Friday, December 9, 2016

An Extra Seat by Shmuel Herzfeld, 2016

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This children's book, based on Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld's personal story growing up in 1970's New York, focuses on the plight of the Jewish Zionist prisoners brought to the world's attention by the highly publicized arrest of Anatoly Sharansky. Herzfeld's mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, plays a central role, encouraging his congregation to see the refuseniks (whose simple aim was making aliyah to Israel) as brothers and sisters whose rights should be fought for with unremitting public protest. The two child protagonists, Sarah and Joseph, experience the reward of these efforts as they witness Sharansky's remarkable release, nine years into his 14-year sentence. The book provides a message of hope especially to children who are encouraged to see the value of their ideals, values and actions.

This book is has as its central premise human and Torah-based Jewish values, such as:

While it may not be our job to complete a task, we are obligated to try.

We have the greatest responsibility to help our own family. All of the Jewish people are one family. Thus we are all responsible to help each other.

(32 pages)

I'm going to preface this review by saying that I'm not Jewish and I'm not a little kid. Right there I think I miss being in either of the two target demographics for this book. I entered to win it anyway, though, because many of the nicest people I know are Jewish and I've been wanting to learn more about their culture. I figured An Extra Seat would be a fun place to start.

So as the description says, this is just 32 pages long. Every two-page spread features a few sentences and background art that goes along with the theme of the text. Most of the artwork is done in pretty pastel, with what I think are watercolors (but could be something else since I know next to nothing about art). Two of the spreads, though, feature completely different artwork with black backgrounds and snapshots of what looks like figures made out of modeling clay representing the focus of their pages. I didn't really like the clay pictures because they felt a little harsh and slightly bizarre coming right in between the muted pastel pages. Also, I'm not even a fan of claymation movies so that tells you how enthusiastic I am about characters being cast in clay in general.

Anyway, that just about sums up every observation this art novice can make about the pictures in the book. Now on to the writing itself. I have to say that it's been a while since I read a picture book, so I was definitely very frustrated with the sparse text and limited explanations that the book provided. I wanted a little more historical and cultural context for Sharansky's arrest in the Soviet Union, and a little more explanation about the advocacy work done to get him out of jail. We read about two rallies the kids went to, and some bracelets they wore on their wrists out of solidarity with their Jewish brothers being kept in Soviet prisons, but the explanation of how Sharansky was actually released by the Soviet government goes something along the lines of "after a few years, the main characters got the news out of the blue that Sharansky had been freed. They were ecstatic, and they took to heart the realization that even children can make a difference if they put their minds to it!" That's a great lesson, of course, but I still don't see how the kids actually convinced the Soviet government to change its mind.

Okay, I decided to google it. According to Wikipedia (a trusty resource, I know), Sharansky wasn't imprisoned by the Soviets just for trying to move to Israel as the picture book claims; rather, he was accused of being an American spy and . . . um, something to do with messing with the process of Jews getting visas to leave the country. I'm still a little confused. Anyway, the reason he was eventually released early was because of a "larger exchange of detainees" between the USSR and America. Apparently, the advocacy on his behalf was important because it made him famous enough that American politicians actually cared enough about him to ask for his release as part of the exchange. So I suppose in a way the efforts of the kids really did save him, even if things weren't quite as straightforward as the book suggests.

But then, maybe I'm just trying to read too much into a children's book. I'd be interested to hear someone else's thoughts on An Extra Seat. Let me know in the comments below if you have any fresh light to shine on the story or whether you've ever used the picture book with your kids!

Disclaimer: I won a complimentary Early Reviewers copy of this book from Library Thing. I was encouraged, but not required, to write an honest review. All thoughts are my own.

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