Once upon a time, Akiva was all grown up. He had a wife named Rachel. He had a job as a shepherd. And he had a house—well, maybe not quite a house, but a barn full of straw that kept the two of them warm in winter and gave them shade in summer.
So begins The Donkey and the Garden, a picture book for ages 4-8. Or does it?
Almost, but not quite.
For The Donkey and the Garden is a story within a story that actually begins:
This is the story of Rabbi Akiva, one of the most influential scholars in history. He was a great rabbi and a wise leader and his name was known far and wide… But this story isn’t like other tales. It doesn’t start at the very beginning when Akiva was small. Instead it begins when he was big. In fact, when he was all grown up…
Within this frame lies a fable-style retelling of how a prominent leader from ancient history learned how to read and write at the age of 40. Based on a midrash, it depicts how Akiva’s wife encouraged him to learn to do something so very basic and important, even when he was already grown and embarrassed about having to be in school with children—including his own. Once he finally did learn to read, Akiva went on to become a famous, beloved scholar who we still know about two millenia after his lifetime.
It’s a multi-layered parable. It gives young readers a glimpse of a historical figure, shows them the power of reading, writing, and studying, and encourages them not to shy away from learning new things—no matter how silly they feel doing so. It emphasizes the importance of persistence and determination. It even illustrates just how wrong the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog a new trick,” really is. The youngest book-lovers who can’t yet read will feel a kinship to the illiterate adult Akiva, readers who are struggling but making progress will connect to Akiva’s own struggles, and accomplished young readers will feel a bit of empathy for those who aren’t there yet.
Children learn all sorts of things as they grow up and being ignorant can be scary and embarrassing. This sweet story makes it clear that those feelings fade quickly, and that with the acquisition of a new skill, much can happen. Who knows? They might even go on to make history!
The Donkey and the Garden
Written by Devora Busheri
Illustrated by Menahem Halberstadt
Translated from the Hebrew by Devora Busheri
2021, Green Bean Books
Watch the trailer.
You can buy a copy here* or find it at a library.
*Book purchases made via our affiliate link may earn GLLI a small commission at no cost to you. Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 90 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Recent translations include Tiki: A Very Ruff Year; Alice on the Run: One Child’s Journey Through the Rwandan Civil War; Makhno: Ukrainian Freedom Fighter; Rosa Parks; Magical History Tour: Titanic; Magical History Tour: First Steps on the Moon, LGBTQ YA manga Alter Ego, and the critically acclaimed A House Without Windows.