________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 3 . . . . October 1, 2004


Rachel's Library.

Richard Ungar.
Toronto, ON: Tundra, 2004.
32 pp., cloth, $22.99.
ISBN 0-88776-678-1.

Preschool-grade 2 / Ages 4-7.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

**1/2 /4

The mythical village of Chelm, Poland, is again the site of Richard Ungar's third book about Rachel, a wise little girl who solves problems using common sense. Chelm, in Yiddish folklore, is a 19th century shtetl full of good-hearted souls who take things literally. This tongue-in-cheek tale is gently told and delivers a positive message in a kindly manner.

     The modern-day equivalent of a Chelmer is Amelia Bedelia, so familiar to young children today. The people of Chelm want to convince the rest of the world they are not fools, and so they draw straws for representatives to go to the capital city of Warsaw. Of course, that means they all get out their drawing materials to see who can create the best art. Rachel's father, Simon, is chosen to lead the delegation and sets out with a horse and cart for the Big City. Rachel hides under a blanket and is only discovered when it is too late to return home.

     When the group arrives in Warsaw, they are dumbstruck by the size of the buildings, the fancy fashions and the bustling marketplace. At first, they are sure that Chelm should adopt these new ways of doing things. But when Simon and his friends consider each idea, they conclude that none of them makes sense for their small town.

     Izzie navigated the cart down a broad avenue. Gazing up at the grand buildings, he remarked, "Look, everyone! The houses here are so tall. Even a bird would be out of breath flying so high! I am certain if we built houses like these in Chelm, no one would ever doubt our wisdom."

     "But who would want to live in such houses?" said Myriam. "Not I, for one. From such a height I would never be able to peek into Sarah the Weaver's parlor to see what's going on, or smell the wonderful aroma coming from Selma the Cook's kitchen."

     At the end of a long day, the delegation thinks it has failed to convince the world of Chelm's wisdom. Rachel suggests they can display their collective knowledge by adopting one good idea from Warsaw -- building a library. Simon, Izzie and Myriam are doubtful, but they return to Chelm with Rachel's proposal. She begins the library with one book, adds another and, of course, soon everyone in the town contributes a book. The library is built in the perfect spot, right around the community water pump, and so villagers visit often and read while they are waiting their turn for water.

internal art     The story stumbles at the beginning. The villagers want to convince the world they are wise but send their delegation to Warsaw to "find a solution." Which is it? The delegation has no plan of action. Is it their intention to observe how others live and adopt their ways? Luckily, Rachel rescues the plot with her reminder that wise people read.

     This is the best of the three books about Rachel. The wisdom of the Chelmers shines through, even if they don't know it. They live their lives in the best way for their own situation and embrace only ideas that will improve their rural village life.

     Author Richard Ungar is also the illustrator and uses a style that is reminiscent of Marc Chagall, with crooked fence posts and skewed perspective. Bright reds, pinks, orange and other colours blanket the page in watercolour and pencil crayons. This is daring artwork, but it is startling to the eye. I found the smaller charcoal sketches above each page of text more appealing. Even so, there is a rough quality to the drawings, especially those of the human figure. It would be interesting to see how another illustrator such as Dusan Petricic might represent this story.

     Nevertheless, Rachel's Library would be a wise purchase for sagacious parents, teachers and teacher-librarians.


Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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