Review: The Passover Mouse

The Passover Mouse by Joy Nelkin Wieder, illustrated by Shahar Kober

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Gigi Perlman Pagliarulo

An esoteric yet entertaining Talmudic conundrum is this basis for this lively, insightful and ultimately uplifting Passover story. Lonely widow Rivka has just finished fastidiously sweeping her home clean of chometz when a mischievous mouse steals a piece of bread from the pile of crumbs to be burnt and escapes. Thus ensues a wild and silly chase across the village and through houses, worrying frustrated villagers that there is ever more hidden chometz in their homes to clean before sundown. The wise town Rabbi consults the Talmud and returns a characteristically cryptic answer: “the matter is not decided,” so the townspeople must clean their homes once again to be sure. As they band together to clean and cook for the Seder, a sense of community spirit, forgiveness and togetherness draws all to Rivka’s usually empty home to celebrate Passover in friendship and company.

Wieder’s brisk pacing and humorous storyline merge well with Kober’s satisfying, earth-toned illustrations which manage at once to be both painterly and adorable. Big-eyed human characters in typical shtetl dress are shown with a wide range of skin tones, while the naughty mouse is portrayed with a hilariously knowing expression. The clever repetition of the refrains “A mouse! A mouse! Brought bread into our house,” and “Now we’ll have to search for chometz yet again,” bring a folkloric tone to the story, adding instant familiarity and read-aloud appeal. Helpful backmatter includes an author’s note on the story’s Talmudic origins and a glossary of the Hebrew and Yiddish words used in the text.

The Passover Mouse could certainly be a Sydney Taylor Award or Honor contender. The content is strong and authentic to modes of Eastern European Jewish storytelling, with a tale that has both cumulative and repetitive elements and a recognizable, shtetl setting. The plot itself, based on principles of Jewish law which could seem arcane, is deftly rendered with a light enough touch to include humor, brevity and inspiration for modern times, with a surprise ending indicative of the treasured Jewish value of feeding the hungry. Illustrator Kober’s choice to include villagers with an array of skin tones is timely and welcome and refreshing, adding another layer of thoughtfulness and quality. This is a well-rounded, accessible and enjoyable book that could easily become a perennial Passover favorite in many households and perhaps even an award-winner as well.

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Reviewer Gigi Perlman Pagliarulo is a librarian for the Denver Public Library. She is especially interested in youth services, early literacy, and issues of diversity and multiculturalism within children's literature and programming, has served on the steering committee of Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy, and the CLEL Bell Picture Book Award Selection Committee.