ֿOnce upon a time, each of us learned to read, and for virtually everyone picture books held pride of place. I have fond memories reading and re-reading (and re-reading) the incredible Asterix and Tintin series. So why do adults learn new languages with textbooks? I am currently learning Biblical Hebrew and was pleased to discover the Illustrated Ruth, Esther, Jonah in Hebrew (hereafter Illustrated REJ) by Timothy C. McNinch and GlossaHouse.
Illustrated Ruth, Esther, Jonah
The Illustrated REJ has colorful illustrations that function as visual context for the written Hebrew text. With narrative boxes and speech bubbles, it resembles a graphic novel. An English translation sits at the bottom of the page.
The Hebrew text is adapted from the Westminster Leningrad Codex (WTT). For ease of reading, the vowel points are retained but the cantillation marks are removed. They also preferred the Qere readings although all instances of both forms are listed in the introduction.
As for the illustrations, I have mixed feelings. From an artistic standpoint, I am not too impressed. The line art is not particularly clean, a little thin for my tastes, and blurry—as if they were drawn at a lower DPI. Some of the backgrounds are quite sparse. That said, Esther’s royal setting was more detailed than Ruth’s pastoral one. Perhaps the artist did not want to add what is not present in the text, which would be a noble goal. The colors are a little bland and lifeless, though I do like the paint-stroke backgrounds much of the time. Overall, the art was not ascetically pleasing. Full disclaimer: my wife is a graphic artist and I dabble in art myself, so my standards and opinions are likely more stringent than those of some. However, the ideal for a book such as this is that the illustrations attract the reader.
Since these books are intended to help reading, what’s more important is the illustrations’ helpfulness. From a functional standpoint, they are usually effective. From a quick glance, the scene is set and the characters are distinguished (mostly by color, as some characters look quite similar). While Ruth contains a lot of dialogue, the backgrounds and characters help the reader adjust to new settings. Esther has a little more visual diversity (though its length results in more repetition). Jonah is the most diverse since the story is action-packed with striking scene-changes.
As I used this book in my own learning, I had some observations that may be especially important to professors or students:
First, some Hebrew students rely on the cantillation marks (like the atnach) to break up the sentence into more manageable chunks. Unfortunately they were removed from these books. The illustrations and division of text into boxes and bubbles certainly break up the reading but there are some long stretches of text that may overwhelm readers.
Second, there is no vocabulary for rare words. As a result, the new or even intermediate Hebrew reader will be regularly stumped by unfamiliar nouns or verb forms. Other than making an informed guess from context, there are two things that the reader could do:
- Look closely at the illustrations. The illustrations may contain hints at the rare word through context or having the word pictured.
- Refer to the English translation In doing so, the reader would leave the Hebrew text-world. Some may feel like they are cheating as the eye will pick up surrounding words.
While Illustrated REJ has the benefits of illustrated support, it lacks what a Hebrew Readers Bible provides in the accents and vocabulary. Given that this book is intended for new readers but that I found my Readers Bible more helpful, I was left wondering about the audience and setting for this book. Do I need to return to this later on in my Hebrew learning? I suspect by that point I’ll be all the more comfortable with my Readers Bible
Using the Illustrated Ruth, Esther, Jonah
So how should one best use Illustrated Ruth, etc? I would suggest the following:
- New individual readers. Once you have completed a few semesters of Hebrew, translate the given chapter or book with the aid of a Readers Bible. After that, use Illustrated REJ for practice and retention. You will have encountered the unfamiliar words by this point and know the basic idea of where the text goes. In other words, don’t use this for initial encounters with the Hebrew text but for more casual (re)reading of a somewhat familiar text. This is when the illustrations can be especially helpful as they help keep the reading smoother and quicker than with only bare text.
- Intermediate readers. Those who have completed a Hebrew track and have some fluency and broader vocabulary may want to just dive in to a book and try to read it on its own. In this context, the reader could try and guess unfamiliar words or refer to the English when absolutely necessary.
- Classroom use. Groups could read through a chapter together with or without a professor present. A teamwork context helps students get past roadblocks. In addition, the lack of vocabulary could be a teaching tool for helping students “guess” what an unfamiliar word may mean. After all, we all do that with English!
I would suggest that every Hebrew professor considers Illustrated REJ (or the other volumes) to adapt for classroom use. New Hebrew readers may want to add this with their other tools. I think GlossaHouse are doing excellent work. It is an encouragement that they see a gap in language studies and attempt to fill it in creative ways. I hope that my critiques are helpful for them moving forward and for potential users of this book. While Illustrated REJ is no singular solution for language study, it does play a helpful role for language learners. In this way, it is a helpful tool for learning—and don’t we language students need all the help we can get?
I received a review copy of this book from GlossaHouse and was not asked to provide a positive review.
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