Review: Beni's Tiny Tales: Around the Year in Jewish Holidays

Beni's Tiny Tales: Around the Year in Jewish Holidays

written and illustrated by Jane Breskin Zalben

Christy Ottaviano Books (imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Arlene Schenker

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It’s clear from the Author’s Note that writing this latest Beni book during the pandemic was a labor of love for Jane Breskin Zalben. The first book in this series about a family of anthropomorphic Jewish bears was published 35 years ago and the last 25 years ago. 

The book is not a picture book as we think of picture books today. It is reminiscent of the ‘treasuries’ that were popular a couple of generations ago, and is similar in that regard to Zalben’s Beni’s Family Treasury, a compilation of five Beni classic holiday books. This new treasury is 140 pages long, chock full of short stories (one for each of the ten included holidays), crafts, holiday music, recipes, etc. An explanation of each holiday precedes the “tiny tale.” There is also an extensive three-page glossary at the back of the book.

The book is charmingly illustrated by Zalben with the same depictions of Beni’s family as in the original versions. Beni, however, is now a dad, and we are introduced to his wife, Emma, and children, Penny and Milo. Playful cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are still featured. All gather together for each holiday as one big, loving family to share food, fun and a heart-warming Jewish way of life.

The only exception to the high-spirited family gathering comes at Hanukkah when a winter storm is brewing, and the family must settle for a virtual get-together! Beni saves the day by organizing a latke fry-off in everyone’s separate kitchens, and a virtual gift hunt. Other references to the present time come in  illustrations of non-traditional gender roles: a (bear) woman reading Torah, and Beni baking a round Rosh Hashanah challah at home while mom Emma goes off to work. But the love and joy are ever-present, and one feels that those will never fade.

As you can guess, food is a major character in the book. Passover gets the most attention with eight recipes. The Passover section also offers an illustrated seder plate; the Four Questions; Dayenu and other songs; and a list, with explanations, of the ten plagues.

Not just a storybook, but a cookbook, a craft book, a song book, and a mini-haggadah, Beni’s Tiny Tales can well stand alone or be a treasured addition to a Beni book library for a lucky child.

The Jewish content is integral to the book. A gay cousin, mention of Indigenous Peoples in a maple syruping story, and an overview of tree-planting customs around the world add some diversity. The book is clearly intended for Jewish children and families, and the food and customs are Ashkenazic, as Zalben writes from her own childhood experiences with Judaism. The book is a strong contender for the Sydney Taylor award.

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Reviewer Arlene Schenker has a degree in Child Development from Cornell University and a Juris Doctor from New York University Law School. She has worked as a New York City primary grade teacher, a lawyer, divorce mediator, and a community activist and volunteer. She now spends most of her time reading and writing picture books.


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