Review: Passover: A Celebration of Freedom

Passover: A Celebration of Freedom

by Bonnie Bader, illustrated by Joanie Stone

Big Golden Books (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Karen Shakman

The Passover story is one filled with drama and intrigue, and Bonnie Bader does the story justice in her new retelling: Passover: A Celebration of Freedom. In the spirit of the Golden Books, it is a fairly traditional and loyal retelling of the story of Moses and the Jewish people’s escape from Egypt, with iconic imagery of baby Moses in the basket, the burning bush, and the parting of the Red Sea.

Bader deftly captures the highlights of the story and has great instincts for the elements that are of most interest to children who may be hearing it for the first time, or for children who are familiar with the story. Perhaps the most exciting spread of the book is when Bader covers six of the plagues, building tension as we move from itchy lice to the slaying of the first born. When we turn the page, we are greeted with a gorgeous image of Moses, staff in hand, standing before the Red Sea, with all the Israelites behind him, fading into distant mountains. This image is like a sigh of relief after the build up of the plagues in the preceding pages.

The illustrations are full of rich hues that are really a pleasure to view, reminiscent of the colors of spring. Particularly affecting are the colors in contrast, such as the swirls of red and blue as the Nile turns to blood or the deep blues as the Red Sea parts. There are also several playful elements, such as a load of frogs hopping across the page. They do have a digital feel to them, reminding one a bit of Disney animation, but are likely to appeal to children.

This book joins the pantheon of Passover retellings, and would be something parents might read to their children in the lead up to the seder or even at the seder itself, as it covers all the key elements of the story and prepares the children to understand the rituals in the Haggadah. For non-Jewish children, it also offers a succinct telling of the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt in simple language and pleasing imagery and would be a valuable teaching tool for Jewish and non-Jewish families alike. It is worth noting that, in many homes, Jews now add an orange to the seder plate to represent modern Jewish efforts toward greater inclusivity. In light of how common these oranges have become, I did take note that the seder plate in this text does not include any citrus. However, that is a small observation regarding what is, otherwise, a text that many families might appreciate as a faithful and accessible retelling of the Passover story.

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Reviewer Karen Shakman lives in Cambridge, MA where she teaches middle school and writes books for children and young adults. She was a member of the PJ Library’s inaugural group of emerging Jewish picture book writers’ at Highlights Foundation in summer 2022, and was a participant in Grub Street’s Novel Generator and Novel Incubator programs. This is her first review for the Sydney Taylor Shmooze.