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 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.