Jewish books! My absolutely favorite, and since I don’t always check NetGalley with regularity (because I’m pretty realistic about what I have time for, unless it’s a used book sale and then all reality flies out the window), I often miss out on what they have to offer. Not this time! I came across The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) while browsing NetGalley’s stacks one day and leapt to request it. Lo and behold, I was approved! Huge thanks to NetGalley. Orca Book Publishers, and Joanne Levy for allowing me to read and review this book.
Elsie is super excited about Purim this year. Her Queen Esther costume, created by her costume designer dad and which she’s still trying to accessorize with the perfect finishing touches, is going to be amazing, and she can’t wait to wear it at her synagogue’s Purim celebration. But then the bad news drops: the Purim celebration is cancelled. The synagogue is in serious financial trouble and is in danger of closing altogether. Elsie is devastated…and then she gets to work. If Queen Esther saved the Jews, Elsie can surely save her synagogue!
With her rabbi’s approval, Elsie’s synagogue opens up the Purim celebration to outsiders and begins to sell tickets to the events. It’s not just hamantaschen and hard work; Elsie and her best friend Grace experience a little bit of prejudice along the way. Things only get dicier when the synagogue is vandalized. Can Elsie continue to find inspiration in the story of Esther, or will Purim and the synagogue be cancelled entirely?
This is a charming, modern-day story centered around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from imminent death at the hands of the evil villain Haman. It’s traditional to dress up in costumes (biblical or not; there was a banana at my synagogue this year), get drunk (yes, really!), and make lots of noise (including a very loud, “BOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when Haman’s name is mentioned). Elsie’s Christian best friend Grace serves as an outsider who’s unfamiliar with Purim and needs the basics explained to her, opening up this story to be enjoyed and understood by middle grade readers of all backgrounds.
Elsie is a spunky, determined kid who doesn’t always make the right choices (and what kid does?), but she learns from her mistakes and has excellent follow-through. Not only is this book full of fabulous Jewish representation, her best friend is Black, and her two dads, Dad and Abba, make for great LGBT representation, especially as it’s never commented on as being a Thing, just presented as Elsie’s everyday life, which I loved.
There are a few instances of antisemitism and racism here. Nothing violent and in-your-face scary, but sensitive kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to live with these threats may benefit a few conversations about them with a loving adult. Elsie’s courage in the face of hatred and the violation of her community’s sacred space provides a great lesson in bravery and the refusal to back down when it comes to creating the kind of future you want and need.
The Book of Elsie is a quick, charming read that should delight younger readers as well as educate those who may not be familiar with Purim. This would make for a great parent-child read; not only is it a lovely book headed by a determined main character, there are a lot of great discussion points throughout the book, and I can imagine many wonderful conversations a parent and child may have as they make their way through the story. I’m going to read this with my eight-year-old soon. I expect that she’ll love it. : )