After the Boston Kids were safely delivered to their parents, it was time to get our lives back in order. On the list of things to do was to return the books and videos we had rented from the library. Among them was an audio version of Meet Rebecca, an American Girl story. When I deposited the items on the librarians desk, she asked me how I liked the audio book? Actually, I explained, I loved it and started to explain why. After a moment, I realized that I had surprised her; she was expecting to razz me about the book, and here I was, heaping praise on it.
So what's so good about a book that one would think was nothing more than marketing material for a toy?
Rebecca is a Jewish child growing up in 1914, who's dealing with the life of as an immigrant. Like Kaya, the other American Girl story I've listened to, the book manages to get a number of important things right. First off, the story covers both Kid Problems as well as Real Problems. Rebecca is struggling with the fact that her older sisters get to do more than she does, and she's searching out her independence. At the same time, we here talk about the strain Russian Jews are under, the fears that young men will be conscripted into the army, and the real possibility that one of Rebecca's cousins will be too sick to survive the Russian winter. These are heavy topics. This blend of challenges give kids something they can relate to, yet introduce them to some important real world problems.
Another area the book gets right is the way they portray a turn of the century Jewish Family. Again, they hit on the very real topics of assimilation (changing names, working on Shabbat), but also make it clear that Rebecca's Judaism is more than just lip service. The description of Shabbat preparation and Rebecca's yearning to light the Sabbath candles is spot on. And the moment where Rebecca's father, a shoes salesman, deftly gives an immigrant a free pair of shoes--explaining to his daughter that this is a Mitvah--was one that actually invoked real pride for me.
I mainly listened to this book with Tzipora, who's 3, as we drove to and from camp every day. I think she was enjoying the narration more than anything else, and certainly wasn't taking in the big concepts. But I know she took in something. After listening for a few days, Shira caught her doing some "reading time" with a book. As she ran her finger across the words, she was talking out loud about Rebecca and her sisters being at dinner (which is where a climatic scene takes place). So, it definitely impacted her. (Tzipora and Rebecca both have older siblings who are twins - so it was the perfect story for her.)
Is this great literature? No, not really. But for a kid of the right age, this should be excellent reading. And sharing the book on CD, means that you can experience and discuss some of the tougher topics together. I'm skeptical about the whole commercial side of American Girl, something I know nothing about. But, I can tell you this book is a winner.