerful effect on a child's language, social and emotional development.

Jewish board books in particular can provide a valuable opportunity to provide windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors that nourish Jewish and non-Jewish children alike at that all important time in their lives when they are learning words, concepts, pride, inclusion, empathy and a sense of community.

And yet, new board books can be hard to find. Part of the problem is the cost of production. These books with their hard covers and thick pages designed for rough toddler hands are more expensive to produce than picture books.

But because they are aimed at our youngest children, parents and educators expect to pay less. That leaves a thin profit margin. That's why many publishers choose not to have them on their lists.

I discovered this first-hand when I went on a search to find and team up with authors and illustrators with new Jewish board books debuting in 2023. I looked and looked and looked…and ended up with a small handful of fellow board book creators. But like the board books we have created, we are small but mighty – rich in diversity and passion for the importance of writing for ages 0-3.

Dr. Shoshana Silberman, author of the upcoming board book, My Family Haggadah (illustrated by Hiroe Nakata, Kar-Ben Publishing), is a consultant at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia.

"Board books may seem simple," Dr. Silberman notes. "But if written well, they can convey so much. Reading board books with Jewish words or themes lets children intuit that this is an important part of your family life."

Author and illustrator Ann Koffsky introduces kids to the Hebrew word Shalom and its three meanings – hello, goodbye and peace – in Sheep Says Shalom? (Green Bean Books) in 2023. She also has a series of Jewish board books coming out from Apples & Honey Press, four of which focus on objects: My Mezuzah, My Shofar, My Dreidel and My Matzah.

"The idea behind each of these," Koffsky notes, "is to introduce a Jewish object in a kid-friendly and accessible way."

This is no small thing in a world where we want to encourage Jewish children to feel pride in Jewish objects that are part of our traditions and non-Jewish children to appreciate the beauty and comprehend the meaning of items they may see at the homes of their Jewish friends.

As with Koffsky's books about objects, Pippa's Passover Plate by Vivian Kirkfield (illustrated by Jill Weber, Holiday House) focuses on a seder plate. But her gentle, rhyming book also touches on social emotional elements as her small mouse faces and overcomes fears to search for her missing plate in time for the holiday celebration, only to find unexpected help from kind animal friends.

Pippa's Passover Plate was initially a popular picture book and PJ Library selection. It will be released as a board book next year. For Kirkfield, this new incarnation of Pippa's journey marks a thrilling return to delighting the hearts and filling the minds of the ages she taught many years ago as a preschool educator.

"Books are windows that introduce the world to children, and mirrors that help build self-image," Kirkfield says. "Recent brain research indicates that birth to age three are the most important years in a child's development."

My own first board book, Counting on Shabbat (illustrated by Petronela Dostaleva, Kar-Ben Publishing) also tells a social emotional learning story of kindness, but as part of a short, rhyming tale of Shabbat and counting. An elderly person is alone on Shabbat in a tale that begins with "One table draped in white."

Things brighten when we get to "Five knocking on the door" and a diverse family enters, bringing cheer. The story, I hope, will inspire children and families to reach out to seniors that would welcome their company on Shabbat, on other holidays and every day of the year.

Board books offer an opportunity to represent the diversity of Jewish culture. Sarah Aroeste is a leader in writing irresistible board books from Kar-Ben Publishing that center Sephardic families and culture. From Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom (illustrated by Ayesha L. Rubio) to her upcoming Mazal Bueno (illustrated by Taia Morley), she makes it clear, in her words, that "Sephardic culture is part of Jewish culture, not apart from it. We need to normalize Jewish diversity right at the start."

Author and illustrator Varda Livney is passionate about representing diversity in her board books, too. "I am a white mom of black kids," Livney says. " It is crucial to me for my kids (and all kids) to be seen and to see others as a natural part of the Jewish landscape. That needs to be instilled from babyhood."

Livney says you can expect her books to feature kids of color in them. "Unless it's a book with only bunnies," she says, pointing out that bunnies, not kids, are the stars of her upcoming board book, Challah! (PJ Publishing).

"Then they might be blue, green or pink."

We are indeed lucky to have wonderful, diverse Jewish board books for our toddlers on their way -- some rhyming, some not, some with stories, some focusing on concepts and objects. The sad part is that there are only a handful of Jewish board books coming out in 2023.

While our small but mighty Jewish Board Book group loves the idea of parents and teachers reading our books to children over and over, we dream of seeing more published for our children going forward.

It's understandable that publishers are reluctant to publish board books, and especially Jewish board books, because the market for Jewish board books is a fraction of the already slim market for board books in general. But if we work together as a community, we can enlarge that market.We hope you'll recommend to your libraries and schools that they purchase, review and share board books widely. Encouraging the publication of more Jewish board books by spreading the word of new Jewish board books is one of the best gifts you can give our kids.

Want to know more about our board book creators and how to write and illustrate your own? Check out our virtual SCBWI-Israel Zoom webinar, Building Bountiful Board Books with Five Awesome Creators, offered free to SCBWI members and for a nominal fee to others, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. Israel time:

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Saturday, 22 June 2024

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