It’s beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah. In bookstores everywhere, among the children’s holiday books crowding the shelves, Hanukkah is definitely a featured player. But there are Hanukkah books and then there are Hanukkah books. Some are delightful, insightful or pleasantly informational. Others should bear a warning label alerting you that the contents may be derivative, written by Jewishly unaware writers, prone to missed nuances and occasional inaccuracies, making them questionable as appropriate gifts for the children in your lives.
For Younger Children
Choosing pre-school and picture books published by Kar-Ben Publishing is one way to guarantee Jewish authenticity. Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by David Harrington, is a case in point. The basic story is told in rhyme, the illustrations of the Grecian gods include a tippler and a body builder, and the text reminds us that “sometimes it only takes a few/who know what’s right and do it too.”
Engineer Ari’s third historic adventure, Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap, by Deborah Bodin Cohen, is set on board a train in 1890s Palestine. Ari’s effort to celebrate Hanukkah with his fellow engineers almost gets derailed as his holiday daydreams cause a near collision with a camel on the tracks near Modi’in, the very place where Hanukkah began. When the camel’s Bedouin owner comes to his aid, the two men share an impromptu discovery of the miracle of friendship and cooperation. Delightful art, historical backstory, and a photo of the actual 1892 train between Jerusalem and Jaffa round out the book.
On the pleasantly informational side, Harvest of Light by Allison Ofanansky is illustrated with photos by Eliyahu Alpern and shows how an Israeli family raises and processes olives, using some of the oil to light their Hanukkah menorah. School Library Journal calls this a “wonderfully different Hanukkah book…resonating with familial warmth and a shared purpose.” Who could argue? I’ll never look at an olive the same way again.
Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles, by Tami Lehman-Wilzig with Nicole Katzman and illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau, is a family story. It’s told by Jacob, whose older brother Nathan is autistic and often an annoyance, especially in front of new friends. How can you celebrate with new neighbors when Nathan has trouble understanding how the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremonies are carried out? The solution devised by Jacob’s mother is a bit strained, but in a work obviously intended to introduce developmental problems to young children and families, it underscores the importance of inclusion and compassion.
An author to be trusted is Erica Silverman, whose When the Chickens Went on Strike, Liberty’s Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus, and Sholom’s Treasure are just a few of her good children’s books. She’s done it again with a humorous and lively work called The Hanukkah Hop (Simon & Schuster). The Hanukkah symbols and story which open the book are later downplayed in favor of the high energy and comical action that comes when the klezmer band kicks in. Illustrator Steven D’Amico has fun showing the extremely diverse partygoers wearing themselves out by dancing to the point of collapse. Rhyming text and repetition are designed for younger children. Though it’s a bit long for its target age, even you will enjoy chiming in on “Biddy-biddy-bim-bom-bop…at our Hanukkah Hop.”
And now we come to my “warning label” books. They may be well intentioned and attractive, and some of my colleagues and some of you, in fact, may welcome them, but I find them problematic on some basic level. The first two books have much in common, as you will see. One, a new Hanukkah book for children put out by Viking, is called Jackie’s Gift: A True Story of Christmas, Hanukkah and Jackie Robinson (Penguin). Written by Robinson’s daughter Sharon, it tells of the year 1948, when Jackie and his family moved in next door to the Satlow family, whose 10-year-old son Steve befriends Sharon and even helps her family trim its Christmas tree. When Jackie Robinson realizes the family next door doesn’t have a tree, he doesn’t know it’s because the Satlows are Jewish. Thinking they’re too poor, Jackie brings them the generous gift of a tree, which the family, with some trepidation, awkwardly accepts. While explaining that they’re Jewish, they decide that this will be the year they will have both a tree and a Menorah, and set about trimming their tree with their new friends.
It’s a well-written and illustrated book and has been praised by many for demonstrating tolerance and good black-Jewish relations. Still, it’s a work I consider to be linked more to Christmas than to Hanukkah, a holiday, after all, which commemorates the courage of the Maccabees in resisting the attractions of Hellenistic assimilation. I understand the appeal of advocating tolerance, but for a kid, the message may not be that the most important thing is not to embarrass anyone and to have peace with your neighbors. Instead the message may be that if you have a generous enough neighbor, your dad will let you have the Christmas tree you’ve always wanted so you can be like all the other kids. A strange tribute to the Maccabees indeed.
And then there’s A Chanukah Noel (Second Story Press) by Sharon Jennings with illustrations by Gillian Newland. When young Charlotte moves to France with her family, she’s faced with a new school, a new language, and new children to befriend. Overwhelmed by arriving in the midst of the entire town’s celebration of the Christmas holiday, she is fascinated by Christmas and tries to calm her envy by deciding to give Christmas to a poor girl in her school, one who isn’t even nice to her. The writing is good, the illustrations are exceptional, but what’s the message here? Charlotte convinces her dad that her family should play Lady Bountiful to the very poor Christian family. The dad at least worries about shaming the other father, but to me the family’s effort to make the Christian family happy by providing excesses they could never afford feels sadly insensitive, with altruism tweaked to make one’s self feel outstandingly generous and also to buy into vicarious Christmas celebration. I think the work was well intended; I just don’t see the audience or the message as being carefully thought out.
The Story of Hanukkah Howie, written by locals Jan Dalrymple and illustrated by Bob Dalrymple, is another book done with loving hands and nicely packaged but appears to be at odds with the real message of Hanukkah: Resistance against going along with the crowd. When baby Howie’s hair develops strange spikes each December, an additional one for each of Hanukkah’s eight days, his parents resign themselves to trying to cover it over with hats, creams, and even glue. Then one day Howie, now in college, takes a job delivering holiday gifts from house to house in his neighborhood. Now known as Hanukkah Howie, he finds his bag is magically kept filled with gifts for everyone. Finally, with all presents distributed, he steps out into the night air, speaks words of hope and light, and drives off with a wave of his hand. To test my critical judgment, I shared the book with some kids and asked them for a reaction. Shall I quote? “So, why’d they write about a skinny Jewish Santa Claus with funny hair?”
The Santa tie-in may not bother some people, but for those into the Jewish meaning of Hanukkah, I thought a heads up (pun intentional) was in order.
Another local, the multi-talented Arthur Feinglass, whose efforts toward establishing a Jewish Theatre in Seattle are off to a good start, also has a picture book, The Lonesome Dreidel (CreateSpace). With a talking dreidel as the central figure, our heroes Talya and Aitan find the dreidel, chase it as it spins away, teach it to play the dreidel game, and give it a happy home. A bit influenced by the Gingerbread Man, a bit by the Runaway Latke, but mostly a simple story for very young children “because the lonesome dreidel wasn’t lonesome anymore.” Illustrated by R.M. Florendo.
Last, storyteller Mark Binder has collected a number of his previously published stories about the holiday of Hanukkah in Chelm, the village of fools, into a single volume, A Hanukkah Present (Light Publications), for readers 8-12 or listeners of any age. Humor and adventure, plus nice rhythm and pacing, make this a real gift, providing stories just right to read aloud each night while the candles burn down. Also available as an e-book edition.