Yos­sel’s Journey

Kathryn Lasky; John­son Yazz­ie, illus.

  • Review
By – June 14, 2022

Jew­ish-Amer­i­can author Kathryn Lasky pairs with the Nava­jo artist John­son Yazz­ie to tell a less­er-known sto­ry of Jew­ish immi­grants in the Amer­i­can South­west and the Native Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties that became their neigh­bors. Lasky nar­rates the sto­ry of Yos­sel, a Jew­ish boy escap­ing Tsarist Rus­sia with his fam­i­ly and find­ing a haven in New Mex­i­co, where they have inher­it­ed a trad­ing post. While try­ing to accli­mate him­self there and still hold­ing on to mem­o­ries of the past, Yos­sel meets Thomas, a Nava­jo boy whose fam­i­ly has called the region their home for gen­er­a­tions. Through poet­ic text and col­or­ful por­traits of late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry life among inter­sect­ing cul­tures, Lasky and Yazz­ie cre­ate a believ­able sto­ry of boy­hood friend­ship and deeply root­ed traditions.

The Jews in this sto­ry are not city dwellers. Forced to aban­don their Russ­ian shtetl, Yos­sel and his par­ents bypass the urban areas where most Jew­ish immi­grants set­tled, instead estab­lish­ing them­selves in the desert, close to a Nava­jo Reser­va­tion. As a child, Yos­sel is unaware of all the polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal impli­ca­tions of his new neigh­bors’ past, but he knows that he feels unset­tled and lone­ly. The para­dox of many immi­grants’ lives is that, even when their old home was fraught with dan­ger, their new one is detached from every­thing famil­iar. Yos­sel lists the hum­ble items they take with them: pots and pans, dried fruit, col­ored pen­cils, and a samovar, but the intan­gi­ble sounds and smells of their old home have van­ished. Instead, they will need to put down new roots in a huge expanse of land, where Yos­sel observes that the mesas remind me of stone hats.” Set­ting visu­al impres­sions and del­i­cate metaphors with­in Yossel’s speech, Lasky paints a vivid pic­ture for young readers.

There are no heavy-hand­ed state­ments about broth­er­hood in the book, but there is a chick­en joke. It had enter­tained Yossel’s friend back in Rus­sia, but will Thomas and his fam­i­ly relate to it also? When a sheep eats a hole in the family’s laun­dry, will Yos­sel lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty to build a new friend­ship? Yos­sel vac­il­lates between an opti­mistic faith in the abil­i­ty to bridge dif­fer­ences and valid con­cerns that reach­ing out towards oth­ers may not always suc­ceed. His moth­er may have good, long talk­ing fin­gers” when she com­mu­ni­cates with­out words in their store, but Yos­sel knows that non-ver­bal lan­guage is not always enough.

Yazzie’s pic­tures stand out from the page-like cutouts in a col­lage. Some are sta­t­ic por­traits, while oth­ers place fig­ures in dynam­ic scenes of action togeth­er. Yossel’s moth­er, robed in blue and vio­let, bless­es her Sab­bath can­dles against a green back­ground. The pic­ture of the two boys eat­ing blintzes togeth­er shows each of them smil­ing, Thomas with sur­prise and Yos­sel with relief that his mother’s cook­ing has met with his friend’s approval. Through­out the book, earth col­ors asso­ci­at­ed with the South­west are the nat­ur­al set­ting for a fruit­ful exchange of cul­tures. Some expe­ri­ences are sim­ply uni­ver­sal, as when an anx­ious Yos­sel lies in bed, wor­ried that the frag­ile pieces of his new rela­tion­ship may shat­ter. Yazz­ie speaks clear­ly to chil­dren through his effec­tive choic­es of com­po­si­tion and color.

When Lasky writes how the smell of sage­brush meets the cin­na­mon of Mama’s hon­ey cake. I breathe it all in,” she defines the scope of her book, both large and small. Cul­tur­al syn­cretism, peo­ple learn­ing from one anoth­er and adapt­ing to change, are big themes. But equal­ly cen­tral is the friend­ship between two boys, each fac­ing unfa­mil­iar cus­toms but will­ing to accept their val­ue. The part­ner­ship between Kathryn Lasky and John­son Yazz­ie high­lights the mean­ing of this process with lit­er­ary and visu­al beauty.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry includes an author’s note with his­tor­i­cal back­ground and a list of rec­om­mend­ed fur­ther reading.

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.

Discussion Questions