Such a Library: A Yid­dish Folk­tale Re-Imagined

  • Review
By – November 23, 2020

A clev­er­ly wrapped sto­ry with­in a sto­ry, this imag­i­na­tive take on an old Jew­ish folk tale elic­its chuck­les from begin­ning to end. It ref­er­ences the well-known Jew­ish tale of a man who feels his house is too crowd­ed and noisy so he approach­es the rab­bi for advice. The rab­bi tells him to add a ver­i­ta­ble menagerie to the house­hold: his cow, his chick­ens, his goat, his geese, and his duck. The house is now sim­ply unbear­able so the man returns to the rab­bi, telling him that the sit­u­a­tion is even worse than it was before. The rab­bi advis­es him to remove the ani­mals one by one and return them to the barn­yard; he does this, and the house final­ly feels like a calm, spa­cious haven. This sto­ry is pre­sent­ed as a kind of fron­tispiece to empha­size its con­trast with the sto­ry to come, unmis­tak­ably link­ing the tales togeth­er while con­trast­ing their dif­fer­ences. The tale is illus­trat­ed in neu­tral sepia tones.

Then, sud­den­ly, like Dorothy step­ping into Oz, the read­er turns the page and a riot of col­or begins to explode from the now updat­ed, mod­ern­ized, and total­ly changed folk tale. A young boy named Ste­vie, escap­ing from noisy sib­lings at home, sits in a gen­er­ous­ly uphol­stered, com­fort­able arm chair in his local pub­lic library. The library is seen as a place of bustling action and com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment. The books on the shelves are the bright­est col­ors of the rain­bow, and par­ents and chil­dren are seen eager­ly perus­ing the books. The library is calm but filled with pur­pose and poten­tial, beg­ging for the action we know is to momen­tar­i­ly arrive. Ste­vie tries to read his book but is dis­turbed by the sounds ema­nat­ing from the live­ly room: the rustling of turn­ing pages, the click­ing of com­put­er keys, the sto­ry hour nar­ra­tor say­ing, Once upon a time…” He appeals to the wise per­son for help, no longer a rab­bi in this incar­na­tion, but a librar­i­an who ably fills the rabbi’s role. When Ste­vie says the room sounds like a par­ty, this librar­i­an, amus­ing­ly named Miss Under­stood, opens a book and out of its pages emerges a full-blown par­ty with vivid­ly col­ored bal­loons, chil­dren wear­ing par­ty hats and blow­ing tin horns, and all the atten­dant to-do of a jol­ly cel­e­bra­tion. Some­how, the barn­yard ani­mals from the orig­i­nal folk­tale are par­ty guests, too; a child with a noise­mak­er is rid­ing on the cow and the chick­ens are every­where, includ­ing one feath­ered friend busy climb­ing out of the com­put­er screen onto the librarian’s desk. Ste­vie, of course, con­tin­ues to com­plain about the library atmos­phere. He wants noth­ing more than a qui­et place to read. As he kvetch­es, he com­pares the library to a zoo and Miss Under­stood loves the anal­o­gy. She once again opens the book and zoo ani­mals crowd off the pages and into the library; a mon­key, snakes, seals, and a kan­ga­roo join the melee. The man from the orig­i­nal folk­tale is now sit­ting in Stevie’s chair with the kan­ga­roo on his lap and his baby, in turn, cud­dled on the lap of the kan­ga­roo. A smil­ing snake is com­fort­ably rest­ing around the shoul­ders of a lit­tle girl and anoth­er is slith­er­ing toward the desk wear­ing a par­ty hat. The chil­dren from the orig­i­nal tale in their old-fash­ioned, Euro­pean head scarves have joined the par­ty with gus­to and are hav­ing a great time. This is not what Ste­vie had in mind; he com­plains that the library feels like a cir­cus. What can a hard­work­ing librar­i­an do but turn anoth­er page, fill­ing the room with acro­bats, clowns, and oth­er cir­cus folk! The cow is now per­form­ing acro­bat­ics; the goat is twirling a hoop on his horns; the rab­bi from the first sto­ry is swing­ing on a trapeze. The mon­key taps away at Miss Understood’s com­put­er. The man from the folk­tale and his fam­i­ly, the ring­mas­ter, the rab­bi, the ani­mals, and the library patrons are joy­ous­ly cel­e­brat­ing togeth­er, climb­ing on every avail­able sur­face, swing­ing, blow­ing on horns, and hav­ing a rau­cous­ly good time.

Poor Ste­vie. Not know­ing what to do next, he begins to shout. Excuse me,” he yells in an effort to attract the librarian’s atten­tion. Yelling in the library? Miss Under­stood — under­stand­ing — has the noisy crowd climb back into the pages of her book. Ste­vie can now read in peace, and the reg­u­lar library sounds — the sto­ry hour nar­ra­tor, the click­ing com­put­er keys, and the rustling pages fade com­fort­ably into the back­ground. The library is now a delight­ful haven in which to savor a good book.

The sto­ry charms; the illus­tra­tions delight. Miss Understood’s bright red bun, piled high atop her head, with pen­cil and pen tucked through its swirls, turns stereo­type into com­e­dy. The char­ac­ters’ per­son­al­i­ties shine. The ani­mals amuse and enter­tain. This library is any­thing but dull; it is burst­ing with life and col­or, and is imag­i­na­tive­ly, glo­ri­ous­ly appeal­ing. Every read­er or lis­ten­er (this is a won­der­ful­ly rhyth­mic read-aloud) be it child, adult, or any­where in between, wants to walk through the door of the near­est library as soon as pos­si­ble. Who could pos­si­bly resist such joy!

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions