Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, February 25, 2021

One In The Spirit

Building a collection of factual, appealing, and captivating titles regarding world religions and notable leaders and teachers within those religions is challenging.  For readers seeking more knowledge about their faith or curious about the practices of other faiths, selected books offer the best representation by own voices authors and illustrators.  When these authors and illustrators create nonfiction picture books, they do so with an informed perspective.  

Tuesdays are a highlight in the children's literature world with the release of new titles.  On the first Tuesday of this month, two beautiful books, certain to enhance collections in public school libraries and on the bookshelves in Jewish and Christian places of worship, were published.  Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World's First Female Rabbi (an Arthur A. Levine book, Levine Querido, February 2, 2021) written by Sigal Samuel with illustrations by Vali Mintzi chronicles the life and life's work of an inspirational, dedicated, and innovative woman.

Almost five hundred years ago,
when almost everyone believed in
miracles, a baby girl was born in
the Middle East. 

Her name was Osnat.  Her father, Rabbi Samuel Barzani constructed a yeshiva.  Here men were able to study the Torah as often and for as long as they desired.

The little girl was surrounded by books and found herself alone when her father traveled to build more yeshivas in other communities.  She longed to learn how to read but was told daughters were meant for chores.  Rabbi Samuel Barzani had no sons, so he agreed to teach Osnat.

The letters and the words they formed fascinated Osnat as she learned the Torah.  It is said during one of her father's many trips, Osnat befriended a white dove, reading to it.  When it came time for Osnat to marry, her father agreed with her.  Her husband would need to respect her need for study.  Jacob was that man.  After her father's death, Jacob was the head of the yeshiva.  Osnat became the teacher of the students there.  This was the arrangement until Jacob, too, passed away.

Unsure of what to do, Osnat had a dream that night which directed her destiny in assuming leadership of the yeshiva.  In the following years, Osnat revealed again and again her considerable knowledge of the Torah and gift of healing.  On more than one occasion people were witness to inexplicable events in her presence.  This revered and highly respected woman is still remembered.

Author Sigal Samuel skillfully delves into Jewish history for readers.  With careful pacing and presentation of facts gleaned from primary sources and amulets, Osnat Barzani comes alive.  Specific incidents from her youth into adulthood are depicted through text and dialogue.  Each one is a part of a whole culminating in the final sentence, an expression of her shining achievement.  Here is a passage.

At Osnat's yeshiva, the
men called her Tanna'it, a
title given only to the most 
respected teachers.  They 
said she knew the deepest
secrets of the Torah and
that's where her power
came from.

Rabbis from near and
far began sending her
letters.  One called her "my
mother, my rabbi."

On the open dust jacket two different scenes are presented to readers.  In the rich, warm red, orange, and yellow hues a pale blue shade supplies a pleasing contrast on the front, right side.  Osnat is shown with her closest friend, her dove, as she studies and writes.  The dove figures prominently in several occurrences.  The main title text is varnished.  To the left, on the back, on a canvas of muted orange is a circular image.  The setting shows the road to the village of Amadiya, with the village on a high plateau.  It is night with a canine in the foreground.  Blue is used extensively.  This illustration foreshadows a miraculous event.

On the book case and opening and closing endpapers is the pattern of a print in the clothing worn by Osnat throughout the book.  The technique for the visuals is described here.

Val Mintzi painted the artwork for this book with gouache colors in layers.  She started out with a rough pencil sketch of the composition, then moved to a transparent, monochrome layer (red for illustrations of daylight and mauve for those of night), after which she added layers of gouache color.  For the final layer, Vali inserted details with a thin paintbrush; faces, expressions, patterns of carpets and cloth, stars in the depths of night.

On the title page, Osnat as a little girl is carrying a heavy book with her beloved dove perched on the capital D.  Illustrations vary in size from double-page pictures to full-page pictures.  The palette of selected hues elevates the text to one of wonder.  The blend of those colors provides a striking tapestry of people, time, and place.

One of my many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  Moving from the bottom of the gutter to the top of both pages is a large tree trunk with spreading branches in a vibrant combination of green and turquoise.  The leaves appear like a vast collection of small hearts. Five different scenes show the window, the frame and panes painted in turquoise against the yellow color of the house, of Osnat's home, usually open.  In each one, two on the left and three on the right, we see her growing from a little girl into a young woman.  Her dove is always present from their initial meeting to an unbreakable bond.

When you reflect on this woman's accomplishments in their historical context, you can't help but find them amazing.  Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World's First Female Rabbi written by Sigal Samuel with illustrations by Vali Mintzi is a story of dreams realized, dreams in service of a faith and people.  There is an author's note at the end.  I highly recommend this book for your professional and personal collections.

To learn more about Sigal Samuel and Vali Mintzi, please follow the link attached to their names to access their respective websites.  Sigal Samuel has accounts on Facebook and Twitter.  Val Mintzi has an account on Instagram.  Articles about this book, some including interviews, appear in The Times of Israel, the Jewish Book Council, Kveller, and Forward.  Vali Mintzi is interviewed in 2019 at Jewish Books For Kids.  At the publisher's website is a book trailer with Sigal Samuel speaking about the book.  A lot of artwork is showcased.

Five years ago, on February 9, 2016, Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus was published. After reading this book, I stated:

The stories are familiar but the interpretation by John Hendrix in his text and illustrations is extraordinary.

