Until the Blue­ber­ries Grow

Jen­nifer Wolf Kam; Sal­ly Walk­er, illus. 

  • Review
By – July 8, 2022

Blue­ber­ries play an impor­tant role in sev­er­al clas­sic children’s books, includ­ing Robert McCloskey’s Blue­ber­ries for Sal, and Jane Thay­er and Sey­mour Fleishman’s The Blue­ber­ry Pie Elf. The fruit asso­ci­at­ed with rur­al Amer­i­ca and pop­u­lar recipes is now at the cen­ter of a Jew­ish pic­ture book, where it con­jures the same sense of nos­tal­gia and respect for the nat­ur­al world as in pre­vi­ous works. Author Jen­nifer Wolf Kam and illus­tra­tor Sal­ly Walk­er draw young read­ers into their sto­ry by link­ing envi­ron­men­tal cycles with those of human aging. The book opens with Ben and his great-grand­fa­ther, Zayde, enjoy­ing blue­ber­ries right off the bush­es, and the two con­tin­ue to share dif­fer­ent foods togeth­er through­out the sea­sons of the year and the Jew­ish hol­i­days. But Zayde is grow­ing old­er, and Ben must learn to accom­mo­date change.

Zayde is wise. He knows how to com­mu­ni­cate the truth to his great-grand­son, explain­ing to Ben that This house doesn’t fit me any­more. I need a small­er space.” Chang­ing phys­i­cal dimen­sions form the frame­work of both the text and the illus­tra­tions. In the sum­mer, Ben looks up at his great-grand­fa­ther, hand­ing him a glass of water on a hot day. In the fall, they sit togeth­er in the com­fort­ing space of the sukkah, and win­ter finds the pair cel­e­brat­ing Hanukkah togeth­er in the cozy con­fines of their liv­ing room. Zayde wraps Ben in a quilt and Ben rec­i­p­ro­cates by giv­ing his great-grand­fa­ther a warm sweater. Every pic­ture shows their sen­si­tiv­i­ty and aware­ness of one another’s needs, echo­ing the Jew­ish tra­di­tions of car­ing for chil­dren and the elderly.

Ben under­stands, reluc­tant­ly, that Zayde is delay­ing the inevitable as he agrees to length­en the time in his house. Until the blue­ber­ries grow, until the snow falls, until the flow­ers bloom, are incan­ta­tions to put off the day when he will have to make a dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion. Final­ly, with the sim­plic­i­ty of a proverb, Zayde states that The stair­case is very tall,” and Ben is left with one poignant request, Stay.” Walker’s illus­tra­tion shows the stair­case from the per­spec­tive of the duo stand­ing at the bot­tom. Ben and Zayde are hold­ing hands, and each grasps the rail on either side of the stairs. As they look up in mutu­al recog­ni­tion of this obsta­cle, Zayde reminds Ben of their won­der­ful mem­o­ries, and invites him to vis­it him in his new, more appro­pri­ate­ly scaled home.

There are sev­er­al mitzvot embed­ded in the sto­ry of Ben and Zayde’s jour­ney togeth­er. The love between gen­er­a­tions, the obser­vance of hol­i­days that give mean­ing to the Jew­ish year, and the sacred pro­por­tions of both the nat­ur­al world and the homes where we live — all are pre­sent­ed as tan­gi­bly as the blue­ber­ries that a boy and his great-grand­fa­ther share.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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