Review: Jonah


by Tammar Stein, illustrated by Sabina Hahn

PJ Publishing, 2022

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Dena Bach

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In time for Yom Kippur and its focus on atonement, PJLibrary presents this early chapter book about responsibilities, repentance, and second chances. Based on the Bibical Book of Jonah, read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon, the narrative tackles the tough subject of the consequences of our actions and our obligations to make the world a better place.

Author Tammar Stein begins Jonah’s story in his “classroom” under a tree, grounding the narrative in the child’s world. There Jonah teaches his students about making good choices in their treatment of others. Because of these teachings, God picks Jonah as the best messenger to convince the people of the city of Nineveh to repent their wicked actions. The narrative shows that even a great teacher like Jonah can make wrong choices. When Jonah runs away from his task and is swallowed by the whale, and later when the shading vine dies, Jonah learns the importance of acknowledging mistakes and making amends. Stein’s narrative does fine job modeling the goals of the rituals of Yom Kippur in a child-accessible, age-appropriate way.

Sabina Hahn’s airy, expressive, watercolor illustrations get to the heart of the story. With her deft use of white space, she concentrates the action on Jonah with his brightly colored garb amid the earthy colors of his world. As the story progresses, Hahn switches to all-encompassing full-page illustrations with deep blue-gray hues that engulf Jonah as he is swallowed by the sea, the whale, and then by his guilt for his actions.

As a biblical story, this book fits the Sydney Taylor Book Award criteria for authentic Jewish religious content. Yet it is the positive portrayal of the Jewish values of "teshuva", repentance, and "tikkun olam," repairing the world, that are most skillfully presented. Perhaps a little diversity could have been added in the images of the students, residents of Nineveh, or the sailors, but its lack does not detract from the valuable universal message of the narrative. Though there is no shortage of children’s books that tell the story of the Book of Jonah, many concentrate on the relationship between Jonah and God. Stein’s narrative is centered on the relationships between people, presenting a timely, meaningful addition to this collection. The humor of the narrative can appeal to children. Parents, teachers, and librarians will find the book useful and appropriate for the High Holidays, in addition to the rest of the year.

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Reviewer Dena Bach has a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and an MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons University. She has worked as a fine artist, illustrator, writer, bookkeeper, bookseller, and a teacher of children from ages 2 to14. She is comfortable only when there is a large mountain of children’s books on her bedside table.