Jewish picture books at Skirball Cultural Center
A very hungry caterpillar. A very repulsive ogre. Some wonderfully Wild Things.
There’s nothing like curling up with a good book — a picture book, that is. A bedtime adventure rendered in a few words and lots of images can whet the imagination and help kids read, reason and figure out right from wrong.
“These books are a magnet for learning,” says cultural critic Ilan Stavans. “A mother or father can show what is happening on the page while the child recognizes a comforting voice and feels the human touch. In this very intimate moment the magic starts taking place.”
Sharing stories also serve a larger purpose. “The act of storytelling is the act of passing culture from one generation to the next,” Stavans says. Among those who have refined that act to an art, he adds, is a long line of Jewish authors and illustrators who appreciate the value of preserving legacies while seeking creative ways to tell new tales or retell old ones.
Examining this often-overlooked cultural history is the main inspiration behind “Monsters and Miracles: A Journey Through Jewish Picture Books,” an exhibit that runs through Aug. 1 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
The show, organized by the Skirball and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., features more than 130 texts, paintings, drawings and computer-generated images created by writers and artists such as Carle, Marc Chagall, Daniel Pinkwater, Francine Prose, Maurice Sendak, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Steig and Art Spiegelman.
“Everyone knows these books exist, but nobody sees them as a tradition,” says Stavans, an Amherst College professor who co-curated “Monsters and Miracles” with scholar Neal Sokol and the Skirball’s Tal Gozani. “We look at them in chronology and try to understand where they come from, including how they influence each other and the influences of their coming from different languages like Yiddish, Hebrew, English, French and Spanish.”
The exhibit begins with the illustrated Haggadot used during Passover and various versions of biblical tales.
Following the “miracles” are the monsters — imaginary creatures, including the golems and dybbuks that are staples of Jewish lore. Among the most familiar are the beastly companions of the young hero, Max, in Sendak’s " Where the Wild Things Are” (1963).
The exhibit concludes with a look at modern trends. Many classics have been made into movies, including “Curious George,” created by H.A. and Margret Rey, who left Paris to flee the Nazis in 1940. Steve Sheinkin riffs on the graphic novel in his “The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West” (2006). Lemony Snicket offers an offbeat holiday yarn in “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story” (2007).
Given its subject, it’s no surprise “Monsters and Miracles” is designed to be family friendly. Because picture books are meant to be shared aloud the Skirball has created a family-friendly space filled with reading areas and listening stations where visitors can hear stories that were recorded by actors and authors such as Ed Asner, Allison Janney, Tony Kushner and Henry Winkler.