The Biblical story of Noah’s escape on his ark from a destructive flood has been the subject of numerous children’s picture books. The colorful cast of animals entering the huge ship two-by-two, the dove sent out in search of dry land, and the rainbow as a symbol of God’s promise all lend themselves to dramatic interpretation. In Worse and Worse on Noah’s Ark, Leslie Kimmelman and Vivian Mineker offer a new twist with Yiddish-inflected humor and brightly expressive pictures offering a lesson in empathy. Through disastrous weather, kvetching family members, and unruly animal passengers, the narrator asks repeatedly if things could get any worse. Dramatic tension builds as they do get worse until a spirit of cooperation intervenes. The author’s light touch avoids moralism as she suggests to young readers why reaching out to others might give them the perspective to endure problems and find solutions.
Noah’s neighborhood, in spite of mud brick dwellings with staircases on the outside, is much like those of today. The weather is “terrible” and people are on edge. Mrs. Noah denigrates her husband’s plan to build an ark according to God’s command, calling it “Meshuggah.” His sons are equally unprepared to deal with reality, stuck in a pattern of helplessness: “Oy, could things get any worse?” Mineker’s illustrations are the perfect match for Kimmelman’s wryly sense of humor. As lightning pierces the sky, one son shades his eyes in disbelief, another’s mouth hangs open in surprise, and a third ducks down, pointlessly covering his head with a cloth. These are not the perfect candidates for an emergency situation.
Once the animals have entered the ark and Noah has shut its doors, the humans in charge still lack the imagination to effect change. Kimmelman’s lines and Mineker’s pictures emphasize the way that inflexible behaviors get in the way of improvement. Noah’s wife insists that the animals wipe their feet and tries to sweep up after rabbits, turtles, and porcupines. Worse, both animals and humans incessantly bicker, with Kimmelman’s descriptions of animal arguments a reflection of human pettiness. It is no wonder that the colorful peacocks’ comments on zebras and penguins, “Who were only in black and white,” elicit Noah’s retort that, “We’re all equally beautiful in God’s eyes.” Any child who has experienced the discomfort of thoughtless cruelty will relate to this exchange.
Specific descriptions of impending chaos make the story exciting and believable. An armadillo’s broken shell and carnivorous animals, hungrily eyeing their fellow passengers, imply that if someone does not respond creatively life on the ark will collapse. When some of the animals decide that returning kindness and joy may be more productive than anger, the spiral of bad events is suspended. Although the events of the story are familiar to most readers, Kimmelman’s narrative offers an alternative way of envisioning them. As she explains in her introductory comments, her version represents a new midrash,or interpretation. With a spirit of solidarity, things that go from bad to worse and worse may sometimes turn from bad to better.
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.