Worse and Worse on Noah’s Ark

Leslie Kim­mel­man, Vivian Minek­er (illus.)

  • Review
By – July 27, 2020

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 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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