This year, as usual, we find a plethora of new stories ready to ride the Christmas/Hanukkah gift train into children’s hands. However, the first book I will focus on is an older, award-winning story that inspired an Academy Award-winning short film, and which might have been written especially for this most unusual Hanukkah we are about to celebrate. “Molly’s Pilgrim,” by Barbara Cohen, is illustrated in a new edition by Daniel Mark Duffy.
In 1983, Cohen (perhaps best remembered for her Passover book, “The Carp in the Bathtub”) wrote, from her family’s experience, about Molly, a young Russian Jewish immigrant who feels keenly out of place in America. As Thanksgiving approaches, like Hanukkah’s Hebrews surrounded by a Hellenistic culture, Molly faces being mocked and excluded for being different. Worse yet, when her mother helps dress a doll for her to bring in as a pilgrim for the 3rd-grade class project, Molly is shocked to find the doll not in gray and white, but instead like the Russian child her mother once was. Molly’s mother patiently explains how she was a pilgrim, too — as are all immigrants who come to America for religious freedom as those in the traditional story did long ago. As Molly feared, the other children at first do make fun of her very different doll. But with the help of her sensitive teacher, they all begin to understand the true meaning of Thanksgiving and the courage of those, then and now, who take risks for the sake of what they believe in. See why this is a perfect Thanksgiving story for Hanukkah?
Now for the new releases. Want the facts? Try these:
“The Story of Hanukkah,” by David Adler, illustrated by Jill Weber. A traditionally told and brightly illustrated introduction to the holiday by prolific author Adler; includes a latke recipe and instructions for playing dreidel.
“Eight is Great,” by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Hideko Takahashi. A bright little board book that uses the number eight to introduce customs and symbols, though the number itself is never shown, just the word. The pictures show a family (of guess how many!) as it lights candles, eats latkes, gets presents and celebrates for eight days.
“ABC Hanukkah Hunt,” by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Helen Poole, is a “hunt” because unlike most alphabet books, the next letter in sequence isn’t used to begin a noun about the holiday and its symbols, but might be found highlighted anywhere on the page, hidden in the description, starting an adjective or a verb as often as a noun. Cartoonlike characters and imagination provide information along with lots of interaction opportunities.
Light, Learning and Laughter
“Sadie’s Almost Marvelous Menorah,” by Jamie Korngold, charmingly illustrated by Julie Fortenberry is an appealing Kar-Ben release that touches many bases. Day by day, Sadie’s teacher Morah Rachel leads her class in learning to make their own menorahs. Sadie grows more and more excited about her creation. Then, disaster! Sadie drops it and it breaks. Only the shamash survives to become an important part of the family’s celebrations for always. Includes the blessings.
In Lauren L. Wohl’s “The Eighth Menorah,” illustrated by Laura Hughes, young Sam is busy making a menorah in his Hebrew School class. But Sam’s family is already awash in hanukkiot. With seven already in his house, he worries his creation will be unneeded. When he visits his Grammy in her new condo, he realizes this will be the perfect home for his very special menorah — warmly welcomed here to replace the electric menorah in the community room and light up the holiday for Grammy and her delighted neighbors.
Speaking of light, no candles can compete with the magnificent lights of the Aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, which illuminate the sky in Barbara Brown’s “Hanukkah in Alaska,” illustrated by Stacey Schuett. Living in a snowy landscape, a young girl is dealing with a very hungry moose. She celebrates the holiday with her family while trying to figure out how to protect her favorite backyard tree, which he’s gradually devouring. This entertaining story provides insight into life in Alaska, shows a miraculous burst of light in the sky on the night of the last Hanukkah candle, and introduces a practical new use for freshly fried latkes—-as moose bait. A different approach and fun…
And speaking of fun, Eric Kimmel, award-winner and fun-bringer, has revised his wonderful old story, “The Chanukah Guest” (1992), bringing the punch line into the title and the secret visitor out into the open. In the earlier book, we met Bubba Brayna, the best latke maker in the village, 97 and very near sighted but still lively enough to invite everyone, even the rabbi, over on the first night of Hanukkah. When there was a thump on the door and a figure wearing a heavy winter coat lumbered in, naturally she assumed it was the rabbi. Only we realize the real nature of her “guest.” Happily she makes him piles of latkes; grunting, he gobbles them all up. Only after he leaves, cozily wrapped in a warm woolen scarf— his first Hanukkah gift— and the villagers, including the real rabbi, arrive do they all realize Bubba Brayna has served all her latkes to a bear. Hanukkah Bear, freshly and playfully illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, introduces Old Bear on the first page as he sniffs the air and follows his nose to Bubba Brayna’s house to participate in candle lighting and dreidel playing before he can eat and return home, full of latkes, to sleep again. Includes Bubba Brayna’s latke recipe and the author’s note about the holiday.
