Before You Were Born Hardcover – Mar 24 2005
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From School Library Journal
Grade 1-3–A child asks for a story about "before I was born." What follows is a tale from Jewish legend, based on stories of Lailah, the guardian of the human soul. It is this angel, readers learn, who watches over the Treasury of Souls in heaven. Once a soul is chosen, she brings it down to earth and plants it as a seed in the mother's womb. There she proceeds to tell the soul the secrets of the world: the languages of the animals and of the wind plus the history of that soul, it's past and future. When the time comes to lead the child into the world, she touches the baby's upper lip, creating an indention, as a reminder to keep this knowledge a secret. "But don't worry," the father tells his now sleeping child, "you have the rest of your life to learn all those wondrous secrets again." As a folktale, this story is lovely and provocative. It combines a compelling explanation of a universal physical trait with a religious view of the soul's journey through life. The textured, mixed-media art has a nice mixture of unpolished innocence as seen in the landscapes and calm serenity that exudes from the composed faces. However, in a couple of instances (Lailah bringing the seed in the form of a flower and reading from a lamplit Book of Secrets inside the mother's womb), it is problematic to depict fantastical elements in concrete terms. This book invites interesting comparisons to Mordicai Gerstein's The Mountains of Tibet (HarperCollins, 1989).–Martha Topol, Traverse Area District Library, Traverse City, MI
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PreS-Gr. 2. In spare, serene language, Schwartz reshapes a rabbinic legend into the answer to a familiar plea, "Tell me a story about before I was born." The quiet picture book begins: "The angel Lailah watched over you," leading your soul to Earth and teaching you "all the secrets of the world." But at the time of your birth, Lailah "put a finger to your lips, reminding you to keep everything she taught a secret. That is how you got the indentation of your upper lip." Of course, it's easy to imagine little fingers touching upper lips at the close of this gentle story, which shares its title with two other fairly recent picture books. How does this one differ? Where Jennifer Davis' (1998) lift-the-flap book is presented from a pregnant woman's viewpoint, and Nancy White Carlstrom's (2002) celebrates Psalm 139, Schwartz's makes the soul the centerpiece. Swarner's ethereal, mixed-media illustrations illuminate the spirituality of the telling, and the uplifting idea of a guardian angel will comfort many young listeners. An author's note describes the origin of the folktale. Julie Cummins
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
My children and I really enjoy reading this book together. Not only is it a beautiful story, complete with angels and folklore, but it is a perfect story for initiating conversations about souls and heaven.
Not wanting to upset anyone, I'll say that the story is described as a "midrash" (a Rabbinic legend) found in Midrash Tanhuma, first published in Constantinople in 1522. But for a non-Jewish non-religious person such as myself it is regarded, by me, as a very creative way to describe what happens while a baby is developing in the womb (a question often asked by children of ALL backgrounds). It involves angels, particularly the angel Lailah. Again, a creature easily described as mythical if you are from the non-religious set.
My favorite part, which will also capture little minds and send them spinning in wonderment because it brings the story so close to reality, is when the angel Lailah presses its finger over the newborn's lip and tells the baby to keep a secret -- thus leaving an indentation there. Every child in the world will reach up to their mouth at that point and feel their upper lip. I guarantee that!
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