Books with a “This is the House that Jack Built” format often use the first line as the title of the book. However, the first line is just a starting point from which to build the actual story. “This is the house that Jack built,” is not about the house at all but about the community around the house. Similarly, The Matzah that Papa Brought Home, by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Ned Bittinger, is not about matzah at all but about the Passover seder.
With tight and lyrical rhyme, Manushkin captures the high points of the Passover Seder from a child’s point of view. The narrator is clearly the child of the “Papa” who brought home the matzah. The child voice is unmistakable in the fourth spread into the story, when we read, “This is me standing tall and proud/ to ask the Four Questions nice and loud/ during the Passover Seder we shared/ to eat the feast that Mama made/ with the matzah that Papa brought home.” This passage reveals that the narrator is the youngest child in this family and the illustration portrays a sweet six-year-old girl who is glowing with the responsibilities of her question-asking task. My inner-child especially connected with the line, “This is “Dayenu,” a very long song/ that we sang with our stomachs growling along…”
Bittinger’s paintings are rendered in oil paint on linen using deep shadow and glowing light to intensify emotion and lead the eye of the viewer around the painting. From the feast, to clearing the table, to the child trying to sneak a bit of matzah, the images capture the chaos and order of a Passover Seder. My favorite image is of the narrator sitting on Papa’s lap, each of them taking pinkies full of wine to diminish their pleasure while reciting the plagues. The figures are bathed in light, the background a deep brown/black but in the middle values, frogs and locusts hop, and rains fall on enslaved Hebrew workers. This dreamy sequence allows two stories, Manushkin’s and the Exodus, to be told at the same time. www.franmanushkin.com/thematzahpapabroughthome.htm
The only issue I had with the book was the line, “This is the feast that Mama made with the matzah that Papa brought home.” I stumbled over this line when reading it aloud to my boys and we all looked at each other. My son said, “The roasted chicken [in the illustration] didn’t come from the matzah.” I agreed. Obviously, the feast was made to go along with the matzah but the syntax suggested that the whole feast was made from the matzah.
Scholastic published the book in 1995, and it is well worth the interlibrary loan. If you are looking to buy the book, it was reprinted in paperback in 2001 and should be available for order through your nearest Indie-bookshop. Happy Passover to all!