Review: I Am Not Afraid

I Am Not Afraid: Psalm 23 for Bedtime

by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Marta Dorado

Beaming Books, 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Jeff Gottesfeld

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I first encountered Psalm 23 as a boy, reading a paperback World War II memoir I am sure was called "10,000 to 1," about an American B-17 navigator who was shot down and found himself wounded and alone on a Japanese-controlled island. The psalm gave him solace. In I Am Not Afraid, veteran author Sasso uses that famed, powerful, and comforting psalm for a short and simple text that is a variation on its timeless themes. She centers a young girl (Dorado's captivating art has her old enough to be in a regular bed and grown enough to have her toes touch the floor when she sits on the bed, old enough not to cry out instinctually to the mother we see at the book's outset, but young enough to sleep with a stuffed lamb, so...maybe age 10? 11?) who goes to bed, counts sheep, and then is beset by inchoate fear that makes the sheep run away, and her heart pound. Dorado portrays her as non-white, though neither her appearance nor gender is of relevance to Sasso's theme. Ultimately, she finds comfort in her blanket, a sip of cool water, light that penetrate the dark, and her fears dissipate. She hears the quiet voice inside her, saying, "I am here." She is restored. It's a lovely moment of faith. Post-text, Sasso adds an afterword that seems aimed at adults, and some reassuring words for young readers about managing fear.

Dorado's art elevates the book. It's dazzling, from her use of color to the ways that she plays with reality -- having the protagonist clutch her stuffed lamb, on a bed in a field awash in reds and pinks, and where a blanket can meld seamlessly with a countryside. Emotions register not just on the face of the girl, but on her imagined sheep, while shadows become corporeal. The artist goes close up on the girl at the moment of greatest fear, and it is easy feel the shivers that Sasso says she is experiencing. More please, illustrator.

This is a challenging book to evaluate Jewishly. Certainly the credentials and experience of the author are impeccable, and Psalm 23 is obviously part of the Hebrew Bible. It is not a Christian text by origin, though, however much it has been embraced by our Christian friends. From a Jewish children's literature standpoint, I looked carefully through the art. I might be missing something -- it would not be the first time -- but I didn't catch a specifically Jewish textual or visual reference identifying the girl, mother, or family as Jewish. No art in the girl's room, nor a mezuzah on her door. Secondly, when Psalm 23 is reproduced at the end of the text, the translation is the New Revised Standard Version of the National Council of Churches. To her credit, Sasso notes carefully in her Afterword that this NRSV translation from the Hebrew veers from literal -- she quotes a line from the literal translation, and to see the whole thing, I'd refer readers to the indispensable Jewish religious text compendium The twin upshots are that this book can easily be embraced by all the Abrahamic faiths, and that the ease of the ecumenical embrace is deliberate. It's ultimately about a human experience, not a specifically Jewish one.

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Reviewer Jeff Gottesfeld writes for page, stage, and screen. His picture books are The Tree in the Courtyard (2016), a New York Times Best Illustrated Book, No Steps Behind (2020), winner of the Freeman Award for best kids book about Asia and a National Jewish Book-Award runner-up, The Christmas Mitzvah (2021), a Sydney Taylor Award honor book, and Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Candlewick Press, 2021), a Wall Street Journal and Kirkus “Best Book.” His upcoming title is Food for Hope (Creston, May 2, 2023), about the start of the world food bank movement. Born in Manhattan and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, he currently lives in Los Angeles.