So, I’m inspired by my 2nd grader who is studying immigration, but probably more so by his wonderful teacher and the creative ways she is introducing this topic to her class. As I looked at her book box of immigration stories for the kids, I was surprised by how few Jewish titles she had. Now, some were in the hands of happy children, but it did make me think, what are the best Jewish immigration picture books? So, here’s the list:
The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff is probably my favorite for the Ellis Island experience. Rachel and her cousin Grisha have made it to Ellis Island, along with Rachel’s family. While horsing around (see, kids in the olden days did that too!), Rachel knocks into Grisha and causes his eye to get scratched. Wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that a damaged eye earns Grisha the scary white chalk mark on his coat, the sign that he won’t be admitted to the United States and will have to go back home. Luckily, Rachel is a plucky heroine who saves the day with some quick thinking. Great for 7-9 year olds.
I’m sure I’ve written about Mendel’s Accordion by Heidi Smith Hyde elsewhere. Beautifully illustrated, it tells the story of Mendel from Melnitze who is a Klezmer player. When things get bad, Mendel leaves Melnitze with old his accordion. Everywhere he goes, Mendel makes friends and makes music. Mendel eventually has children in New York, and it’s his grandson Sam who finds his accordion one day and learns to play again. A simple (no Cossacks!) immigration story, with a lovely intergenerational feel, not to mention the accordion! For fans of Mendel’s Accordion, there is now Feivel’s Flying Horses by the same author and illustrator team. This time taking place at Coney Island, it’s a lovely quiet choice, though some will see sadness in the fact that Feivel has to go to America without his wife and children. Luckily, at the end of the story they are reunited! (Mendel’s Accordion is great for 4-6 year olds; Feivel is better for 6 & 7s.)
When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest is beautiful and really quite perfect. Jessie is chosen to come to America by the rabbi of her small village. Sadly, it means leaving her beloved grandmother. Luckily, in addition to settling in with her extended family and proving herself to be a great lace maker, she falls in love with Lou. She waits until finally she has enough money to send for her grandmother, before agreeing to marry Lou. Sigh. (great for 7-9 year olds)
I want to talk about Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen. This book parallels the story of French artist Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s creation of the Statue of Liberty, with the story of a Jewish family immigrating to America. The story goes back and forth between the two “stories,” finally coming together nicely at exactly the point when you’d expect them to come together. Throughout the story of the family though, Gitl, the young girl, is concern about finding the right American name. What does she decide on? Liberty! (But you can call her Libby.) (Good for older readers 8-10 years old.)