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.