Thank you to author Anna Olswanger for the review copy of SHLEMIEL CROOKS, which is illustrated with cool ombre/woodcut illustrations by Paula Goodman Koz. This book was provided in exchange for an honest review, for Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2021.
Shlemiel is Yiddish for idiot, and yes, you recognize it from the Laverne & Shirley theme song.
This middle-grade picture book, told in a style similar to a tall tale, relates the true story of a hilariously-bungled robbery of Reb Elias Olschwanger’s (not a coincidence, he was the author’s great-grandfather) Saloon in a majority-Jewish neighborhood in 1919 St. Louis.
Reb had had some Passover wine shipped special from Israel grown from the seeds Moses smuggled out of Egypt.
Urged on by a Pharoh holding a 3-millennia-long grudge about losing his slaves, some crooks “with sauerkraut for brains” decide to clean out Reb’s stash while he’s at a Talmud Society meeting.
The crooks don’t realize a talking horse is ratting them out to the sleeping neighbors who band together and scare the crooks away in a hilarious and chaotic-in-a-good-way climax. (Ties back to the Passover theme in a hilarious and heartwarming way).
Being “not exactly overstocked in the brains department”, the crooks leave their horse and wagon to improve the Olschwangers’ business because “if you spit up in the air, the spit’s going to land on your own face.”
- The curses against the crooks (“His teeth should fall out except one, then he could have a toothache”) every time they’re mentioned are hilarious.
- The unnamed narrator has a larger-than life personality that reads like a long, educational comedy routine.
- History woven in, including the most entertaining and thorough account of Moses’s Exodus this Catholic has ever heard. “The Israelites were telling Pharaoh they’d be seeing him in the funny papers.” 1
- Showcasing some of the good values taught in Judaism (Imaginary space lasers aside, antisemitism is a growing problem in our country.)
- Climax will have you rolling with laughter.
- Text contains translated copies of the actual newspaper stories; the narrator assures you that you’re welcome for the English translation.
- Trigger Warning: There is a gun fired in the chaos, not at anybody and not hitting anybody, to scare the crooks away.
Most of the people in this book (save the crooks, may their earphone cords always be tangled) are Jewish, an often-marginalized group that is given a seat at the diversity table far too infrequently.
The kidlit community needs to reflect on why nobody’s talking about this, and what message that sends not only Jewish children, but non-Jewish children at risk of growing up to be dangerous anti-Semites.
Somebody’s crotchety, scratchy-voiced old grandparent needs to come in for World Read Aloud Day and share this gorgeous book.
Confidential to Educators and Librarians: FREE Diverse Books for Classrooms Program – Multicultural Children’s Book Day is a list of the coolest books you need in your life.
1 Subtle but effective callout that this famous Old Testament story is also in the Talmud. Well-played.