Review: Rivka's Presents

Rivka's Presents

by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Adelina Lirius

Random House Studio (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Shirley Reva Vernick

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Rivka, a girl growing up with her (presumably immigrant) family in the tenements of New York City, can’t wait for her first day of school. But since her father is ill from the flu pandemic of 1918, and her mother is forced to go back to work in a factory, she has to stay home to watch her little sister. Hungry to learn, Rivka resourcefully trades chores for reading, arithmetic, and history lessons from her neighbors. When Papa is well again, her "teachers" throw her a party as a send-off to her long-awaited first day at school.

This moving tale blends a family story with accurate historical context to illustrate the importance of family, community, and education. The text, combined with the detailed, realistic illustrations, gently transports readers to Jewish life on the Lower East Side during a particularly challenging chapter of the 20th century. Wallmark cleverly, never didactically, encourages learning and shows how a resilient child can find ways around educational barriers. The result is all heart.

Rivka’s Presents is strongly Jewish. Rivka and her family are living the Jewish immigrant experience that was common to so many of our predecessors. The Jewish values of learning, community, and generosity shine through on each page. We see a menorah in Rivka’s kitchen, smell the challah baking, and hear Yiddish terms of endearment – a full sensory palette of Jewish culture. This story will also resonate with non-Jewish readers because it highlights the universally relatable topics of family, community, school, and transition. Rivka’s Presents is warmly recommended for picture book audiences at home, school, and library.

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Reviewer Shirley Reva Vernick is a children's novelist and picture book author. Her debut novel, The Blood Lie, is a Sydney Taylor honor book and the winner of the Simon Wiesenthal Once Upon A World Book Award. Her latest Jewish-themed MG novel, RIPPED AWAY, was released by Regal House Publishing on February 8, 2022.