Among Intergalactic Afikoman’s newest picture books is I Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope & Joy, written by Freda Lekowicz and illustrated by Siona Benjamin. It tells the story of the song “Hava Nagila,” from its birth as a niggun (melody without words) in Ukraine, to Jerusalem, to when it received its name and lyrics (though exactly from whom is still a mystery), and its journey around the world to popularity well beyond the Jewish community.
Hava Nagila means “Come and Rejoice,” explains the book, and this story – told by the song herself, personified as a blue-skinned Indian-Jewish girl in a sari – is full of movement and colour. It boldly celebrates the diversity of the Jewish people and our culture.
“For me, Hava’s story is a story of universality and multiculturalism,” Benjamin, who grew up as a Bene Israel Jew in India, writes at the end of the book. “Universality is always born from the specifics. The specifics for me are my Jewishness, my Indianness and my Americanness.
“Many blue-skinned characters populate my paintings,” she continues. “Hava is blue because blue is the colour of the sky and the ocean. Blue is the colour of the globe. Blue is also such a Jewish colour. It’s in the tallit. It’s in the tzitzit. It’s in the Israeli flag.”
Montreal-born Lekowicz also connects personally with the story. She shares that her parents, after the Holocaust, were in a displaced persons camp in Germany. “Like other Holocaust survivors,” she writes, “they were broken and in mourning. Yet the joyful sounds of Hava Nagila sometimes echoed in the camp. ‘Let us celebrate,’ it urged. The song symbolized hope and resilience.”
This lovely and imaginative book does joyous justice to this well-known song.
I review a lot of books for the Jewish Independent. Over the years, that has included many children’s books. I do my best in these instances but, as much as I like to let my inner child run free occasionally and as much as I’d one day like to create a children’s book or two, I’m a grown-up. What do I really know about how enjoyable the single-digit-age set will find a publication? Well, for my latest two reviews, I turned to a couple of experts for advice.
With COVID-19 causing the shutdown of schools, my youngest nieces – Fae, 8, and Charlotte, 6 – were suddenly available to be put to work. With their parents’ blessing, nay, encouragement, I scanned and emailed them two recent books published by Intergalactic Afikoman (see jewishindependent.ca/new-publisher-set-to-launch). The assignment was to read Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space by Brianna Caplan Sayres and illustrator Merrill Rainey and Such a Library! A Yiddish Folktale Re-imagined by Jill Ross Nadler and illustrator Esther van den Berg. As my nieces were new to the reviewing world, I gave them a handful of questions to answer: What did you like about the books? What did you not like? What did you learn? Would you recommend the books to your friends?
Their mother, Deborah Weiss, sent me summaries of their answers, as well as Fae’s handwritten responses – I’d asked her to be the family’s scribe for the job.
They started with Asteroid Goldberg, which features Asteroid and her parents on their way home from Pluto for the Passover seder. When the family gets to earth’s orbit, they are not allowed to land (for an unstated reason), so they must make alternate seder plans on the fly (pun intended). A few of Jupiter’s moons for kneidl, a piece of Saturn’s rings for matzah, the Milky Way as their pantry. Who to invite? Family members close by, including Grandma Luna, who was biking on Venus, and Uncle Cosmos, who was hiking on Mars. When they come to the Mah Nishtanah, Asteroid asks, “What makes this night so different?” to which the answer is “Everything!” Caplan Sayres couldn’t have known how relevant her Passover story would be this year.
Both Fae and Charlotte loved the story and the artwork. Even though Charlotte found it a bit too long, Fae recommended it for kids 7 and under.
“I like this book because it was a rhyming book and because it had lots of play-along words,” wrote Fae, who explained to her mom that “play-along words are words with multiple meanings.”
As for lessons learned, Fae “did not learn anything.” However, her sister, who can be a pistol, said she learned that one should “never go on a rocket before Passover.”
As for their mom’s thoughts, Deb said, “I really liked this book. As we get ready for a Passover that will be very different this year, I loved reading about a family that had to change their Passover plans and still had lots of fun and found new ways to celebrate. This really resonated with me!”
Deb and the girls also enjoyed Such a Library! “I thought this was a really clever and imaginative take on a well-known folktale,” said Deb, who noted, “Both girls liked the funny text, the story and the artwork. We also liked the clever name of the librarian.”
In Such a Library!, Stevie heads to the public library to read his book – “With three brothers, two sisters and a baby at home, Stevie’s house was never quiet.” As he starts to read, though, he hears pages turning, computer keys tapping. He tiptoes to the librarian, Miss Understood, and says, “This library is too noisy.” He tells her, “It’s like a party in here.” Thinking that a party sounds like a wonderful idea, she opens a book: “Hundreds of colourful balloons flew from the pages, followed by party hats and horns.”
