Anna and Solomon     I firmly believe that every family has a story that its children need to know, and I love nonfiction picture books that grow from those stories. This delightful book came about when the New Yorker artist, Harry Bliss, finally convinced his mother-in-law to put her family story on paper. It is a beautiful collaboration.

The story itself, as with so many family stories, is simple and not heavy-handed: Solomon moves from Russia (to escape pogroms) and works to bring his wife to the New World, too. But Anna feels an obligation to her extended family and over and over sends other family members in her place. We feel Solomon’s deep love and longing for his wife, and his wife’s strong sense of loving duty. The story ends in a beautiful celebration of family.

Snyder uses page turns brilliantly over and over to build up suspense: will it be Anna getting off the ship this time?

I also admire the adroitness with which the  historical context was handled:

Shortly after Anna and Solomon’s marriage, a calamity befell the Jews of Vitebsk. The ruler of the land, called the Czar, sent his soldiers on horses to the streets where the Jews lived. The soldiers entered their homes, broke their windows and furniture, stole their brass candlesticks, and destroyed their holy books. Solomon decided that he no longer wanted to live in a place where his people were persecuted and harm might come to Anna.

In four sentences, Snyder explains what a pogrom is, shows us how wrenching it is, and makes it clear why Anna later in the book will feel obligated to help rescue her extended family members. This is historical scaffolding at its best.

It’s a heart-warming story and may inspire you to call up your grandma so you can hear the story of your family, too.

Anna & Solomon, by Elaine Snyder, illustrated by Harry Bliss.  Farrar Straus Giroux: 2014.



Deep in the Sahara

We lived in Khartoum, Sudan with our children. We’d lived several places in Europe before that, and I thought i was an experienced expatriate. Sudan, however, stunned me. It was so very, very different from any other place I had ever lived! I watched in surprise as my children fitted themselves comfortably into the rhythms of this strange and lovely place.

Deep in the Sahara is set in a non-specified African country, but to me it screamed, “Sudan!” After the first time I read the book, I immediately turned back to the beginning and read it again. It captures for me the beauty, mystery, and awe of that haunting place.

The story is simple. A young girl wishes she could wear a head scarf like the older women around her. They listen patiently to her–she wants a head scarf so she can be beautiful, mysterious, older. Slowly, in the course of the book, she comes to a new realization of why she wants to wear a head scarf: as an expression of her deepest faith.

Technically, this book isn’t nonfiction, but it deals so sensitively with the question of religion and why women wear headscarves that I think it deserves to be read with nonfiction books about the region and about religion. The “Author’s Note” at the end is excellent at putting the book into cultural context. I wish I’d had this to read over and over to my children when we were in Sudan, but I’m glad it’s here now to pull out as we talk about other people’s faith practices.

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi. Schwartz & Wade: 2013.