Sweet Tamales for Purim

Bar­bara Bietz, John Kan­zler (illus.)

  • Review
By – June 8, 2020

Pic­ture books about Purim usu­al­ly focus on either its Bib­li­cal source or on the fes­tive cus­toms asso­ci­at­ed with the holiday’s obser­vance. Sweet Tamales for Purim is in the sec­ond cat­e­go­ry but with the sur­pris­ing twist of going back to Amer­i­can his­to­ry for a less famil­iar set­ting. The sto­ry takes place in late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Tuc­son, Ari­zona, where a small Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty main­tained its own cus­toms for Purim while also inter­act­ing with their non-Jew­ish neigh­bors. In Bietz’s telling, a young girl, Rebec­ca, has care­ful­ly pre­pared the tra­di­tion­al haman­taschen with the help of her friend, Luis. When her family’s goat, Kitzel, over­turns the tray of pas­tries, it appears that the hol­i­day has been ruined. Rebecca’s hap­pi­ly resolved adven­ture offers read­ers a glimpse into the past of Jews in the south­west, as the kind­ness and sup­port of her com­mu­ni­ty save the Purim Ball.

Bietz estab­lish­es on the first page that Purim is open to every­one in Rebecca’s small town. The sim­ple nar­ra­tive and straight­for­ward lan­guage describe a dif­fer­ent world, one where Some folks were trav­el­ing by horse and bug­gy, some by train” to the town’s famed cel­e­bra­tion. His­tor­i­cal details, from antique modes of trans­porta­tion to writ­ing on slate boards, are fea­tured. Rebec­ca out­lines the basics of Purim’s his­to­ry and obser­vance to her friend whose fam­i­ly cel­e­brates dif­fer­ent hol­i­days from mine.” Luis’s Chris­tian­i­ty and his Mex­i­can her­itage are inci­den­tal to their friend­ship and the diver­si­ty of the book’s char­ac­ters is unre­mark­able, a nor­mal part of life in the region. The book’s tar­get audi­ence of young chil­dren will enjoy the story’s sim­plic­i­ty, as well as its pos­i­tive mes­sage of coop­er­a­tion and harmony.

When a dis­cour­aged Rebec­ca vis­its Luis’s home, his moth­er finds a prac­ti­cal solu­tion to the loss of the haman­taschen. Avoid­ing expla­na­tions of culi­nary dif­fer­ence, this kind and prac­ti­cal moth­er guides her son and his friend in bak­ing an alter­na­tive: sweet tamales. By list­ing the ingre­di­ents and describ­ing the prepa­ra­tion, the author involves read­ers in the prepa­ra­tion of a nov­el Purim dish. The par­al­lels between Rebec­ca and Luis’s homes, where both moth­ers offer encour­age­ment, con­vey the essen­tial val­ues which Rebec­ca and her neigh­bors hold in com­mon. The chil­dren are also proud of their accom­plish­ment hav­ing saved Purim” for every­one expect­ing a joy­ous event.

Kanzler’s illus­tra­tions fea­ture bright col­ors and authen­tic ele­ments of the book’s time and place. His domes­tic inte­ri­ors are the most suc­cess­ful pic­tures, with Rebec­ca and Luis assem­bling corn husks and cin­na­mon to make the tamales, as well as the sim­ple chalk-drawn scenes of Queen Esther which Rebec­ca uses to teach her friend about Jew­ish his­to­ry. A pic­ture of Rebec­ca tilt­ing her head back as she swings a Purim grog­ger shows her absorbed in its sound and a scene of Luis’s moth­er care­ful­ly lift­ing a pot of tamales from a cast iron stove feels authen­tic. Both images, like the rest of the book, invite read­ers to expe­ri­ence Jew­ish tra­di­tions in a dif­fer­ent and rel­e­vant con­text of cul­tur­al exchange.

An Author’s Note” is includ­ed which explains the his­to­ry behind the story.

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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