Call it the greatest story ever re-told.
Jewish Publication Society CEO and editor-in-chief Ellen Frankel is gearing up for the launch of the JPS Illustrated Children's Bible, as retold by Frankel and illustrator Avi Katz, set for release next month.
The hardbound book collects 53 stories from the Hebrew Bible — culled from the 1985 JPS translation — accompanied throughout by full-color, and many full-page, illustrations. Part of the book's goal, explained Frankel, is to introduce youngsters to the Hebrew Bible — to the book's language and rhythms.
But the publishing veteran said that she has an even loftier vision in mind.
A lot of children "don't know the Bible, and Western literature is basically built on it," she said, pointing out that if you don't know core Bible stories, "you can't really read English literature, understand poetry," appreciate art or fully grasp much of the world's cultural canon.
It's an undertaking familiar to Frankel, having published a similar title for adult readers 10 years ago. While the process of writing and editing the children's manuscript took about a year, the work had a much longer gestation period than that.
Frankel said that she'd been considering the idea for 15 of her 18 years at JPS, and that part of the impetus behind the book was the fact that the publisher had not been offering a children's Bible. She initially brought the idea to the late Chaim Potok in the mid-1990s, when he served as chair of JPS's editorial committee, and she was encouraged to write it and show him a sample.
But for a number of reasons, she backed off.
When she finally tackled the project, Frankel was particularly cognizant that many of the less wholesome bits of the Five Books of Moses would have to be left out — rapes, murders and, as she put it, all the things they don't teach you in Sunday school, precisely because the material is inappropriate for children.
Some stories, like the binding of Isaac, had to be included, she said, because they're so central to Western culture, yet the rape of Dinah was left out.
Just to be safe, Frankel "lab-tested" the book with teens and preteens, asking them to look for anything deemed scary or uncomfortable.
A Range of Styles
When it came to selecting an illustrator, Frankel settled on Katz, a native Philadelphian living in Israel, whom she had worked with in the past. Part of the reason he was chosen over others, she said, was because "he has a tremendous range of styles — he doesn't just have one look."
There was, however, the issue of money.
"We only had enough money to pay for 30 illustrations, but he couldn't stop," she said.
Katz went ahead and illustrated all 53 stories, said Frankel.
She noted that the artist produced some inspired concepts of his own, such as giving legs to the snake in the Adam and Eve story, making it closer to a lizard, interpreting that God took the creature's legs away as punishment and made it crawl on its belly.
Frankel said that the illustrated text is geared to children approximately age 7 and older, but her ambitions go beyond just the grade-school crowd.
Many parents, she said, may not know these stories, and experiencing them with their children may inspire them to seek out the genuine article.
After all, she pointed out, "the Bible is kind of a national history" of the Jewish people.