Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Chaya M. Burstein, The Kids Cartoon Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002). Paperback. ISBN: 0827607296. $ 17.95.

After publishing twenty-some books on Judaica for kids, author and artist Chaya Burstein has tackled the most daunting project of all: compacting the entire Hebrew Bible--Torah, Prophets and Writings--into a one hundred and thirty-page cartoon book suitable for children.

Burstein presents the material in a fast-paced, visually engaging manner, retaining key biblical messages and most of the familiar stories. Her touch is sure--she uses enough biblical language to create atmosphere, while lightening the book with invented dialogue, friendly illustrations and occasional jokes.

Often, her text reads like a standard Bible translation. "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," the book starts, and proceeds with a colorfully-illustrated synopsis of creation. Soon Burstein begins adding dialogue balloons, and the real fun begins. When God issues instructions to the newly-formed humans, a daisy-holding youth responds, "Yessir...or Ma'm. Er, nossir..or Ma'm." Besides humanizing the text, the youth's stammering response makes clear Burstein's take on the issue of God's gender.

Burstein's artwork evokes both mystery and humor. Appropriately, God remains unpictured, with divine speech pouring down from the heavens in bold capitals. Burstein's people exude a liveliness and immediacy of emotion that children will enjoy. Her presentation of Mt. Sinai inspires a remarkable degree of awe, given the cartoon format.

The author is particularly good at rendering complaints--both the Israelites' and God's. "I'm tired. Are we there yet?" whines one desert wanderer. Later, their grumbling leads Moses to gripe, "God, they're making me crazy. Now they want meat. Where can I get meat in the middle of the desert?" God responds, "Meat? I'll give them so much meat it will come out of their ears!"

Burstein includes something from every book of the Hebrew Bible, drawing most heavily from Genesis and Exodus, along with substantial selections from Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The less child-friendly books get shorter treatments. Psalms receives a single two-page spread, while Lamentations and the Minor Prophets each get a single frame. Burstein's emphasis on well-known Bible stories--full of character and plot--results in a fast-paced, highly readable book.

Although the author leaves out many of the explicitly sexual passages--Lot's incest with his daughters, for example--Burstein has not completely bowdlerized the text. She retains a reference to David and Bathsheba making love, noting that Bathsheba becomes pregnant. Her artwork shows the same moderation: Eve has full breasts without nipples, in Barbie-doll fashion.

Burstein tones down, but does not eliminate biblical violence. She avoids showing Ahab's death, but does show a particularly grisly image of dogs lapping his blood--along with Jezebel's, although the Bible is less specific about her ultimate fate. Later, Burstein shows a priest of Ba'al preparing to throw an infant to the flames. Most children today are accustomed to plenty of violence onscreen. Still, adults may want to be available to answer questions or reassure.

Overall, Burstein has managed to stay laudably true to the text--which presents its own challenges. Frequently, religious leaders have been at pains to provide palatable explanations for particularly unpalatable episodes. In making the Bible more child-friendly, Burstein is lowering the age at which children may be exposed to such biblical messages without the corresponding explanations.

One key biblical lesson that Burstein renders quite accurately is that calamities--personal and societal--are God's punishment for evil-doing. This analysis of God's role does not sit well with many people in post-holocaust generations, and some modern religious leaders--Lawrence Kushner, for example--work hard to provide an opposing message. Parents who want to teach their kids that "bad things can happen to good people too" will want to balance the text with discussion.

Children whose parents are of mixed religious backgrounds may be confused or upset by Burstein's rendition of the book of Ezra. "You are forgetting the Torah!" Ezra berates the populace in the pouring rain. "You must divorce your foreign partners. You must become a God-fearing people again, living by God's laws." Children with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent may wonder if their parents, like the characters, should be doing what Ezra demands.

Many of these concerns relate less to Burstein's work than to the Bible itself. Overall, Burstein's book is praiseworthy. She has selected stories that will interest children most, presented them in visually exciting ways, and ably summarized complex content in a manner that keeps the stories moving.

Congratulations to Burstein on producing a lively, attractive and readable volume--a wonderful way to introduce children to the Bible.

Marian Broida
Seattle, WA