Sparkling Tales of Once Upon A Time

March 1, 2019 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

The holiday of Purim sparkles like a fairytale – costumes and carnivals; wine and song; and an age-old tale of a foolish King, a brave Queen and an evil-plotting courtier. What a perfect month for reading fantasy fiction. The two bewitching books described below – one for adults, one for children – feature Jewish characters and plot elements. Try them with tea and hamantaschen.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

(Published for adults, but enjoyable for ages 13 and up)

Spinning Silver is a richly creative retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale. In medieval Eastern Europe, a young Jewish woman, Miryem Mandelstam, lives with her loving parents at the edge of a small, non-Jewish village. Miryem’s father Josef is the local moneylender but he is not very good at it. Softhearted and timid, Josef is reluctant to ask borrowers to repay their loans, partly in fear of stirring up the village’s simmering anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the Mandelstams slide into desperate poverty. Determined to rescue her family, Miryem begins collecting on the debts, shrewdly demanding goods and services as partial payments. As her success grows, she develops a profitable sideline in selling embroidered finery.

Proud of her business prowess, Miryem casually boasts that she can turn silver into gold. Unluckily, a Staryk king overhears her and takes her boast literally. The Staryk are magical beings of ice from a winter world parallel to the human world; they have a pressing need for gold (albeit not for financial reasons). The Staryk king puts Miryem to the task of changing silver coins to gold ones, setting off a chain of events that allies her with two other resourceful young women – Wanda, a peasant girl seeking escape from her abusive father, and Irina, the new wife of the kingdom’s Tsar, who is not what he seems. The Jewish threads of the story – Shabbat observances, a joyous wedding hora, the bustling Jewish quarter of a large city – are a steady delight, as are Miryem’s witty comments and observations.


Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

(For ages 8-12)

Sweep is an imaginative blend of fantasy and historical fiction, set in Victorian London among chimney sweeps. But these sweeps lead miserable lives; they are not the jolly dancers of Mary Poppins.

Eleven-year old Nan Sparrow is indentured to a cruel master chimney sweep appropriately named Wilkie Crudd. Like other master sweeps, Crudd keeps a crew of young children to climb inside cramped, narrow chimneys and scrub them clean. At night, Nan dreams of her life before Crudd, of travelling the country with her beloved guardian, the Sweep, until he mysteriously disappeared when she was six years old.

On a job for Crudd one day, Nan nearly dies in a chimney fire, but is saved when a lump of charred soot in her pocket – a parting gift from the Sweep – magically awakens as the protective golem of Jewish legend. Together, she and the golem hide from Crudd while Nan resourcefully earns their keep. Despite the risk of revealing her whereabouts, Nan organizes a London protest march to call attention to the danger-filled lives of young chimney climbers.

Beyond poverty and child labor, Victorian London also suffered from anti-Semitism. Nan’s Jewish friend, Esther Bloom, a teacher who schools Nan in golem lore, feels safer keeping her Jewish practices secret from other teachers. Toby, a young Jewish peddler, is attacked by anti-Semitic thugs. Yet despite its dark themes, Sweep sparkles with light and wonder – the dazzling view of snowy London from the rooftops; sleeping beneath a canopy of stars; and the deep, abiding love between Nan and her Sweep.