A Passover Story Brought Comfort to Jewish Children Touched by Tragedy

This article appeared over fourteen years ago, but every Passover my family recalls the horrific incident and how our traditions have helped us cope with the adversities of life.   Pages bookstore is no longer open, and the Publisher of The Littlest Frog is out of business. The rights to the story have been returned to me, and one day I hope to find a new home for the book. 

“A Passover Story Comforts Jewish Children Touched by Tragedy”

March 26, 2002 by Patricia Ward Biederman, Los Angeles Times

After Buford O. Furrow Jr. shot up the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999, nursery school teacher Sylvia Rouss volunteered to work with the preschool children traumatized by what they had seen.

Many were alarmed every time someone new came into the classroom. Every loud noise and disrupted routine made them tense and fearful.

Because Rouss is a writer as well as a teacher, she found a way to comfort them with language. A frightened little frog emerged from somewhere in her subconscious, a frog that might help the children find their courage and hearten others. Because Rouss’ work is steeped in Jewish tradition, the frog happened to be one whose brethren rained down on Pharaoh in the biblical account of the Jews’ bondage in Egypt and their deliverance.

The story is retold every year at Passover, which begins this year on Wednesday night.

A rhyme that seems to etch itself into young brains appeared in the book that resulted, “The Littlest Frog,” published last year: “The littlest frog was very afraid. He hid under the bed, and that’s where he stayed.” The littlest frog eventually comes out from under Pharaoh’s bed, and Pharaoh ends up cowering under it.

Rouss, 51, is among a handful of authors who write for young and very young Jewish children and the adults who buy books for them. According to Darlene Daniel, owner of Pages, a children’s bookstore in Tarzana, “The Littlest Frog” sells briskly this time of year to parents celebrating Passover with their children and to those attending a seder and seeking a gift for the child who may be asking the traditional four questions or hunting for hidden matzo.

The author of almost two dozen titles, Rouss realized there was a paucity of holiday books for Jewish youngsters a dozen years ago when she found herself writing original material to use with her students in Baltimore.

She now teaches at the Stephen S. Wise Temple Nursery School in Los Angeles.

Conventional wisdom at the time held that holidays could not be taught to 2-year-olds, Rouss recalled.

But she knew she could do it if she used catchy rhymes and vivid illustrations.

Rouss gives kudos to her illustrators, Holly Hannon, Katherine Kahn and Lisa Steinberg.

“The written word, for little children, isn’t enough,” she said. “You need the visual.”

Published in 1992, Rouss’ first book was “Fun With Jewish Holiday Rhymes.” Her second, published the following year, launched a series featuring a winning arachnid named Sammy Spider.

The book, “Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah,” was a natural, in spite of Rouss’ fear of spiders, “because a spider has eight legs and there are eight days of Hanukkah.”

Sammy typically begins his adventures as an outsider who longs to participate in the lives of the Jewish families he lives among. That sense of not belonging is familiar to children, Rouss said: “So often children see themselves as the other, and especially Jewish children see themselves as the other.”

Rouss said she wanted to write a Hanukkah story to give Jewish youngsters a sense of the beauty of their own holiday.

“As a Jewish child and a Jewish family, you have to work at being Jewish,” Rouss said. “It’s not out there in the stores for you. Children were intrigued by Christmas, and I don’t blame them.”

Rouss said that one of the great pleasures of reading from her work, which she is often invited to do, is hearing a roomful of children spontaneously chant favorite lines such as “Spiders don’t spin dreidels. Spiders spin webs.”

Compelling characters are key to Rouss’ appeal, Daniel said, along with her rhymed couplets, which give an upbeat, jaunty tone even to material with religious themes.

“Her books are truly loved, and I believe that is because children identify with her characters, who are little people observing the larger world,” Daniel said.

Rouss said she sees the roots of Sammy, with his loving mother and irrepressible curiosity, in such classic Disney films as “Bambi.”

“The animal characters are often very curious, and they have this doting mother who indulges them and is teaching them at the same time,” said Rouss.

Rouss, who has three grown children, is about to publish a new series with a human protagonist. The series “Growing Up Jewish with Sarah Leah Jacobs” deals with the milestones of Jewish life, from bris to death.

Asked what possessed her to write a lighthearted book, such as “The Littlest Frog,” about divine retribution, Rouss laughed: “That’s the one plague that children are really drawn to because frogs are seen as funny, silly and whimsical.”

As a bookseller, Daniel praised Rouss’ choice of biblical calamities: “It sure beats boils.”