Debbie’s Song – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Debbie Friedman was a Jewish girl who felt music stir her soul from the time she was child.

Text ©Ellen Leventhal. Illus. ©Natalia Grebtsova
When Debbie Friedman was a little girl, music bubbled up inside her.
All the time. 
Notes and melodies.
Loud and quiet.
Fast and slow.
All swirling around inside her just waiting to burst out.
It was her superpower.

I love the way the illustrator depicts how music flows through Debbie, a visual element that swirls throughout the book.

Debbie is a free spirit, who teaches herself how to play guitar while embracing her Jewish identity, first working in Jewish summer camps and then moving to a kibbutz in Israel. There, she writes songs and sings, and everyone is joyful. But back home, as she sits in a synagogue, she finds no joy.

Text ©Ellen Leventhal. Illus. ©Natalia Grebtsova

Others sit around her, appearing to be bored, distant, lacking in joy as much as she is. Although she’s surrounded by people, she feels alone and lonely, and wonders if she can change things with her music. Could she create community? Could she help heal the world with her songs?

The answer was a resounding YES!! She began to write lyrics, first translating a prayer into a song, and then finding words of her own. But her work wasn’t always welcome. Some felt that she was replacing tradition, that she had no canonical training, but Debbie stayed focused on writing music that she felt included everyone, and in the end succeeded, with her music being sung at Jewish summer camps, schools, and even synagogues.

Debbie eventually found herself standing before a huge audience at Carnegie Hall, her music lifting up a group of strangers who became as one while listening and singing her songs. After being seen as an outsider, she was eventually appointed to faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music. Her music ended up creating joy and touching the hearts of millions around the world.

Activities:

Watch the first two minutes of this documentary video about six cantors, the first featured being Debbie Friedman. It will give you a taste of Debbie’s music and her spirit. She’s also featured at the end of the first hour.

Write a short poem about something that you love, something that fills you with happiness. And then see if you can sing it like a song. Feel free to use a melody that you already know, and see if you can make your words match the melody.

Pair this book with Listen: How Evenlyn Glennie, a Deaf Girl, Changed Percussion by Shannon Stocker, illus. by Devon Holswarth. Discuss how each of these women carved a place for themselves in a world that wasn’t always accepting of them, their abilities, or their music. Also, discuss the similarities and differences of how the illustrations express the musical theme of the stories.

Title: Debbie’s Song: The Debbie Friedman Story

Author: Ellen Leventhal

Illustrator: Natalia Grebtsova

Publisher: Kar-Ben, Lerner Publishing, 2023

Ages: Elementary school

Themes: music, perseverance, women’s history

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

13 thoughts on “Debbie’s Song – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Mona Voelkel says:

    This is such an inspiring book! I love that Debbie had something (music) inside of her that she felt called to share. I think it’s such a great book to start a conversation with children about what they feel called to do. Such a lovely book and review! Thank you, Jilanne!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yay! There’s a reason that the famous Jeopardy winner (forgot his name) studied nonfiction picture books in preparation for being on the show. They provide such a wide variety of information in concise formats. In other words, you can learn so much so fast!

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