Matzah Belowstairs – Susan Lynn Meyer and Mette Engell, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2019
There is an undeniable appeal to the suggestion that mice, adorable anthropomorphic ones, live parallel lives hidden in our own homes. Beatrix Potter’s lifelike creatures lived among other animals but also interacted with humans. In Beverly Donofrio and Barbara McClintock’s modern classics, Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, and Where’s Mommy? (Mary and the Mouse), a girl and a mouse develop a friendship based on the parallel parts of their respective lives.
In the world of Jewish children’s books, Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing gives us a similar glimpse into the mouse world, as the author and illustrator relate the story of a traditional folksong. Florence Zeldin’s A Mouse in Our Jewish House introduces Jewish holidays through cut out paper pictures of an enthusiastic participant, who happens to be a mouse. The story that Susan Lynn Meyer tells in Matzah Belowstairs follows this tradition, although Engel’s illustration style is more in tune with modern animation than with the nostalgic images of other mouse stories.
It’s Passover, and the Winkler family in apartment 4B is getting ready to celebrate with the ritual Seder and meal. Belowstairs, things are much more hectic, because Miriam Mouse and her family cannot find a single piece of matzah: “There won’t be anything to remind us of the time our mouse ancestors left Egypt in too big a hurry for the bread to rise!”
Their cozy apartment looks busy, nonetheless, with Miriam and her parents reading the book of Exodus on their couch, while the grandparents chop vegetable in anticipation of the holiday’s beginning. They reassure Miriam that it is not her fault that the matzah is missing, blaming the Winkler’s acquisition of a new tin box, so securely closed that no mouse-size pieces have fallen out and landed below the floorboards. Eli Winkler’s dad hides the afikomen, a piece of matzah that Eli will need to find and return to the family, in order to conclude the festive meal and begin the last part of the Seder. In searching for this valuable piece of unleavened bread, Eli runs into an anxious Miriam. Who will get the piece of matzah which both families are seeking?
Mette Engel’s pictures are sure to please young readers. The characters’ facial expressions clearly signal their moods, whether a bereft Miriam left in tears at the thought of an incomplete Seder, or a surprised Eli meeting Miriam on a bookshelf as they both do their jobs. There are images which give the perspective of small people and smaller mice, as one where young Eli stands amidst a group of adult guests shown only from their feet to their waists, while, belowstairs, the mouse family is busily engaged in holiday preparations. I particularly like the mouse grandparents: Grandpa with his matching, slightly dorky, zigzag print sweater and yarmulke, and Grandma, wearing pearls and delicate half-glasses.
Matzah Belowstairs is a playful and clever addition to Passover books for kids, as well as to the age-old genre of mice and their secret lives.