Children’s books on Purim emphasize different aspects of the holiday; some focus on celebratory customs — from costume parades to distinctive foods — while others retell the Biblical story. At the center of the tale of Purim is the heroism of Esther, who must first conceal her identity, and later reveals it in an act of selfless bravery. In both Mordicai Gerstein’s Queen Esther the Morning Star, and Diane Wolkstein’s Esther’s Story, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard, Esther begins as a vulnerable figure, totally dependent on her cousin Mordecai, who acts as her guardian. Her exceptional beauty brings her to the attention of King Ahasuerus, a tempestuous male authority — her fidelity to his arbitrary rules is all that keeps her safe. Esther’s commitment to saving her people from annihilation leads her to attempt asserting herself without threatening her own existence. In Gerstein’s version, Esther enacts a key role in a colorful morality tale, presented with theatrical excitement and an inevitable happy ending. Wolkstein and Wijngaard tell the story through Esther’s perspective, as she narrates her life from orphan to queen. Both versions of the story seek to reconcile the way Esther is limited by society because of her gender, with her role as a hero and a defender of her people.
Gerstein infused his many works for children with a sense of joy and optimism; his interpretation of Esther is no exception. His prefatory “Author’s Note” equates Esther’s Persian name of Ishtar with Venus, the morning star: “The last to fade after all the other stars are gone.” None of the threats which Esther faces will deter her, although Gerstein’s descriptions of the capricious world of Ahasuerus’s court create worry over her fate. The king is shown as foolish and insecure about his power. A troubling element of the Purim narrative is that Esther’s heroism is predicated on the disappearance of another queen: Vashti. Her disobedience is compounded by the fact that she is hosting a women’s banquet when she refuses her husband’s command. Seated at a table surrounded by her guests, “all the princesses and wives of the governors and satraps over whom she ruled,” Vashti is as imperious as Ahasuerus himself. She responds, “Tell the king I will not come,” turning her face to one side and stretching out her hand towards the king’s emissary. Gerstein conveys the injustice of Vashti’s banishment through this scene and the king’s hysterical response. Esther, a woman exalted in Jewish history for her courage, is only in a position to act because of another woman’s rebellion and replacement.
She responds, “Tell the king I will not come,” turning her face to one side and stretching out her hand towards the king’s emissary.
Esther is the lucky wife chosen for her beauty. Mordecai warns her not to reveal her Jewish identity, because her new husband is impetuous and cruel. Esther has no choice but to participate in this terrifying charade, made even more fraught when the villain, Haman, appears. He poisons the king’s mind against Esther’s cousin and the Jewish people, saying they are a potential danger to the realm as they remain loyal to their own laws. Gerstein’s pictures are comically exaggerated, lessening the sense of emergency which the details of Haman’s nefarious plot provide. When Esther cautiously approaches the king, Gerstein shows him as an obese and scowling tyrant, pathetically clutching his sword. When he notices her, he is “overcome with love.” The cartoon-like transition from fury to pliant agreement with his wife is the stuff of caricature. Similarly, Haman’s overblown arrogance deforms him, “his eyes popping with rage,” an image matched by Gerstein’s picture of him stamping and fuming. Even the construction of the gallows on which Haman plans to hang the hated Mordecai turns into a family project, his wife looking on as their ten sons struggle to make the structure work.
When Esther finally summons up all her strength to intervene on behalf of her people, confessing that she is a Jew and a target of Haman’s murderous plot, her husband’s response diminishes the moment’s gravity: “I completely forgot! I don’t even remember why he wanted to do such a stupid thing…Guards…take him away!” The book concludes with a transition from narrowly averted tragedy to the delights of holiday observance, as Mordecai, Ahasuerus, and Esther consume a huge plate of hamantaschen. Esther is no longer hidden; she has been saved by her own daring, but also by the unpredictable whims of a king. In the end, her story is a reassuring fable about good triumphing over evil and of the continuation of Jewish society throughout history.
Esther’s Story offers a different perspective on the heroic queen. Wolkstein draws on both the Bible and on midrashim of the Book of Esther. In her complex reimagining of Esther’s life, complemented by Wijngaard’s expressive paintings, the woman who emerges is both a victim of exploitation as well as an icon of female valor. Esther’s Story is for older picture book readers, who will understand the premise of Esther keeping a diary, given to her by Mordecai. Esther is aware that her mother named her Hadassah, after the fragrant myrtle plant. But Mordecai’s news of the political situation forces Hadassah to go into a form of hiding, to be replaced by Esther, meaning “secret or concealed.” From then on, Esther is forced to conceal her true self, and to act as a proxy in a larger plan constructed by the men in her life. Wolkstein does not conceal the emotional effects of this arrangement on the young girl.
From then on, Esther is forced to conceal her true self, and to act as a proxy in a larger plan constructed by the men in her life.
