Jewish Book Month ends the day before Hanukkah begins, the obvious message being that books make perfect Hanukkah gifts. I agree. Therefore, I want to make you aware just how many of the new Jewish children’s books I’ve written about today (and have reviewed in the past) would not be available were it not for Judyth Groner and Madeline Wikler. These two women saw a need and began to fill it.
Thirty-seven years ago, they started Kar-Ben Copies, Inc. to publish “My Very Own Haggadah,” a children’s Passover haggadah they had created for use with their own families. Followed by other “My Very Own…” Judaic works, their haggadah went on to sell over 2 million copies. The company, which soon diversified its list, was named after the two founders’ youngest children, Madeline’s daughter Karen and Judye’s son Ben.
As a Judaica librarian, I frequently met up with Groner and Wikler at conferences, sometimes at CAJE, often at the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). Year after year, lively and helpful, they sat behind exhibit tables and networked with educators and librarians. They connected with parents too, attending Jewish book fairs and always looking for new subject ideas. Under their leadership, Kar-Ben published more than 150 books for Jewish children and their families, the creative work of over 60 authors and illustrators. The pair were recognized for their “outstanding contributions to the field of Jewish children’s literature,” by AJL’s Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.
In 2001, with its founders ready to slow down, Kar-Ben became a division of Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing Group — not an ending but a new beginning. Under the leadership of publisher Joni Sussman, Kar-Ben Publishing now releases over 16 new titles of Jewish content each year, for children from pre-school through middle school, both fiction and non-fiction. Kar-Ben continues to give us award-worthy children’s books on such subjects as Jewish holidays, crafts, folktales, picture books and contemporary stories.
Kar-Ben’s Latest Hanukkah Books
The Count’s Hanukkah Countdown by Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer, illus. by Tom Leigh. A collaboration with Sesame Workshop has brought the Count, furry blue Grover, and several Israeli Muppet friends to us in this first of four Shalom Sesame stories. Aimed at expanding Jewish knowledge for those already familiar with Jewish life, while introducing information in an engaging way to those just beginning to learn, it deals with Hanukkah basics — candle lighting, food, and stories — while doubling as a numbers concept book.
Jeremy’s Dreidel by Ellie Gellman, illus. by Maria Mola. Gellman’s experience teaching in Jewish schools informs this engaging story about Jeremy, who signs on to a dreidel-making workshop at the JCC with a very definite goal in mind. While other kids design a bouncing dreidel, an optical-illusion dreidel and other imaginative tops, Jeremy’s simple clay dreidel is intended as a gift for his blind father. The clay dots are Braille Hebrew letters. When his dreidel is selected to be put on special display in a glass case, spoiling the surprise by making it impossible for his dad to play with it, Jeremy and his friends work together to find a good solution for the problem. Very well illustrated by Mola, with soft colors and lovable kids. Included are directions for making various types of dreidels and lots of insights into how technology helps the blind to navigate well in a dark world.
Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler, illus. by Ursula Roma. The founders of Kar-Ben Copies have returned to their basic beginnings by creating holiday traditions — food and fun — in this family-friendly book. It features eight kinds of latkes and eight theme parties, with plenty of recipes to mix and match. It includes kitchen tips and keys to difficulty of preparation, along with games, crafts and the candle lighting blessings.
Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue by Heidi Smith Hyde, illus. by Jamel Akib. Nine-year-old Emanuel Aguilar’s father owns a shop in New Bedford, Mass., the center of the whaling industry in early America. But Emanuel would rather go to sea than work in a shop. He scorns his father’s fears, brought with him from Portugal, which cause him to still hide any sign of being Jewish. Never would he or his Jewish neighbors let their Shabbat candles be seen; never, on Hanukkah, would his father light the menorah. So, Emanuel, wanting to be free, brave, and strong like the whalers, decides to hide on a boat setting out to sea. But when a dangerous storm strikes, damaging the lighthouse, and making the ship lose its bearings, he learns about fear. With no beacon or stars to guide them, every man aboard expects to be dashed upon the rocks. When a mysterious glow appears on the horizon, lights of courage and hope bring them safely home.
More Gift Ideas
In Green Bible Stories for Children, Kar-Ben presents a timely take on the Bible, which author Tami Lehman-Wilzig descibes as containing “a blueprint for how to preserve planet earth.” She and illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard include simple descriptions of an ecosystem, tell selected Bible stories, and recommend many fun activities designed to raise awareness and a sense of responsibility. Using the building of the Tabernacle as an example of the three R’s, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, the author then addresses Sabbath itself and the importance of a shmita year, a Sabbath for the land.
These newer titles still adhere to Judye and Madeline’s original goal of helping families with young children understand, enjoy and love living Jewishly.
Joseph and the Sabbath Fish, by Eric Kimmel, Eric, illus. by Martina Peluso (2011). Kimmel is a master reteller of Jewish tales, and his latest version of a well-known and much-loved story about Joseph, whose Sabbath joy and generosity are scoffed at by his stingy and cynical neighbor. Though Joseph’s fortunes ebb, in the end he is rewarded for his faith and kindness, and even his selfish neighbor is granted understanding and peace.
The Shabbat Princess by Amy Meltzer, illus. by Martha Aviles. Young Rosie decides that since she can’t be the Shabbat Queen, she would like to be a Shabbat princess, and asks her parents to gradually make their Shabbat table worthy of a royal visit. A charming story about the concept of “hiddur mitzvah” — the enhancement of observances with objects of beauty.
Lights Out Shabbat by Sarene Shulimson, illus. by Jeff Ebbeler. A rare snowstorm in Georgia gives a young boy, spending Shabbat with his grandparents, an unforgettable experience when the power fails, not returning until Havdalah is over. Shabbat customs and family closeness illuminate the dark and keep everyone warm.
The Shabbat Box by Lesley Simpson, illus. by Nicole Inden Bosch. This PJ Library Book is a reissue of a 2001 title. It beautifully introduces Shabbat by telling of a very special box, which all the students in Ira’s class took turns taking home for the weekend. When Ira loses the box on the way home, he is distraught until he figures out how to make a replacement, one that will make Shabbat even more beautiful and special.
Bim and Bom: A Shabbat Tale by Daniel J. Swartz, illus. by Melissa Iwai. Turning gender expectations on their heads, Bim and her brother Bom work very hard, she as a carpenter and builder and he as the best baker in town. Each of them, however, spends Fridays on mitzvot, building and baking tirelessly for those without enough money to buy. At day’s end, they celebrate Shabbat together, warm in Bim’s nice house and nourished by Bom’s delicious challah. A cozy story, very nicely illustrated.
Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom!