Golem by David Wisniewski

  • Title: Golem
  • Author: David Wisniewski
  • Publisher: Clarion Books
  • Year Published: 1996
  • ISBN: 0618894241
  • List Price: $15.95
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: mystery
  • Award(s): Caldecott Award Winner

Author information: David Wisniewski (1953-2002) wrote and illustrated many children’s books using his cut-paper method. When he was young, his mother taught him how to draw, which instilled in him a lifelong love of art. When he was older, he joined the circus as a clown and met his wife when she hired him to perform in a puppet theater. Once he and his wife had children, traveling with the puppet show became impossible and he turned his artistic talents to writing and illustrating children’s books. More information can be found at the HarperCollins website.

Reviews: Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this title favorable reviews, most often citing the beauty of the illustrations and their ability to set a stark and dramatic effect of the cut-paper artwork. Publisher’s Weekly likens this effect to an eerie puppet show. Kirkus mentions the added layer of depth that Wisniewski gives to his Golem that is reminiscent of Shelley’s treatment of her monster. Although SLJ spoke positively of this book, it compared it to another Caldecott book on the same subject, saying, “while the plot is stronger [. . .] Wisniewski’s text lacks the power and child appeal of McDermott’s spare, well-crafted tale”. 

Readers annotation: When the Jewish people are threatened with violence, the only thing that can stop them is the terrible Golem.

Summary: The story of the Golem takes place in Prague in 1580. Jews were being persecuted, being accused of using the blood of Christian children to bake their bread, and these lies were inciting violence against them. Rabbi Loew had a dream telling him how to create the Golem and how it could protect his people. The Golem finds himself enchanted with life and the world around him, but his only purpose is to fight the enemies of the Jews. A mob tries to attack the Jewish ghetto and the Golem destroys it, striking fear into the hearts of the emperor, who promises safety for the Jews if the monster is destroyed. Rabbi Loew is satisfied that his people will be protected, so he returns the Golem to clay, but the Golem could be reawakened if the Jewish people are threatened again.

Evaluation: There were two great strengths of the novel: the rich, captivating cut-paper illustrations and the tender humanization of the Golem. The use of cut-paper adds drama to the artwork and allows for interplay between dark and light, which echoes the tone of the story. The detail on each page will grab the reader’s attention and make him linger on each page in order to absorb the supernatural quality of each illustration. Wisniewski portrays the Golem in a much more sympathetic light than other retellings do, focusing on its feelings as it experiences the world for the first time. The childlike sense of wonder that the Golem has juxtaposes with its violent purpose and destruction, causing the reader to see it as more than just a murderous, unfeeling machine. The reader cannot help feeling sympathetic when the Golem does not want to be destroyed, and wonders what may have happened if the Golem hadn’t been created solely as a tool of protection and destruction. The author’s note at the end of the story puts this folktale in context by explaining the Jewish ghettos of Prague and what was happening at the time, which makes this story resonate more than it would without this background information.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork is gorgeous and the Golem is presented in a way that is fresh and will linger in the readers’ minds much more than the traditional depiction of this creature would. Overall, this title does a beautiful job making this cultural folktale accessible and for a younger audience and giving them a character to sympathize with.
  • Popularity3/5  Unlike Greek mythology or Native American folktales, there is not a huge audience for Jewish folklore. Additionally, because of its dark subject matter and tone, some readers may find this title to be too scary or depressing for them to enjoy. Mature readers who like learning about other cultures and their tales and who don’t mind a darker read will fall in love with this book.
  • Appeal factors: Jewish folklore, folklore, cut-paper illustrations.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Mature readers who want to learn more about Jewish persecution may want to read Meg Wiviott’s Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. This picture book follows a neighborhood cat who starts to see changes in its town before Kristallnacht, and, with thoughtfulness and an informative afterword, it offers a good introduction to the Holocaust for young readers.
  2. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel may be a good fit for readers who want to learn more Jewish folklore. This story depcits Hershel outwitting some hobgoblins who are bent on destroying Hanukkah, and offers a great example of the type of tales that is often found in Jewish lore.

Book talk ideas: The artwork in this book is captivating and would be a great place to start with a book talk. Show the audience a few of the incredible illustrations, and then, as a way to make it interactive, kids could create their own cut-paper illustrations. As they do this, explain the plot of the book, highlighting the folklore aspects, the persecution of the Jews and the Golem’s role in protecting them, and the human traits that Wisniewski gives to his Golem.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What kind of protection does the Golem offer the Jewish people? Why did they need this protection?
  2. How do the cut-paper illustrations enhance the story?
  3. Do you think it’s fair that the Golem was destroyed once its purpose had been served? Did you feel bad for it?

Reason for reading: I love folklore, and I was a religious studies minor in college, so when I saw this retelling of the story of the Golem, I had to read it. I think the myth of the Golem is incredibly interesting, because it stems from a religious culture that has been so abused and oppressed throughout history, and I was curious to see how this would translate for a young audience. I also read The Golem: A Jewish Legend by Beverly Brodsky McDermott, which received a Caldecott Honor, but I felt that this title was more accessible and the artwork was more captivating, so I decided to select Wisniewski’s version for inclusion in my database.

Additional relevant information: Kay E. Vandergrift wrote an article for Rutgers about Golem that provides amazing insight into the book as well as resources for those who may want to use it in a classroom setting. It includes background information on the Golem myth, information on Wisniewski’s other works, discussion questions, correspondence between fans and the author, and information on shadow puppets and paper cutting. This could be a very valuable resource for a program about cut-paper illustrating, puppetry, or folklore.

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