Each time Stevie goes to Miss Understood to complain, she opens another book and the library becomes a zoo, then a circus, as the characters jump out of the pages of the books she opens and take over the library. Only once the characters are all returned to their books can Stevie enjoy reading his, to the relatively quiet sounds of the pages turning, computer keys tapping.
Such a Library! is an interpretation of the Yiddish folktale about a man who thinks that his small house is too crowded with his wife and many children. The rabbi recommends that the man also bring into the house the family’s cow, chickens, goats, geese and ducks. When the man can’t take it anymore, the rabbi tells him to kick out all the animals, after which, the small house seems quite big and spacious.
Fae would recommend Such a Library!, once again, to kids age 7 and under, while Charlotte really liked it and would recommend it to anyone.
As for what the girls learned, Deb said, quoting Charlotte, “We learned that, if you’re looking for a quiet place to read, to not to go to the library when it’s full of acrobats!”
Intergalactic Afikoman publishing house is the brainchild of children’s author and educator Brianna Caplan Sayres. (image from Intergalactic Afikoman)
A new Jewish children’s publisher is set to launch in Seattle. The brainchild of children’s author and educator Brianna Caplan Sayres, Intergalactic Afikoman will officially release its first book on Feb. 11.
Sayres is a fourth-generation Seattleite. Her bestselling series Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Illustrated by Christian Slade and published by Random House, Sayres said the series was inspired by a question from her then-2-year-old (who just celebrated his bar mitzvah) about where dump trucks sleep at night.
Her latest children’s books explore territory far from earth. Night Night, Curiosity (Charlesbridge), illustrated by Ryan O’Rourke, is about a young girl who imagines herself on board the rover Curiosity as it explores the planet Mars. Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space, illustrated by Merrill Rainey, is one of the books to be published by Intergalactic Afikoman. In this story, a young Jewish girl gets stuck in outer space for Passover, so she plans a celestial seder.
Sayres is a graduate of Brandeis University in Massachusetts and an award-winning Jewish educator – recipient of the 2016 Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
“I realized that I had a vision for what I wanted to see in Jewish children’s books,” she said about why she decided to establish the new publishing house. “One day, I sat down at my computer and a mission statement just started pouring out of me.”
Her vision includes publishing genres that are not frequently seen in the Jewish book world, including fantasy. She also wants Intergalactic Afikoman to be known for publishing humorous books – “The word zany often comes to mind,” she said.
However, the primary goal of Intergalactic Afikoman is “readability,” she said. “We are aiming to publish books that children re-read again and again.”
Of the name Intergalactic Afikoman, Sayres said it “really says a lot about our company in that it is a fun and unique name and we are a fun and unique Jewish children’s publisher.”
She added that the word “intergalactic” also “signifies the out-of-this-world quality we are going for with every one of our books – from the text to the illustrations, it all has to be absolutely stellar,” she said.
Aside from Asteroid Goldberg, Intergalactic Afikoman will be releasing Such a Library! A Yiddish Folktale Re-Imagined, written by Jill Ross Nadler and illustrated by Esther van den Berg. “Both of these books exemplify the type of fun, humorous and unique books that Intergalactic Afikoman is aiming to publish and both of them feature illustrations that are absolutely out of this world,” said Sayres.
“Make sure to look closely at Such A Library! A Yiddish Folktale Re-Imagined,” she added. “There are so many wonderful and funny details hidden in Esther’s illustrations.”
In addition to publishing these two books, Sayres said, “Intergalactic Afikoman is planning to do our own small part to help fight hunger by donating 10% of the net profits from each book sold to Northwest Harvest, Washington state’s own statewide hunger relief agency whose vision is ending hunger in Washington.” She explained that this commitment embodies the principle of feeding the hungry that is a fundamental element of the Passover seder.
Sayres, who has deep roots in Seattle, said she is “thrilled that our publishing company is based in Seattle, which is a literary hub of the Pacific Northwest, with many wonderful independent bookstores, an incredible children’s writing community and a thriving literary community.”
She said she is also “very happy to let the world know that, yes, there are Jews in Seattle.”
Sayres intends to publish just a few books a year to start and will be looking for both picture books and middle-grade novels from writers and illustrators from around the world.
“Our goal is to publish the absolutely best quality of Jewish children’s literature, so we are eager to consider all submissions,” she said, pointing out that one of Intergalactic Afikoman’s upcoming books is I Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope and Joy by Freda Lewkowicz, who is from Quebec
“Of course, we would be thrilled to publish children’s authors from the wonderful Vancouver writing community,” she said.
Sayres also is looking forward to teaching a session at this year’s Limmud Vancouver, which takes place Feb. 29-March 1 at Congregation Beth Israel. For more on the class and the full LimmudVan schedule, visit limmudvancouver.ca.
David J. Litvakis a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.