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Four children, one story

sederWhen my children were young, my mom wrote a short seder in rhyme. We wanted them to hear the whole story! This is how it begins:

In the Torah it says you shall keep the feast
Of unleavened bread—that’s bread without yeast.
And during this feast we’re obliged to tell
The Exodus story til we all know it well.

Every year, we tell this story to four named archetypal children.

As presented in the Haggadah, the four children are:

The wise child.
The wicked child.
The simple child.
The child unable to ask.

As a child at my parents’ seder table, this part of the book always made me nervous and upset. Dividing us up into blatant stereotypes seemed like a lose lose proposition. Every year I was sure I was going to be pegged as the wicked one. Or was simple worse? Who were these children? What did it mean, unable to ask?

Here is one explanation, which I found in Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander’s gorgeous Haggadah, The New American Haggadah. (Note: everyone should own this haggadah. There are great commentaries, including some by Lemony Snicket.)

Here is what they say about the four children:

Perhaps the Haggadah deliberately provides caricatures of four types of children to teach us something about the care we must take when we answer questions. Each person at our seder is coming from a different place. This one is older and more experienced. That one has never been to seder before. That other one was sick and did not expect to make it to seder, but is there. That one never learned to read Hebrew, and that one knows French.

I like that. Thinking this way, the text is talking about different learning styles. (We Jews are so progressive!!!) It’s about communicating with all kinds of kids WITHOUT judgment.

Or maybe….as we discussed last night…this text is also saying something about the nature of story. (The Exodus is a pretty amazing story, after all.)

As a writer and writing teacher, I spend much of my time thinking about novels and writing and reading. I think about what a story needs…and when I think about the best stories, how they’ve grown with me. I think about the times I have heard a story at just the right time! (I also know that there are some stories that seem to change all the time…that I hear or read them differently each time.) That is what happens at the Seder. Even though the story stays the same, it changes and grows with us. Every year, we seem to focus on a different aspect. Sometimes we are wise. Sometimes wicked. Sometimes, we have no idea what to make of the story. Over time, we also get nostalgic. We think. We talk.

A good story inspires new conversations. They bridge generations.

Last night, my son Elliot, who is on the verge of graduation, heard the story as a transition tale. He wondered about Moses’ fears. He is also interested in leadership and we spent a lot of time thinking about Moses’ development from ordinary man to hero. Another student could only focus on the Egyptians who did not believe in slavery, but were subjected to the plagues. Another young person asked if we always need war to free ourselves of atrocities.

What I love about the seder: that story is still relevant!

My mother’s seder ends this way:

What does this all mean? What’s the larger scope?
Why tell of the Exodus again and again?
It’s the preservation and affirmation of hope
This is our covenant with God. Amen.

It’s been written about many times on this blog. Hope is the foundation–and part of most endings–in great middle grade stories. Hope is essential, like conflict and empathy, whether you are wise or wicked or simple or don’t know how to ask.

Happy Passover!!!! Happy Easter!!!

Is there a book that YOUR family rereads? Why? How has it changed for you and your children over the years?

Sarah Aronson used to be a Jewish educator, but now she is a writer who thinks a lot about the Jewish experience in her books.

All Those Who Care About Children, Please Stand Up

This is a group blog of people who write books for children, and it’s safe to say that people who write for children care about children. The same can be said of teachers: they care deeply about children’s well-being. So do their classroom aides and the school librarians, bus drivers, crossing guards and custodians. Even the literary archetype of evil-lunchroom-lady-beneath-the-hairnet cares about children. Mothers and fathers, of course, care about children. As do grandparents, principals, office secretaries, coaches, school nurses, babysitters, daycare workers, pediatricians, and child psychologists. Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters – they all care about children.

I’d go so far as to say the vast majority of people on the planet care about children.

I am a mother, and I reject the notion that advocating for children’s safety and well-being is a political act. I reject all false equivalencies between cars and assault weapons, knives and assault weapons, falling-off-ladders and assault weapons. I also reject the notion that there’s a right and wrong time to discuss massacre prevention. Because if not now, when?

Please understand: I don’t pretend to have the absolute solution. All I know for sure, with every fiber of my being, is that we must make some changes.  Big changes.  Meaningful changes.  A society is measured by its treatment of its most vulnerable, and few are more vulnerable than kindergarten children.

If not now, when?

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Tracy Abell is a former teacher who is very grateful for the men and women who work in the schools with our children.

 

The Reluctant Gardener

My name is Laurie Schneider and I love books. I love reading books, sharing books, browsing books, talking about books, and, yes, buying books. Whether you call me a bibliophile—or a bookaholic—the fact is I have a problem: my appetite for the latest Lois Lowery, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Schmidt, and Jennifer Holm far exceeds my shelf space.

A bigger house is out of the question, and our family room is already wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling books. So what’s a booklover to do?  Give up buying books cold turkey? Not a chance. I’m powerless in the face of a starred review.

The cold, hard, merciless truth—unless I want to turn up in a future episode of Hoarders—is that something has to go, and that something is books. If I want to add, I have to subtract. I have to weed.

It’s the same at the public library where I work. We’re blessed with a community of voracious readers and a healthy budget for new materials, but cursed with a small building on a small lot, with no room to expand. The librarians are under constant pressure to weed, to make space for all the new books, movies, music, and audiobooks the public expects.

I spoke recently about weeding with Cathy Ensley, our newly retired youth services librarian, and here’s what she had to say about the process:

“Library shelves are finite. When I was first weeding the collection eleven years ago, the district’s book budget was much smaller. The shelves were full of very old, weed-able books with negligible literary merit, which meant they also didn’t need to be replaced. Then, the book budget inflated, which was wonderful, but suddenly there wasn’t as much shelf space. So I weeded single books by forgotten authors that had not created an oeuvre. Then I started weeding by the total number of checkouts each year. Then I actually had to start cutting into an author’s body of work, pulling out the less popular books, which really pained me.

“It makes me sad to lose perfectly good books, sometimes wonderful books, because we need the shelf space for newer books that might very well not be as good, but are in demand because of their subject matter. Case in point: Not too long ago, I weeded about a dozen YA historical novels that dealt with slavery. Excellent books, but most of them hadn’t been checked out in years. They were discarded in order to make shelf space for books about vampires.”

Short of launching a capital campaign to build a bigger library, there really doesn’t seem to be another solution. Like me, the county can’t just go out and buy a bigger house, and we need to provide the books people want to read. It pains me, though, to see some of my favorite titles removed from the catalog and put out to pasture at the Friends of the Library book sale. On the other hand, some of those titles have found their way to my house where they are now cozying up to Lois Lowry and Jerry Spinelli, Gary Schmidt and Jennifer Holm.

If there’s been any benefit to weeding my personal collection it’s this: my collection may not have grown larger, but it has grown more interesting, more focused, more quirky, more “me” – a collection of desert-island books I won’t mind spending a lifetime with.

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Laurie Schneider can be found writing, reading, and weeding in Moscow, Idaho. She tweets her favorite reads at https://twitter.com/Idaho_Laurie.