Zhen Yu and the Snake

  • Review
By – October 4, 2023

In this love­ly pic­ture book, author Eri­ca Lyons describes the fear­ful­ness of a lost child, the haunt­ing warn­ing of a future trag­ic death, the bore­dom of moral lessons, and an ancient community’s con­nec­tion to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish texts.

Lyons bor­rows the same tale from the Tal­mud that Rab­bi Aki­va drew on to sup­port his belief that good deeds res­cue one from death. She places the sto­ry in the ancient Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Kaifeng, Chi­na, which thrived in the ear­ly Mid­dle Ages and dis­ap­peared when its mem­bers assim­i­lat­ed into the larg­er culture.

In Lyons’s telling, young Zhen Yu goes to the mar­ket with her schol­ar father, then acci­den­tal­ly gets sep­a­rat­ed from him while dis­tract­ed by jade ani­mals for sale. He looks all over for her before find­ing her with the help of a famous for­tune teller, who warns him that his daugh­ter will die from a snake bite on her wed­ding night. Ter­ri­fied, her father keeps this bad for­tune a secret.

Years lat­er, as she is dress­ing for her wed­ding, Zhen Yu stops arrang­ing her hair to answer the door, push­ing her hair­pin into her silk wall in order not to drop it. She meets a poor man in need and gives him her wed­ding gifts. She returns to her hair­pin, which she can’t pull eas­i­ly out of the silk. When it final­ly comes loose, she finds a dead snake attached to it. The poi­so­nous crea­ture that was sup­posed to do her in was instead skew­ered when she went to give char­i­ty. Her father explains that her good heart saved her, and he is now free from the con­stant ter­ror the prophe­cy caused.

Renia Metallinou’s out­stand­ing­ly rich illus­tra­tions fea­ture deep jew­el col­ors and fig­ures that move from sta­t­ic to dynam­ic as the sto­ry pro­gress­es. Intri­cate­ly designed cloth­ing and sen­su­al flow­ers dom­i­nate each spread. The char­ac­ters’ faces are full of emo­tion and are sure to cap­ture read­ers’ attention.

An author’s note about this par­tic­u­lar Tal­mu­dic sto­ry, Rab­bi Akiva’s use of it, and the Jews of Kaifeng com­pletes this tru­ly beau­ti­ful and cap­ti­vat­ing book.

Ellen G. Cole, a retired librar­i­an of the Levine Library of Tem­ple Isa­iah in Los Ange­les, is a past judge of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Awards and a past chair­per­son of that com­mit­tee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excel­lence in Jew­ish Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Ellen is the recip­i­ent of two major awards for con­tri­bu­tion to Juda­ic Librar­i­an­ship, the Fan­ny Gold­stein Mer­it Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroed­er Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is on the board of AJLSC.

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