In 2017, Green Bean Books was founded to provide inspiring and meaningful Jewish books for children. They are proud to not only include books written in English but books from other languages too; of their first twelve books, nine are translated. We asked Michael Leventhal, the founder of Green Bean Books, to tell us more.
Claire Storey: Michael, thanks for talking to us. Why did you decide to set up Green Bean Books?
Michael Leventhal: I have been publishing history books for just over 20 years but when I became a father, I started reading children’s books again. I started Green Bean Books because, frankly, I was disappointed by a lot of Jewish children’s literature. For the last three years I’ve been slowly building a list which, mostly, is work that’s been translated from Hebrew or other languages – my aim is to restore classic works (like Peretz and Bashevis Singer) and introduce readers to modern Israeli work. The art scene in Israel is incredible – but seems to be almost wholly unknown outside Israel.
CS: Can you share with us some of your favourite Hebrew and Yiddish children’s books in translation?
ML: In today’s world people seem to be relentlessly hunting for things that are brand new – looking backwards is rarely encouraged. That applies to launching new films, opening new restaurants and exciting new travel destinations. And publishing houses are no exception – both editors and sales teams frequently forget the wonderful books on their own backlists and focus their efforts on the Next Big Book.
There is an incredible cannon of Yiddish literature and, sadly, a good deal remains forgotten and out of print. I have reissued one classic work by Isaac Bashevis Singer and I’m due to publish a new edition of I L Peretz story next year. I hope to do many more. There are modern Hebrew works that I think are wonderful and original – Israeli artwork has reached a really remarkable level over the last ten years – but I am most interested in classic, older works.
CS: In your opinion, what should be translated but hasn’t yet?
ML: Authors such as Bashevis Singer and Peretz are relatively well-known, within and beyond the Jewish community, but there are countless Yiddish storytellers that are long forgotten. There is some great work being done to ensure their tales are not lost – but getting them published and promoted to a wider audience is a challenge. As always, there is a problem with finding funding but hope springs eternal.
Michael was also kind enough to send over some of his books for us to have a look at. We started off with Who Will Ask The Four Questions? By Naomi Ben-Gur, illustrated by Carmel Ben-Ami, translated from Yiddish by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann. This is a story of sibling rivalry set against the backdrop of Seder Night. Big brother Eitan wants to sing the Four Questions at the family Seder Night celebration. But traditionally it’s the youngest who sings this part, as little sister Evie points out. Not content with this, the argument keeps on going until the big day arrives. Who will end up singing?
This sibling argument will be familiar to any parent, the niggling discussions that just won’t go away. For our family with no prior knowledge of Jewish festivities, I did wonder whether a page at the back explaining Seder Night and The Four Questions would have been useful. However, the more I thought about this, the more I thought that no, in books set at Christmas, we don’t have a page explaining this context to children who might not be familiar with it. These aren’t educational resources designed to inform. These are picture books aimed to reflect the reality of Jewish children, and that’s really important. It pushed us to go and investigate further.
We also really enjoyed Benjy’s Blanket by Miguel Gousveia, illustrated by Raquel Catalina, translator not mentioned [originally in Portuguese] (due for publication in Spring 2021). This is a delightful story about a boy’s love for his Grandfather. When Benjy was born, his granddad, a tailor, made him a beautiful blanket. As Benjy grows older, the blanket becomes more tattered, and his mum every so often suggests it’s time to throw the thing away. But to Benjy the blanket is more than just a blanket. Each time this conversation comes round, he takes it to his granddad who reinvents it into something new: a jacket, a scarf, a button.
My daughter has a blanket and she really empathised with Benjy who is desperate to cling onto the last scraps of his blanket and with it, that close relationship with his granddad. This is a really sweet, heart-warming book.
Many thanks to Michael Leventhal at Green Bean Books.