I’m up against a thousand deadlines, each breathing a further blazing flame against the back of my neck, but–
This morning I got a call from the Children’s Book Shop that a new book had come in, one I’d been waiting for, and I went in, glanced through it, and immediately bought two copies (not gratuitously– one for me, one for a friend who I decided needed it). Which book prompted this rapid response from me? Bought today, blogged today?
Gittel’s Journey, by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates.
We’ve read about Lesléa Newman here before, and also about Amy June Bates, since they’re the duo who brought the world the amazing Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed. To be perfectly honest, when I read that Amy June Bates would also be doing Gittel’s Journey, I was simultaneously thrilled (“I love her work!”) and nervous (“But this is such a different story– will she suit it?”). Why did I worry? Her work is as adept, and I can give no higher praise, as Trina Schart Hyman’s on Little Red Riding Hood. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence I was reminded of that book: There’s the same painterly style, the same splash of red that pulls Gittel right off the page, and the same windswept grace to the style.
And when we consider the story– well, here let’s pause and talk about the story.
Gittel and her mother have to leave their home, which isn’t safe for them, to journey to America. Leaving much they love behind them, including Gittel’s beloved goat, Frieda, they travel to the shore to board a boat to America, but there they’re stopped– Mama has an eye infection and isn’t allowed to accompany her nine-year-old daughter onto the boat. Gittel must go alone on a long, arduous journey to a distant relative, whose address Mama has written on a piece of paper for her. Gittel bravely goes forward, only to find in America that her terrified grip on this piece of paper has smudged the address until it’s unreadable! A kind interpreter helps her find her cousin, and, ultimately, Mama is able to join her, too. All ends happily– on the surface.
Except that we all know more. If we look to Little Red Riding Hood here, the little girl travels by boat instead of through a forest, but she does meet a wolf, yes. But the wolf in Gittel’s story isn’t any particular person, no. The wolf is the threat of pogroms in the Old Country (Russia, Poland– as Newman makes clear in the excellent backmatter, borders shifted). The wolf is also the health inspector who separates Gittel from her mother. The wolf also rears his head in the threat posed to Gittel, who has no English, at Ellis Island before the kind interpreter appears and saves her, quite literally, from being lost in, if not the woods or the wolf’s belly, a new country with no home and no prospects. The wolf was– and still is– all around for immigrants with few resources available to them. (For a beautiful modern story of immigration to America, check out, I’ve said it before and will say it again, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.)
Like Ketzel— and like Dreamers, for that matter– the story is ultimately hopeful and very beautiful. But unlike them, the wolf is around the corner in every page. My daughter noticed this when she read it alone before I could get to read it to her (the little scamp!). I asked her if she liked it. “Yes,” she said, “it was a very good book. But it was sad.” Coming from the Changeling, that means that something in it worried her. And, after reading it with her, I saw what it was. If I had to guess, if I had to put my finger on one page that made her sad, I’d guess it was the two page spread where on one side you see Mama on Shabbat, holding her candles, and on the other page you see Gittel, weeping over her Mama’s candlesticks: “Candles and candlesticks belonged together just as she and Mama belonged together. Gittel shut her eyes and sang the Sabbath blessing softly to herself. It only made her sadder.” Note that, absent the illustrations, these words lose much of their poignancy: in context, my eyes prickled as I read them aloud to the Changeling, and I held her a little closer.
But, in the end, Gittel prevails over the wolf: she arrives and is brave, and, ultimately, her mother arrives, too. “Come, Mama. […] Let’s go home. The sun is about to set, and it’s time to light the candles for Shabbos.”
I don’t know what else to tell you. The illustrations are exquisite. The story is heartbreaking but beautiful. If you have a heart, you will feel. If you don’t, this is a book which could make you grow one. If I gave starred reviews here, this would get one. I bought two books on an impulse– I knew this book was something special. But after reading this with the Changeling tonight? I know I’ll be getting more. I’m not going to use a word like “timely” here and make reference to current affairs: this book is more than that. It’s history, it’s the present, and we have the power, if we want to make it so, to ensure that we can edit out the wolf for the future.
Please, do me a favour. Call your local bookstore and reserve two copies: one for yourself, and one for a friend or for a donation.