Before Sylvia Rouss sends a manuscript to a publisher, she runs it past her toughest audience -- her pre-kindergarten students at Beth Tfiloh's preschool in Pikesville.
"They are the best critics in the world because they are always honest," said Ms. Rouss, whose latest book is "Sammy Spider's First Passover" (Kar-Ben Copies, $13.95, $5.95 paperback, 32 pages, ages 3-7).
Her students gave it a thumbs-up, the same review they gave its predecessor, "Sammy Spider's First Hanukkah." Ms. Rouss teamed up with illustrator Katherine Janus Kahn on both books, and Ms. Kahn's cut-paper illustrations are perfect for conveying the lessons about shapes that Ms. Rouss slips in for preschoolers.
The story opens with the Shapiro family cleaning house in preparation for Passover. When Mr. Shapiro brushes apart Sammy's web with a broom, Sammy's mother decides it's time for him to learn how to build a new one.
As his mother tries to teach him web-building basics, Sammy is more curious about the Shapiros' Seder. His mother explains some of the traditions. When Mr. Shapiro hides a piece of the matzo, Sammy learns that it is the afikomen, and that if the Shapiros' son, Josh, can find the hidden matzo, he will win a prize.
Later, as he watches Josh search for the afikomen, Sammy swings from a strand of webbing and unknowingly weaves his first web -- one with a surprising twist.
Ms. Rouss has taught for more than 20 years, receiving the 1990 Samuel Glasner Creative Teaching Award of the Baltimore Board of Jewish Education. She's no slouch at marketing, either.
After she read the finished version of "Sammy Spider's First Passover" to her students recently, she told them, "Tell your parents that when you find the afikomen, this book would be the perfect prize."
She's right. If you can't find a copy in local stores, you can order it by calling Kar-Ben Copies at (800) 452-7236.
* Another author-illustrator team has created a winning sequel: "Passover Magic," written by Roni Schotter, illustrated by Marylin Hafner (Little, Brown, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8). Ms. Schotter and Ms. Hafner previously teamed up on "Hanukkah!" a National Jewish Book Award winner.
Like its predecessor, "Passover Magic" focuses on family dynamics as the narrator, Molly, tells the story of the latest Passover at her house. It's a big house, so all of the relatives gather there, starting with Grandma and Grandpa:
Later Uncle Bernie arrives with kisses and complaints, Aunt Ina with wine and worries, Cousin Sara with shouts, Max with his bear, Uncle Arnold with yawns.
Last, but not least, is Uncle Harry -- a dentist during the week, a magician on weekends. He has come with his new wife, Aunt Eda. "Mama says Eda used to be Uncle Harry's assistant," Molly tells us. "She says they fell in love the very first time Uncle Harry sawed Eda in half."
Ms. Hafner's charming watercolors capture the family in all of its bustle to get ready for the Seder. There's a cartoon-like friendliness to her characters: Their red cheeks remind me of the work of Janet and Allan Ahlberg.
The climax comes when Uncle Harry hides the afikomen. How does he make it disappear? Molly shares her thoughts about the magic of Passover as the family dozes off.
* Rebecca Samuelson is a 12-year-old, Orthodox Jewish girl who is struggling to come to terms with her identity, her faith and her relationship with her father, who has been hospitalized because of a major heart attack.
She doesn't want to start a diary, so she begins a series of letters to Elijah, the prophet for whom she always leaves the door open on Passover. "Dear Elijah," by Miriam Bat-Ami (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14, 112 pages, ages 8-12) is a believable, intimate glimpse into the thoughts and fears of a young person trying to gain her footing in the grown-up world.
Rebecca doesn't bare her soul to Elijah right away. She does confide that she "accidentally on purpose" has been breaking some of the rules that her strictly observant father follows.
"Does God really care if I eat out of an unkosher plate?" she writes. Later, she takes care to point out to Elijah that she isn't praying when she writes to him. "When I was little, I used to talk to God all the time. . . . But these past couple of years I haven't talked to God. He seems too far away. Like someone I pray to in synagogue. Somebody who couldn't be bothered. You're different."
Readers unfamiliar with Jewish traditions and ceremonies will learn quite a bit by the end of the book, which includes a 10-page glossary. But you don't need to be Jewish to identify with Rebecca's doubts and questions. They are universal.
And Rebecca lightens them with humor (she begins one letter "Dear Mr. Big Cheese" and another "Dear Mr. Messianic Messenger," and she tells Elijah bad elephant jokes).
Best of all, Rebecca looks at life honestly, and her observations ,, are simple and true. She can't wait to get the kosher-for-Passover bubble gum that comes in gold, tinfoil coins from Israel. It's hard to chew, it doesn't even make bubbles, and it can take your fillings out.
"But we all love that gum," she writes. "And you can't explain it. . . . Maybe it's because it comes from Israel, that faraway place where so many Jews live. I'm in the United States. I'm chewing hard, powdery gum. And in Israel, across the entire globe, tons of other children are doing that, too. We are all remembering the Exodus from Egypt."
Rebecca's sense of belonging, her sense of humor and her sense of self will leave readers feeling a little more sure of themselves.