Review: If I Swam With Jonah

If I Swam With Jonah

by Pamela Moritz, illustrated by MacKenzie Haley

Apples & Honey Press (imprint of Behrman House Publishing), 2022

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Jeff Gottesfeld

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The story of the minor prophet Jonah, as contained in the biblical Book of Jonah, is in many ways a troubling tale with an ambiguous ending which finds Jonah having learned only modestly from his experience. It's read in synagogues often on Yom Kippur. In IF I SWAM WITH JONAH, author Moritz and illustrator Haley find a nifty way to bring the Jonah story to young children, in a rhyming text that creates a midrash.

Moritz's cleverness is to impart the tale in the first person voice of a boy who talks to his beloved pet about a fish way bigger than the goldfish, the one that swallows Jonah when he did not want to assist the people of Nineveh as God commanded. Wisely omitted is the textual reason for Jonah's reluctance -- that Nineveh was just about the most wicked place on earth. From there, the narrator joins Jonah in the belly of the beast, where Haley's art conceives of the prophet in period dress, with the interior walls of the fish decorated with sea-themed art. The tone is whimsical and fun, and so is Haley's art. Jonah, inspired by the narrator and their experience, declares himself ready for his mission, and returns to dry land with the narrator. The artist works in themes of purple for the fish, and the art is simple and accessible to young kids.

I could easily see this book being read aloud to kids during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and kids being delighted. There's an afterword where Moritz shares her inspiration for the story. Moritz and Haley know the core text, and the Jewish religious content is text-based. This is also a book that will appeal to many Christian families looking for a support text for their Hebrew Bible explorations, or Muslim families exploring the placement of the Jonah (Yūnus) story's placement in the Koran. This overall appeal to the three Abrahamic faiths is rare and noteworthy. It is worthy of Sydney Taylor recognition.

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Reviewer Jeff Gottesfeld writes for page, stage, and screen. He has won awards from the American Library Association, the Association of Jewish Libraries, the Writer’s Guild of America, and the American Alliance for Theater and Education. His current focus is picture book texts for children. His Jewish-themed picture books are The Tree in the Courtyard (Knopf, 2016), illustrated by Peter McCarty, No Steps Behind (Creston, 2020), illustrated by Shiella Witanto, and The Christmas Mitzvah, illustrated by Michelle Agatha (Candlewick, 2021) Born in Manhattan and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, he currently lives in Los Angeles. Visit him at