Rivka’s Presents

  • Review
By – August 8, 2023

Because of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, books set dur­ing the 1918 world­wide out­break of influen­za seem more rel­e­vant than ever. In Lau­rie Wall­mark and Adeli­na Lirius’s new pic­ture book, a Jew­ish child liv­ing on the Low­er East Side of New York City finds her life turned upside down by this cat­a­stro­phe. Due to her father’s ill­ness with the flu, Riv­ka is unable to attend school. With her moth­er work­ing in a shirt­waist fac­to­ry, Riv­ka must be avail­able to care for her younger sis­ter Miri­am. But the adapt­able Riv­ka is not dis­cour­aged by her cir­cum­stances. She is deter­mined to learn through oth­er means, even if she has to ini­ti­ate them her­self. Her sto­ry reflects both the dif­fi­cul­ties of immi­grant life and the val­ue placed on edu­ca­tion in Jew­ish culture.

Using earth col­ors and del­i­cate shad­ing in scenes that cap­ture dai­ly activ­i­ties of the era, Lir­ius presents Rivka’s quest for learn­ing as a jour­ney. Both wish­ful and prag­mat­ic, Riv­ka turns each inter­ac­tion with her neigh­bors into a part of her project. Notic­ing a sign at a gro­cery store, she asks its own­er, Mr. Solomon, for help in decod­ing the lines and curves” she sees there. When she brings Mama’s piece­work to Mr. Cohen, the tai­lor, Riv­ka rec­og­nizes that the squig­gles” on his paper can be a door­way to learn­ing arith­metic. Each kind­ly adult rep­re­sents an impor­tant facet of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty: the cloth­ing trade, small shop­keep­ing, and the com­mit­ment to cit­i­zen­ship. Riv­ka helps Mrs. Lang­holtz, an elder­ly neigh­bor, by clean­ing her apart­ment for Shab­bos. She also lis­tens to Mrs. Lang­holtz recite civics lessons, allow­ing her to both encour­age her old­er friend and absorb valu­able information.

Riv­ka is cen­tral to the sto­ry, and yet also periph­er­al to the lives of the adult char­ac­ters. Lis­ten­ing unno­ticed in the door­way to her home’s par­lor, she observes peo­ple as dark sil­hou­ettes. The image reflects how chil­dren are some­times puz­zled by the actions of the peo­ple who care for them. When her infor­mal instruc­tors each present her with a spe­cial gift, these objects are like the leg­endary qual­i­ties grant­ed by fairies in folk­tales. A slice of sweet hon­ey cake from Mrs. Lang­holtz, a care­ful­ly craft­ed blouse from Mr. Cohen, and a pre­cious pen and bot­tle of ink from Mr. Solomon offer Riv­ka con­crete proof that her path toward edu­ca­tion will be suc­cess­ful. Books, let­ters, and writ­ing instru­ments sur­round her as she stretch­es her arms out and smiles.

Pover­ty and ill­ness are real obsta­cles in Rivka’s present life, and they affect every­one in her com­mu­ni­ty. Her future, how­ev­er, holds promise — not least because of free pub­lic edu­ca­tion, which is so deeply val­ued by new­com­ers to Amer­i­ca. Riv­ka is for­tu­nate that the flu epi­dem­ic only delays her access to this insti­tu­tion, and that the care­givers in her life respond inven­tive­ly to her needs.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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