Marilyn Hirsh graduated from the Carnegie Mellon Institute with a degree in fine art in 1965 and joined the Peace Corps that year, serving in India, where she taught English and art and illustrated four children’s books for the Children’s Book Trust in New Delhi. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and illustrated a variety of children’s books, often drawing on her Jewish heritage and researching different eras to depict them accurately, from the ancient world of Tower of Babel to the crusader-era Spain of Butchers and Bakers, Rabbis and Kings and the Hellenistic Hanukkah Story. But she was best known for her collaboration with writer Sadie Rose Weilerstein on the K’tonton books, following a Jewish Tom Thumb character through various adventures. In 1980, she won the Association of Jewish Libraries’ prestigious Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award.
“K’tonton existed only on the pages of a book, but I saw him clearly—more clearly—than I saw the teacher.” These are the words written by Francine Klagsbrun, the well-known author, in her introduction to the book The Best of K’tonton, one of the thirty children’s books, primarily of Jewish interest, illustrated by Marilyn Hirsh.
Early Life and Education
Writer and illustrator of children’s books, Marilyn Hirsh was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 1, 1944, to Eugene and Rose (Warshell) Hirsh. Her father owned a meat market. Hirsh was married on November 18, 1973, to James H. Harris.
Hirsh’s educational background consisted of Chicago’s Art Institute, the Carnegie Mellon Institute, and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. She then used this education to transmit to children her views of the world and her love of Judaism. Her views of the world are reflected in the four books on India that she illustrated while serving in the Peace Corps. As historian of Indian and Buddhist art, she taught at Cooper Union and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.
However, the primary focus of her books was on Jewish subjects. She researched each subject and era intensively to remain true to texts of Jewish life and times. For instance, Tower of Babel depicts races in many different costumes to show the existence of harmony before the Tower of Babel story takes place. Ancient Near Eastern and Babylonian life is also accurately portrayed.
The illustrations in Butchers and Bakers, Rabbis and Kings reflect the costumes and life of Tudela and Spain around the year 1114, from the details of the castle and the medieval village to the turbans of the townspeople and the helmets of the guards. The costumes and buildings in The Lit. "dedication." The 8-day "Festival of Lights" celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid army in 164 B.C.E., the re-purification of the Temple and the miraculous eight days the Temple candelabrum remained lit from one cruse of undefiled oil which would have been enough to keep it burning for only one day.Hanukkah Story are true to Hellenistic times, from the robes and the headgear to the Greek and Roman architecture.
In June 1980 Marilyn Hirsh received the prestigious Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries. The award was the first to be named after Sydney Taylor. Hirsh also visited Jewish day schools in Nassau County, New York, drawing for the children and explaining her books—transmitting her enthusiasm for Judaism to them. Her other books include Rabbi and the Twenty-nine Witches, Joseph Who Loved the Sabbath, and I Love Hanukkah. Zaydeh, which she illustrated with comforting black-and-white pictures for Moshe Halevi Spero in 1983, discusses mourning and death. Sidduri, which was illustrated for the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education in 1983, is in full-blown color with feelings of joy emanating throughout. Finally, Best of K’tonton and others in the series, such as K’tonton in the Circus, written by Sadie Rose Weilerstein, all show that lovable little fellow and his adventures.
Marilyn Hirsh died of cancer in New York City, on October 17, 1988.
Selected Works by Marilyn Hirsh
Best of K’tonton (1980).
Butchers and Bakers, Rabbis and Kings (1984).
The Hanukkah Story (1977).
I Love Hanukkah (1984).
K’tonton in the Circus (1981).
Potato Pancakes All Around (1978).
Rabbi and the Twenty-nine Witches (1976).
Tower of Babel (1981).
Obituary. NYTimes, October 22, 1988.
Something About the Author 7 (1975): 126.