A Language for Angels and People
Book reviewed: The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew – Richard Michelson and Karla Gudeon, Charlesbridge, 2017
This year, the Sydney Taylor Book Award for excellence in Jewish children’s literature and the National Jewish Book Award in Children’s Literature went to the same book. The Language of Angels tells the story of the reinvention of Hebrew as a modern language, told from the perspective of a young boy, Ben-Zion, in late nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Ben-Zion is the son of Eliezer Ben –Yehuda, the quixotic pioneer who stubbornly insisted that the ancient language could be revived and used every day by Jews in communicating with one another, no matter where they were from. The elder Ben-Yehuda, in order to accomplish his goal, involved his family in a unique experiment; they would speak to one another only in this developing tongue.
Was this linguistic experiment also a difficult psychological one for the linguist’s son? You can be sure it was, and the book describes his initial loneliness and frustration. Since Richard Michelson and Karla Gudeon’s purpose, however, is to educate and inspire, the book emphasizes the positive and exciting aspect of inventing new words for ice cream and bicycle, until eventually other children join in the “new adventure.”
“It is like building a school brick by brick,” Eliezer Ben-Yehuda assures them. “We are building a language word by word.” One of the most successful features of the story is the way that author and illustrator convey excitement about the nature of language itself, the process by which it changes and develops.
Another great feature of the book is the amount of information it contains, as a picture book for young children. Some pages have four or five lines of text; others have a full page of text facing a picture. There is also an extensive afterward, which includes an explanation of some historical liberties the author took in creating his narrative. Children will learn to appreciate the distinctions between fiction, history, and historical fiction, and understand that changing minor details as an artistic decision does not necessarily compromise the book’s validity.
I like the pictures. In a review on Tablet Magazine, Marjorie Ingall expresses some reservations about both the pictures and the unusual font. Her description of the illustrations as “a…mashup of medieval illuminated manuscripts and 1970s Fisher-Price Little People” is typically hilarious, and the characters’ faces are certainly not very defined. However, since I like both medieval manuscripts and the retro Fisher-Price figures, I can’t really complain. They are colorful and simple and their engagement in helping to “build” modern Hebrew is depicted as a kind of game, so the pictures work. As for the font, it does remind me of essays students would submit when I was a teacher, as if they hoped that a quirky font would make their work look more impressive. But I don’t think that goal was behind the choice of lettering here and they seem to work well with Gudeon’s illustrations.
Ingall mentions some slight inaccuracies, including assertions about when and where Hebrew was used prior to becoming a modern language. I was more concerned about some minor issues in Michelson’s description of the languages spoken by Jews throughout the world. He lists both Ladino and Spanish, without noting that Ladino, otherwise known as Judeo-Spanish (judeoespañol, judezmo), is the dialect of spoken by Jews in Spain and taken with them after their expulsion in 1492. Similarly, although Michelson shows Yiddish speakers in the village greeting one another with “Guten tog,” that expression would be much more typical of German. The most common daily greeting in Yiddish would have been “Shalom aleichem,” (“peace be upon you). These are minor quibbles, but in a book about language, they do have some importance.
I was a little more concerned in reading about Devorah, Mrs. Ben-Yehuda. It’s not easy living with a genius. She was part of her husband’s project and she is portrayed as sharing in it with enthusiasm and commitment, but I kept reading between the lines. In one anecdote, her husband returns home to find her singing a lullaby to their son in Russian, her first language. The picture shows her embracing her child, not seeing her husband’s shocked face as he opens the door. (insert image). “Eliezer as furious. He yelled. He stamped his feet.” Little Ben-Zion stands up for his mother and the family has a group hug and dances together. I bet it didn’t happen like that and I was disturbed by Ben-Yehuda’s controlling rage. I understand that this nuance might not be relevant to young readers, but I think a parent might have to do some explaining here.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy sharing this book with your children, for the reasons I have described. It uses language, and pictures, to tell a story about people who are in love with language, and that is a worthy and appropriate experience to share with our kids.