Sibling rivalry certainly predates the holiday of Passover but in this short, highly recommended story, one of the central parts of the Passover seder becomes a tense example of this age-old problem. Older brother Eitan feels unprepared to yield the spotlight to his sister, Evie, who is eager to assume the responsibility of the youngest child to recite the questions, which elicit an adult’s explanation of the holiday’s meaning. Many readers of the book will have experienced this difficult transition themselves or will, at least, understand the dilemma it poses for celebrations where more than one child may consider themselves the best actor for this role.
With realistic dialogue, Eitan’s first-person narration translated from original Hebrew, and expressive pictures capturing the children’s conflict and support from their adult relatives, Who Will Ask the Four Questions? should help answer questions about empathy and emotional growth.
Naomi Ben-Gur avoids generic qualities in her characters. As readers meet Eitan, he is seated with his Grandma Naomi in his room and playing his guitar. Eitan is an artist and a performer. The floor is strewn with crayons and pictures, but Eitan’s preferred medium is music. His grandmother remarks appreciatively, “You sound like a real pop star,” and with his unruly curls and cuffed jeans, Eitan certainly looks the part. For Eitan, reciting the “Ma Nishtana” is not only a religious obligation, but also the opportunity to shine in his chosen field. When Evie appears, she is doing a simple puzzle which emphasizes her youth and, in her brother’s eyes, her unsuitability for taking over his job. Evie is persistent and, worse, Grandma Naomi becomes her ally, teaching her and offering encouragement when she hesitates. The need to share his doting grandmother makes Eitan feel even worse and adds to the realistic portrayal of family conflict.
Carmel Ben-Ami’s illustrations of the holiday’s hectic preparations and lively ritual also root the story in a specific childhood. Eitan’s casually dressed Israeli father, wearing sandals and with a dishcloth hanging from his back pocket, cooks for the festive meal. His mother grabs a bowl of salad, but is forced to look away from her task by Eitan’s full-blown tantrum. Both parents and children will recognize his clenched fists, stomping feet, and narrowed eyes as the sign that someone needs to get control of the situation. Meanwhile, Evie stands on a stepstool in the adjacent bathroom, practicing like a diva in front of the mirror.
Children do not resolve competition with siblings easily and Who Will Ask the Four Questions? does not pretend that they do. Throughout the book, Eitan progresses from anger and manipulation to support for his sister, whose vulnerability he comes to understand. As all eyes at the extended table turn towards her, he has an ungenerous thought: “She looked nervous…Maybe she would finally give in and let me sing?” The Four Questions float in bright blue block letters against a white page, and, at least for a time, Eitan finds harmony in his relationship with Evie. Young readers will feel validated in their struggle and adults will appreciate the multigenerational approach to an issue. This is a good book to keep on hand along with the Haggadah.
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.