Wolkstein and Wijngaard expose the darker side of Ahasuerus’s rejection of Vashti and his subsequent attachment to Esther. When the story begins she is a young orphan living under her guardian’s protection, but soon she confronts an abrupt change. Mordecai sends Esther from his home to the king’s court, where she will live with other women as they are evaluated to replace the disobedient queen. Mordecai simply tells Esther that Vashti refused the king’s command and was banished.
Esther and her fellow candidates for queen are not friends in a women’s dormitory; they are young women being groomed for their sexual potential to a powerful man, not an entirely strange situation when viewed in its cultural and historic context. Wolkstein does not have Esther protest the injustice of this arrangement, avoiding historical anachronism. Instead, she focuses on the companionship of the girls, relating how they comfort one another, even as some “cry from homesickness.” A group portrait of multi-ethnic women in their all-female environment evokes what is effectively a prison. When Mordecai visits, he brings traditional Jewish foods, as well as stories of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Esther, believing that the king allows freedom of worship, does not understand the source of Mordecai’s reminders to hide her background. Both her Jewishness and her gender have forced her into confinement. Her physical beauty is about to change her status, as Ahasuerus elevates her above the other women, but her Jewish self, like her real name, must remain hidden
In Queen Esther the Morning Star, Ahasuerus is a dangerous buffoon. In Esther’s Story, he is a majestic ruler, handsome, and sensitive to Esther’s special qualities, calling her his “shining one.” The power imbalance between them is minimized in a courtship scene, where Esther spontaneously picks up a rose and puts it in the king’s hair. When he says to her appreciatively, “How beautiful you are!” she turns the phrase back towards him in a gesture of equality: “How beautiful you are!” Here the author has chosen to create a loving side to Esther’s marriage, suggesting that the growth of mutual love separated it from the objectifying manner in which it began. Still, Esther is troubled by the rapid changes in her life: “Some days when I look in the mirror, I see the queen of Persia. Other days I see Esther, who was once Hadassah.” The traditional Purim story does not reconcile the tension between these two parts of Esther’s life: as a woman who has been objectified and controlled by men, and one who becomes an image of valor and Jewish survival.
Both her Jewishness and her gender have forced her into confinement.
While in Gerstein’s book, Ahasuerus is consistently portrayed as an impulsive fool, and it is more difficult to reconcile the romantic figure of the king in this book with his blind acceptance of Haman’s edict to destroy the Jews. Readers will share Esther’s sense of panic, as she reads Mordecai’s letter imploring her to save her people by risking her own life. He cites a prophecy by “a holy woman from Jerusalem” that Esther would become Persia’s queen after Vashti’s removal. Vashti’s harsh punishment is now identified as part of a higher purpose. Esther looks out the window at the morning star, but returns to her roots for strength. Jewish literature appears in Wijngaard’s image, open volumes sprawled across the floor of her room. She remembers a prophecy of Isaiah and decides, “If I am killed, then I will be killed.” Here the author emphasizes Esther’s knowledge, making her commitment rooted in a strongly informed Jewish identity, rather than a mere passive acceptance of her destiny.
While attending the banquet which Esther has requested, the king is reminded that Mordecai saved his life and Esther knows she must act; pointing the finger at Haman, and finally uncovering her true self: “Since I am a Jew, I too will die.” Ahasuerus has his opportunity for heroism, sentencing Haman to die on his own gallows, although, without Esther’s intervention the king would have delegated his minister the right to exterminate his innocent subjects. The Jewish people are allowed by the king to defeat their enemies, Esther and her husband live in harmony, and Mordecai’s dignity is restored. But Wolkstein ends the book on an unusual note, showing the queen as an old woman; Esther remembers her extraordinary heroism with characteristic modesty. The Esther who lives into old age and is able to understand the consequences of her deeds is a more complete role model for young readers.
Esther is a Jewish symbol of female selfless bravery and beauty, but also of the constraints of gender. Gerstein frames the course of Esther’s life as a chaotic adventure leading to success; the Jewish people survive and live on to eat hamantaschen. The Esther of Wolkstein and Wijngaard’s tale must survive oppression as a woman, along with the emotional hazards of a dual identity before she can rise to protect herself and her people. Children reading both books will note that the two Esthers embody some of the contradictions of the festival itself. Famously, the Book of Esther does not mention God. Purim is a day of raucous celebration preceded by a day of fasting. Jews as near-victims are transformed into Jews as victors. Relating the story of Purim to children might also acknowledge the many dimensions, even difficult contradictions, of Esther’s place in Jewish history. A woman forced to rely on her beauty, uprooted from her home, and deprived of her Jewish identity, becomes a revered symbol of Jewish strength in the face of adversity. The paradoxes of Queen Esther reflect those of Purim, and of Jewish history itself.
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.