Jane Yolen and Mark Teague have done it again. Since their “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night” (2000) delighted children and became an ALA Notable book and a New York Times bestseller, over 14 million dinosaur books have looked at love, sickness, school, eating, dogs, cats, birthdays and Christmas through the eyes of their mischievous dinosaur. Now it’s Hanukkah’s turn. We meet Dinosaur as he cavorts through both the bad manners possible and the good manners preferred in the observance of the eight festive days. The marriage of text and picture will entertain, the small letters identifying each kind of celebratory dinosaur will educate, and the artist’s exuberance will exhilarate.
Esther the Gorilla, determined to give each of her friends just the perfect Hanukkah gift, spends the day shopping till she almost drops. The result is shown in “Esther’s Hanukkah Disaster” by Jane Sutton, illustrated by Andy Rowland. When Esther delivers each “perfect” present, she is appalled to realize that not one of them is suited to its recipient. Meanwhile each of her friends gives her a gift perfectly chosen for Esther’s pleasure. Embarrassed and unhappy, she thinks of a solution: She’ll have a party on the last night and have everyone bring the gift she gave them. The party is a great success; even better is the gift swap Esther suggests they carry out when it is over. Everyone ends up happy with their final choice.
The Season of Shared Joy
Finding the right gift has always been hard to achieve. In “Boris and Stella and the Perfect Gift,” Dara Goldman owes her inspiration in part to O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” as she shows how two charming bear friends — Boris, a musician from Russia and Stella, a brilliant baker from Italy — determine to find the perfect gifts for each other though each has little money. Each sells something precious to be able to buy the other a very special item, not realizing this sacrifice might backfire. The story has a real warm and uplifting O. Henry twist — the last words are exactly what to say to make the reader and listener feel better.
Selina Alko has written and illustrated a work that acknowledges today’s reality of so many families celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, sharing traditions of both religions. Her picture book, “Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama,” begins boldly: “I am a mix of two traditions. From Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama.” It continues with page after page of mixed symbols and actions: Daddy makes latkes and leaves them on the mantle with milk, near where Mama hung the stockings. There’s gelt under the tree, candy canes on the menorah branches, and songs about dreidels and silent nights.
While probably not acceptable to more traditional families or schools, this book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, should be welcomed by many families looking for read-alouds that mirror their family experience and carry a message of acceptance and respect.
Many general publishers produce Hanukkah books each year to add to their ongoing holiday series. Here are a few, all of which follow the usual format of these informational works:
“Hanukkah” by Lisa M. Herrington is a “Rookie Read-About Holidays” book by Scholastic. An early reader divided into short chapters with history, symbols, food, crafts and games, etc.
“Let’s Throw a Hanukkah Party!” by Rachel Lynette is a “Holiday Parties” book from PowerKids Press. This one has a related websites as well.
“Hanukkah Sweets and Treats” by Ronne Randall is a “Holiday Cooking for Kids!” book, a beginner’s-level cookbook very well laid out, organized for ease of use, with warnings about having an adult around for actually frying the latkes and donuts.
“Caleb’s Hanukkah” is a Cloverleaf “Fall and Winter Holidays” book from Millbrook Press. Somewhat livelier than the others, it’s told from first person, has a premise (Caleb wants to win at playing dreidels), introduces the concept of tzedakah and sharing, and recommends a few books, as well as websites, to learn more or play dreidel online.