- Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature by Jodi Eichler-Levine
Suffer the Little Children—the allusion that serves as the title of Jodi Eichler-Levine’s recent study—hints at the first part of her main thesis: that Jewish and African American children’s literature are greatly invested in the image and notion of the suffering and sacrificial child. The title does not introduce the second part of her thesis: that such suffering and sacrifice make these children’s books fundamentally American. Eichler-Levine sees the books she discusses as showing “how American religious history, and the careful placement of Jewish and African Americans within it, is crucial for authenticating Jews and blacks as not just good citizens, but as even more American than other Americans” (xx). Eichler-Levine capably succeeds in proving the first part her thesis; she has to work harder to demonstrate the second.
Dividing the book loosely into historical sections, Eichler-Levine provides context for events and characters present in American children’s literature. She establishes several pairings of key biblical and literary figures, including Moses and Miriam, Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter, and Anne Frank and [End Page 225] Emmett Till. When examining children’s literature through the lenses that these pairings produce, Eichler-Levine develops very compelling analyses. For example, in taking up the biblical account of Exodus, Eichler-Levine argues that tales of immigration, the middle passage, and escape from slavery involve the images of Moses and his sister leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. She traces the underpinnings of Exodus in Julius Lester’s The Old African, which culminates in a return to Africa, and she contends that “Lester rejects the model of escape to the North for one that restores his characters to their original homeland. Zion, for them, is a backward return, the closing of a full circle” (57). In other books, the figure of Harriet Tubman enacts a female version of Moses or, as Eicher-Levine describes it, a “transgendered avatar of Moses” (49). Throughout children’s literature, Tubman is likened to Moses; one vivid example is an illustration in Carole Boston Weatherford’s Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Kadir Nelson, the illustrator, paints pictures of Tubman that consciously connote imagery from the Hebrew Bible. In one of Nelson’s compositions, Eichler-Levine explains, “Tubman stands in the sunlight after arriving in Philadelphia. With her eyes closed, her head half-bowed, her palms at waist level and spread open to the sky, and her head and hands aglow, Tubman evokes imagery of Moses with his face lit up, or veiled to hide the light, following Exodus 34:30, in which Moses descends from Mt. Sinai” (49–50).
The flip side to Exodus, leaving and traveling, is staying at home. Eichler-Levine devotes a section of her book to children’s texts that focus on the domestic, called “Dwelling in Chosen Nostalgia.” Here, she concentrates on items that make up a home, including textiles, foods, and kitchen items, such as pots, pans, and dishes. Miriam often presides in these books, whether directly present in a book like Miriam’s Cup, about a family preparing for Passover and then telling the story of Exodus at the seder, or whether invoked through a character like Mama in Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, who expends so much energy on homemaking and housekeeping (88). Throughout this section, Eichler-Levine discusses picture books that deal with dolls and quilts, such as Deborah Hopkinson and James Ransome’s Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, about a slave girl who makes a map that leads to freedom in her quilt, and Patricia Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt, about a blanket that passes from generation to generation, preserving and extending Jewish heritage. Eichler-Levine sees these tangible objects as providing the material for building memories and making history.
Another pairing that engages memory and history...