This book

is a beautiful celebration, forged in faith.

In a companion title, Go And Do Likewise! The Parables and Wisdom of Jesus (Abrams Books for Young Readers, February 2, 2021) written and illustrated by John Hendrix, those same assessments are equally true.  Exquisite, highly detailed images pair with stories handed down through the ages.



Jesus's sandals
were always dusty.
Jesus didn't call any one place home.

But he was not alone.  Alongside Jesus were his
students, the twelve disciples.  These men were not
rich or powerful; they were ordinary people.

Jesus had no plan of a place to be and what to say on any given day.  People listened to him where he stood, outside among them and not inside a temple.  Words of wisdom and acts of healing increased his followers.  Those in power inside those temples grew angrier and more frightened.  

One day a rabbi posed question after question to Jesus.  He sought to trick him.  Instead, Jesus taught him the highest definition of neighbor through the story of the Samaritan.  From there Jesus traveled to a higher place, looking out at those gathered.  He spoke to those feeling empty, those showing mercy, those full of sadness, and those striving for peace.  Each of those were blessed.

It was Jesus's desire to continue to teach through story, his parables.  He spoke of using his words like a foundation for a home.  He asked people to not judge by comparing sawdust and a large branch.  He told a tale of a merchant desiring a magnificent pearl likening it to the Kingdom of God.  

One day children prompted him to speak of a shepherd's one hundred sheep and the loss of one.  This closely aligned with his tale of two sons, one loyal to his father, and another who strays but returns.  The anger of the leaders and the teachers from the temples increased listening to Jesus and his lessons.  Toward the end of the book, and the end of Jesus's life, he gathered his disciples to him.  When asked a question by Thomas, he answered with the only direction necessary to know.

What author John Hendrix has done with his retelling of some of the parables of Jesus is to use more contemporary language, connecting with a larger audience.  He also offers short explanations as in this sentence.

A short time later, a Levite, a person who also worked in the temple, came along the road. 

His words in no way diminish the power of these stories but allow that power to envelope readers in a profound sense of calm understanding.  John Hendrix, in his words, focuses on Jesus's mastery of storytelling; his storytelling which drew parallels to those things most easily understood by his listeners.  Here is another passage following one of the parables.

The people looked around in amazement, for
they had never heard something so clear and
sure.  This man taught differently than the chief
priests, who often relied on other's teachings
when they preached.

But Jesus spoke as one with true authority!

When you look at the images shown on the open dust jacket, you are immediately engaged by John Hendrix signature style.  The color palette reflects the setting but also the light found in the parables of Jesus.  Each item, the butterflies, the bird (sparrow or dove?), and the lily refer to stories and symbols found in in the words of Jesus or in Christian teachings.  Readers can see that Jesus is dressed in a similar fashion to those with whom he spoke.  To the left, on the back, an interior image is used.  It is a recreation of The Mount from where Jesus addressed and blessed the crowd.  Even though The Mount is shown as a building with people climbing stairs circling on the outside, Jesus stands in a field of flowers with a dove coming to rest on his outstretched palm.  Certain elements on the dust jacket are varnished on the matte-finished paper.

On the book case, the illustration from the back of the jacket appears on the front.  The entire scene spreads over the spine and to the far-left edge.  The Mount is in the middle of an empty desert, golden and peach clouds layered in the sky.

On the opening and closing endpapers a line of flowers, like those in the field on the top of The Mount, span from left to right.  They continue with a page turn moving toward, left to right across two pages, the title page.  One foot of Jesus is shown as he walks off the far-right side.  On the title page a symbolic image, with few colors, shows Jesus climbing a rocky mountain to a large tree at the top.  A bright golden-orange circular sun rises above other rocky formations.  Most of this is to the left of the gutter.  On the far-right edge is an intricate decorative design.

On the first interior image, on the left, Jesus is seated at the base of that tree.  The first text is placed within the tree.  Every page turn reveals another masterful image imbued with a mix of reality and symbolism.  The intricate hand-lettering often features a scene in the enlarged first letter.  

John Hendrix alternates between full-page pictures, framed panels, insets on a single page, and dramatic two-page illustrations.  Sometimes words in the first phrase or sentence will be amplified and placed on their own page.  The visuals for each parable are distinctive but work together wonderfully.  The final two-page artwork, vertical and requiring readers to turn the book, is stunning.

One of my many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  The main canvas color is golden yellow.  Across the bottom left, and diminishing after crossing the gutter, is a landscape of fantastically colored flora.  Through this is a dot and dash pattern indicating the route of the shepherd.  Above the landscape on the left is a bright red, thorny bush.  Stuck there is sheep number 100.  On the right, the shepherd is briskly walking with his staff.  The sheep, number 100, is now across his back, carefully and tightly clasped in his hands.  That which was lost is now found.

This book, Go And Do Likewise! The Parables and Wisdom of Jesus written and illustrated by John Hendrix, is exemplary in every respect. His Author's Note, a section titled Retelling vs. Translating and Sources at the conclusion of the book are not to be missed.  On the final page John Hendrix talks about the art and the jacket.  I know you will want a copy of this book for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about John Hendrix and his other work, I invite you to access his website by following the link attached to his name.  John Hendrix has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  In a 2019 interview at Redeemed Reader, John Hendrix is interviewed.  At the publisher's website you can view interior pages.

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