Queen Esther comes alive in new children’s book about Purim

Photo of Brian Koonz

Martha Seif Simpson still remembers the kaleidoscope of penny candy at Dotty’s Variety. The pink bubble gum, the wisps of red licorice, those ubiquitous Necco Wafers — rows and rows of sweets awaiting a fistful of coins.

Her parents, Sam and Dorothy Seif, owned the neighborhood grocery on Allen Street in New Bedford, Mass., for nearly 20 years. As a young Jewish girl, Simpson grew up selling candy, eggs, milk, pretty much anything local kids ran to the store to fetch.

Although times have changed — Simpson is now the head of children’s services at Stratford Library and a published children’s author — the traditions remain the same.

For generations of Jews in New England and around the world, the coming of spring signals Purim, a holiday marking how Queen Esther thwarted Haman and his plan to kill the Jews in ancient Persia.

This year, Purim begins at sundown on March 20. As part of the festivities, children at temple dress in costumes, often with crowns, masks and capes. They also shake and spin noisemakers called graggers to drown out Haman’s name when it’s read in the Megillah, a text that recounts how Queen Esther foiled Haman’s plot.

But sometimes, as Simpson writes in her new children’s book, “Esther’s Gragger: A Toyshop Tale of Purim,” a little girl can be just as heroic as the queen who shares her name.

After young Esther does many good deeds, her brother buys her a magnificent gragger from the toyshop. Later in the story, when she gets bullied, Esther takes her gragger and swings it around and around to drown out the bully — just like the kids do at temple when Haman’s name is read.

Forget about the drawn swords and the pointed words. Esther discovers that a noisemaker in the right hands is enough to quash the meanest bully.

“To me, the story of Queen Esther and Purim is all about how she stood up to a bully, Haman,” says Simpson, 64, who lives in Hamden with her husband, John. “She was very brave to do that. But then, how do you translate that into a children’s story? Bullying has always been a problem for kids and it’s even more of a problem now.”

Simpson says “Esther’s Gragger,” which takes place in Eastern Europe before World War II, teaches children that bullying is unacceptable in any context. Suddenly, the message of Purim takes on a universal meaning, one that transcends religion to advance kindness and community.

“It’s a good book to read in the classroom or at home because you can get discussions going, ways to talk about bullying in the open, and how to address it and prevent it,” Simpson says, adding that her story is designed for children ages 4 and up. “There are issues here we can all learn from.”

Along with drawing from Dolly’s Variety to include a toyshop in her story, Simpson takes on bullying and social injustice to honor her father, a Holocaust survivor, and the 6 million Jews murdered in the Nazi genocide.

“My father was born in Poland and a lot of his family perished in the Holocaust,” Simpson says. “He was the youngest of seven kids. He had two older sisters that I was named for. One of the sisters had a family, but they all died. My father’s parents also died in the Holocaust. There’s a lot of history there.”

And it must not be forgotten.

Simpson says stories are powerful, a memorable way to pass down important stories and oral histories. Not surprisingly, Simpson’s four children were all avid readers when they were little. In fact, her two daughters became librarians, too.

“Esther’s Gragger” is Simpson’s second book published by Indiana-based Wisdom Tales. In 2014, she published “The Dreidel that Wouldn’t Spin: A Toyshop Tale of Hanukkah.” Both books were illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard.

Wisdom Tales, which specializes in publishing multicultural books, worked with Simpson to expand her audience beyond Jewish children.

“At the very end of the books,” Simpson says, “there’s information about Purim and Hanukkah: What is Purim? What is Hanukkah? How is the holiday celebrated today? This is how you play dreidel. This is how you can make your own gragger.”

For Simpson’s family, the games and traditions have come full circle. At the circulation desk.

“Every time we go into a library — my kids and I call it, ‘The Martha Test’ — they go on the computer and they see if the library owns any of my books,” Simpson says. “Sometimes they do, in which case, I go and introduce myself to the librarian. Other times, they don’t. But it’s always kind of fun.”

So is there a third “Toyshop Tale” ahead for Simpson?

“We’ll see,” she smiled, clearly guarding a secret. “I have a few ideas I’m working on.”

Brian Koonz is a former reporter, editor and columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.