In this lovely picture book, author Erica Lyons describes the fearfulness of a lost child, the haunting warning of a future tragic death, the boredom of moral lessons, and an ancient community’s connection to traditional Jewish texts.
Lyons borrows the same tale from the Talmud that Rabbi Akiva drew on to support his belief that good deeds rescue one from death. She places the story in the ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, which thrived in the early Middle Ages and disappeared when its members assimilated into the larger culture.
In Lyons’s telling, young Zhen Yu goes to the market with her scholar father, then accidentally gets separated from him while distracted by jade animals for sale. He looks all over for her before finding her with the help of a famous fortune teller, who warns him that his daughter will die from a snake bite on her wedding night. Terrified, her father keeps this bad fortune a secret.
Years later, as she is dressing for her wedding, Zhen Yu stops arranging her hair to answer the door, pushing her hairpin into her silk wall in order not to drop it. She meets a poor man in need and gives him her wedding gifts. She returns to her hairpin, which she can’t pull easily out of the silk. When it finally comes loose, she finds a dead snake attached to it. The poisonous creature that was supposed to do her in was instead skewered when she went to give charity. Her father explains that her good heart saved her, and he is now free from the constant terror the prophecy caused.
Renia Metallinou’s outstandingly rich illustrations feature deep jewel colors and figures that move from static to dynamic as the story progresses. Intricately designed clothing and sensual flowers dominate each spread. The characters’ faces are full of emotion and are sure to capture readers’ attention.
An author’s note about this particular Talmudic story, Rabbi Akiva’s use of it, and the Jews of Kaifeng completes this truly beautiful and captivating book.
Ellen G. Cole, a retired librarian of the Levine Library of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is a past judge of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards and a past chairperson of that committee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excellence in Jewish Children’s Literature. Ellen is the recipient of two major awards for contribution to Judaic Librarianship, the Fanny Goldstein Merit Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroeder Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries of Southern California. She is on the board of AJLSC.