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.