Jewish Children's Literature

Classic books continue to inspire new generations.

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Modern Jewish children's literature first emerged in America less than 100 years ago, when The Adventures of K'tonton, by Sadie Rose Weilerstein, was published in 1935. Relative to the classics of mainstream children's literature, Jewish children's literature is much younger, having stood the test of decades, not centuries. Despite this newness, there is a robust selection of Jewish children's books that have become classics to several generations of readers.

From the Smallest

Weilerstein's unruly, thumb-sized K'tonton was modeled physically after an S. Y. Agnon character, the tiny Rabbi Gadiel Hatinok. But unlike Agnon's character, who bravely battled anti-Semitism, Weilerstein's is a mischievous Jewish child who leads his loving parents and readers on a merry chase through the Jewish holidays.

K'tonton takes a ride on the chopping knife his mother is using to make gefilte fish for Shabbat dinner; sneaks off to the synagogue at Sukkot and gets swung about on a lulav; goes for a ride on a runaway dreidel during Hanukkah; falls into a bowl of hamentaschen batter on Purim; barely escapes being locked up in the basement with the everyday dishes during Passover; and takes flight on an arrow at a Lag Ba'Omer picnic.

Fantasy abounds in the K'tonton stories, distinguishing them from the stoic bible stories that previously dominated Jewish children's literature. The viewpoint is proudly and affirmatively Jewish. As an old woman in a synagogue says while watching K'tonton, "A wonder child…Even when he runs away, where does he run to? The synagogue!" Today's audience can experience the whimsy of these original stories in The Best of K'tonton (1980).

Holiday Reading

Since K'tonton, a whole host of other books about the holidays have been written for Jewish children. Author Barbara Cohen wrote two beloved classics for young readers, The Carp in the Bathtub (1972), a Passover story, and Molly's Pilgrim (1983), which touches on the similarities between Thanksgiving and Sukkot.

"Could you eat a friend?" is the question that drives The Carp in the Bathtub, when a sister and brother decide that they can't let a carp that they love like a pet become the family's Passover gefilte fish. Set during the Depression, the tongue-in-cheek humor, animated characterization, and compelling story still win the affection of readers.

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Linda R. Silver is the editor of The Jewish Valuesfinder, an online guide to over 1,200 recommended books of Jewish content for children and teens. She is also the author of Jewish Classics for Kids and The Jewish Values Finder: A Guide to Values in Jewish Children's Books.