When elephant siblings Ella and Eli spend an exciting day at the beach with their grandparents, they are distressed to learn a sad fact about old age. Sometimes a language, if it is not spoken regularly, can disappear. When Bubbe confesses that she can no longer access all the Yiddish words she used in her younger years, Ella determines to help her recover them. While many gems, such as nosh, shvitz, and chutzpah, still pop up in conversations with Bubbe, her granddaughter realizes that she must race against time if she wishes to accomplish this goal.
More is at stake than words in this adventure. The bond between generations is essential: “Bubbe is very important to Ella,” author-illustrator Jen Kostman writes, “and it is clear that Yiddish is very important to Bubbe.” The illustrations alternate between depicting the peaceful, real-life beach and Ella’s imaginary voyage to search for treasures. Dressed as a pirate, her ship tossed on the waves, Ella refuses to give up, no matter her frustration. Other animals play a role, including a friendly sloth who is selling a toy slinky, a gaming device, and the Big Book of Yiddish. Through entertaining imagery, Kostman represents words as a precious commodity that can be as elusive as a chest full of gold.
Ella ultimately learns that the search is as important as the destination. In fact, her concern for her grandmother’s well-being allows Bubbe to reconnect with her past. Each small object depicted in the illustrations represents a meaningful moment. The floor of Ella’s room is littered with crayons, toys, and trading cards; Bubbe’s speech is similarly full of words like shlep, klutz, or bupkes. An intergenerational scene — showing Bubbe and Zeyde bringing milk and cookies while Ella teaches Yiddish to her younger brother — serves as a bridge. Ella’s mission is on the way to being accomplished.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.