________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 8. . . .October 23, 2009


Clever Rachel.

Debby Waldman. Illustrated by Cindy Revell.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2009.
32 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-1-55469-081-7.

Grades 2-5 / Ages 7–10.

Review by Kimberley Siwak & Gregory Bryan.

**½ /4



But songs made Rachel wail. Fairy tales kept her awake. Riddles relaxed her, so riddles she heard.

To no one’s surprise, Rachel’s first sentence was a riddle. It was a simple riddle—“What crosses the river but cannot move?” And it made perfect sense. Just outside the inn was a wooden bridge that crossed the Olkinik River.

As Rachel grew up, her mother tried to teach her to sew, cook and keep house. But Rachel was more interested in riddles.

Debby Waldman’s retelling of a Jewish folktale, Clever Rachel, recounts the story of a young girl with a passion for riddles. From the day she is born, Rachel’s parents discover that riddles affect Rachel in the manner that other children are affected by fairytales—they calm her. Rachel seems uninterested in the traditional female roles and skills that others try to impose upon her. Rather, she is interested only in problem-solving and word games. “Rachel can solve any riddle!” a friend announces at dinner one night. The declaration prompts a young boy, Jacob, to see this as a threat to his supposed superiority in the realm of riddles.

internal art      One day, Jacob and Rachel are visited by a woman in need of help. “I hear there is a clever child at this inn. One who is good at solving riddles,” the woman cries. The woman explains that it is the tradition in her beloved’s village that, in order to marry the one she loves, she must solve three riddles. After some initial reluctance to work together, Rachel and Jacob eventually begin to cooperate in order to assist the distraught woman.

     Cindy Revell’s acrylic illustrations feature broad brush strokes and soft, rounded shapes. The earthy tones are reflective of the warm, fireside setting of the story. They give the feel of being inside Rachel’s parents’ inn, observing and listening to the characters passing by. Revell’s characters have evocative, believable facial expressions which add detail and drama to the story. Despite these strengths, the artwork seems incongruent with the text in terms of complexity. Where the illustrations seemed directed at a younger audience, the printed text’s sophistication seems beyond the comprehension of those readers for whom the illustrations will be most appealing.

     Orca suggests this book is most suitable for 4 to 8-year-olds. This age range seems much too young for our liking. We are more inclined to think the book’s text is more appropriate for children who have developed some reading independence and familiarity with the concept of riddles. Whilst the sentence structure is generally navigable, because of the culture being reflected, sometimes the word order and some word choices will be unfamiliar to most young readers. The inclusion of Jewish terms adds authenticity to the text but simultaneously increases the reading difficulty. Although the end page includes a list of seven additional riddles, which add to the enjoyment of the book, we feel that a glossary and/or pronunciation guide might have been a more useful addition.

     While there is a lot to like about Clever Rachel, we feel that the incompatibility of the text and illustrations diminishes the value of the book in that the children capable of enjoying the book’s plot may be off put by the style of the artwork; those many young children who will be attracted to the artwork will struggle to comprehend the story and decipher the riddles that are central to that story.

Recommended with reservations.

Kimberley Siwak is a graduate student in literacy education and is currently teaching kindergarten. Gregory Bryan teaches literacy classes in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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