Quote of the Month

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




Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Through The Door

Many learn of him during religion classes.  His persona grows further when learner becomes teacher.  He was a man, a prophet of power.  He lived thousands of years ago, but still holds a prominent place in religious teachings and celebrations.  He is Elijah.

This year the Jewish spring holiday of Passover begins on March 27, 2021.  It commemorates the Exodus of Jewish people from slavery in ancient Egypt.  In The Passover Guest (Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, January 19, 2021) written by Susan Kusel with illustrations by Sean Rubin, readers step back in time to experience the reverent wonder of this holiday and Elijah's place in it. 

Muriel loved Washington in the springtime.
The white buildings stood out crisply against
the green leaves.  The cherry trees burst into 
pink blossoms at the Tidal Basin.  She could
feel Passover in the air.

This year despite the familiar buildings and signs of spring, Muriel knew Passover would be different.  In 1933 the effects of The Great Depression left everyone scarred.  Her family hardly had enough to eat normally.  This holiday feast would be no different.  They lacked enough wine to fill the traditional cup for Elijah.  (It is believed Elijah visits during the Passover seder.)

In no hurry to get home, Muriel passed the Lincoln Memorial, pausing to look at the President silently sitting.  On the steps of the memorial was a juggler, looking as poor as many others.  As Muriel watched him, he and the objects he juggled transformed.  So stunned by the marvel she witnessed, she stopped to place a single penny, her only penny, in his hat.  After a short conversation, the words of the stranger caused Muriel to rush home.

Passing the sights, sounds, and smells of other families preparing for the Passover seder, Muriel opened the door to her home expecting a feast, but saw only her parents and a bare table.  Turning to open the door again, hoping to enjoy the Passover seder with another family, Muriel stopped.  There was a knocking on their door.  It was the stranger, the juggler.

He asked to join them.  They replied they had nothing.  When Muriel and her parents turned from the man and looked at their room and table again, they were astonished.  They did not believe it was real.  Even though the man assured them it was, Muriel ran to the home of the rabbi. Of all the ensuing moments, the most telling was the discovery of the disappearance of the stranger.  As to his identity, a single glass told the truth.


With her words, author Susan Kusel invites us on a miraculous journey.  She takes us to a memorable year, a remarkable city, and a notable day.  Our sensory perceptions on this first day of Passover, in our nation's capital and in the year 1933 are heightened by Muriel's encounter with the stranger, the juggler.  There is an atmosphere of expectation carefully built sentence by sentence through the narrative and the conversations by the characters.  The story envelopes us, bringing us to the final three thoughts.  These thoughts are certain to supply readers with the certain knowledge they have witnessed an extraordinary event.  Here is a passage.

She told him about 
their mysterious guest
and how a magnificent 
feast had appeared from
nowhere.
"If you can pour the wine and
break the matzah, then what 
you have described is a true
miracle," said the rabbi.  "Can
you show me your seder?"


The rich hues of blue blend beautifully with the golden yellow and vibrant green on the open dust jacket.  On the front, right, we see the amazed looks on Muriel's and her parent's faces as they gaze at the stranger.  This stranger's stance lets them, and the reader know something marvelous is about to happen.  The tails of his coat extend over the spine to ribbon along the bottom of the back, left, side.  Slightly off center and to the left, light glimmers through a curtained window.  A blue cat stares from the outside at the room. (This cat appears throughout the book.)  Along the top and right portions of this dust jacket, we notice small swirls of pink and white representing the cherry blossoms.  The title text is varnished.

On the book case in an array of lighter blue hues we look down upon the Passover seder with the guests enjoying the feast.  Serving dishes and glasses filled with food and drink signify this remarkable celebration.  Readers will enjoy every element and its meaning in this scene.

On the opening and closing endpapers is a glorious spread of cherry blossoms.  A few twining tree trunks and branches reach from the bottom of the artwork.  On one of the branches, the blue cat is stretched and resting.  Several sparrows are perched there also.  With a page turn, at the beginning, we view a double page picture focusing on the Washington Monument, the Pool, the Capital dome, and in the lower right-hand corner, a cluster of shacks supply housing for the poverty-stricken Americans.  In the Pool other elements are reflected.  Perhaps they are a promise of events to come.

Rendered 

with graphite on Bristol board with digital color and additional line work in Adobe Photoshop 

by illustrator Sean Rubin, these images speak with excellence to a singular time and place.  Each double-page picture elevates the story, but also expands our view of this day.  There are other stories entwined in this narrative, just as it is in real life.

Light and shadow work wonderfully with the color palette to evoke a sense of deep respect, joy, and mystery along with the hardships being endured by the people.  When you look at the faces on the people, the days of their lives are evident in each line.  We see ourselves in their expressed moods and emotions.  

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is inside the Lincoln Memorial.  The colors are gleaming in the shades of light we find at the end of a sunny day.  Our perspective is as if we are seated with President Lincoln on the left.  We get a view of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument and the dome of the Capital in the distance through the pillars.  Although there are three other people shown at the memorial, our attention is on the stranger and Muriel as she places the single penny in his hat.  They are on the right side of this picture.  At this exact moment, even without reading the words, we know something has shifted.


This book, The Passover Guest written by Susan Kusel with illustrations by Sean Rubin, is a gift to all readers regardless of their beliefs.  It is a tribute to those who observe this holiday and for those who do not it provides understanding.  Readers will enjoy and appreciate A Note from the Author, A Note from the Artist, A Note on the Passover Holiday, and the Author's Acknowledgments.  I highly recommend this title for your professional and personal collections.

To learn more about Susan Kusel and Sean Rubin and their other work, please follow the link attached to their name to access their respective websites.  Susan Kusel has accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.  Sean Rubin has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  Susan Kusel is highlighted at The Soaring '20s.  Susan Kusel is interviewed at Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb and Jewish Books For KidsBoth Susan Kusel and Sean Rubin are guests at Elizabeth Bird's A Fuse #8 Production, and Matthew Winner's The Children's Book Podcast.  The cover reveal for the book is hosted by Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes.  Both creators are interviewed there.  At Penguin Random House you can view the opening endpapers.  There are several events in the near future at Hooray for Books! and Aaron's Books with Susan and Sean reading their book.

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