Before You Were Born

Howard Schwartz; Kristi­na Swarn­er, illus.

  • Review
By – August 3, 2012

The Midrash Tan­hu­ma, first pub­lished in Con­stan­tino­ple in 1522, tells that when the time comes for con­cep­tion, the angel Lailah finds a par­tic­u­lar soul in the Gar­den of Eden and com­pels it to enter the seed. The soul is always reluc­tant, remem­ber­ing the pain of being born and pre­fer­ring to remain pure. In the womb, Lailah shines a light over the grow­ing infant and teach­es it the Torah and the his­to­ry of its soul. Just as the baby is born, she strikes it on the lip, caus­ing it to for­get every­thing — and leav­ing the dent above the upper lip that every­one bears. Howard Schwartz, a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-St. Louis and not­ed folk­lorist, has lyri­cal­ly retold the midrash. Focus­ing on the inef­fa­ble beau­ty of birth, rather than the pain and cor­rup­tion of liv­ing, Before You Were Born is per­fect for par­ents and chil­dren to enjoy togeth­er. Kristi­na Swarner’s eye-catch­ing illus­tra­tions cap­ture the mys­tery and mar­vel of the leg­end, and ren­der its abstrac­tions lush­ly con­crete. A love­ly intro­duc­tion to Midrash, the book’s uni­ver­sal theme and light-hand­ed reli­gious tone make it suit­able for a diverse audience.

Phoebe Sorkin, who grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, works in the edi­to­r­i­al depart­ment of Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pa­ny Books for Young Readers.

Discussion Questions