No matter how we spell it, Hanukkah or Chanukah is a unique holiday, an eight-day celebration that commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Celebrated from December 20 to December 28 this year, Hanukkah continues to inspire new children’s books that offer historical background and cultural details about the holiday. We've selected three that are particularly noteworthy additions to the Hanukkah repertoire.
THE HISTORY OF THE HOLIDAY
Hanukkah is a holiday about miracles, and sure enough, it’s almost a miracle to find a picture book about Hanukkah origins and customs that’s suitable for all children, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the classroom and at home. The Story of Hanukkah, written by David A. Adler and illustrated by Jill Weber, successfully combines history, modern customs, attractive artwork and a word-picture ratio that should keep even wriggling preschoolers interested. Recommended for ages four through eight, this pictures book assumes no prior knowledge of the holiday, and yet covers crucial ground that experienced children could hear again. The book begins and ends with the Holy Temple, making clear the reasons for the military essence of the holiday in the middle. The Jewish people learn to be soldiers to fight for religious freedom and rescue the Temple from the ancient Syrian Greeks, a feat depicted in color-soaked, double-page spreads of swords, arrows and cavalry, including the unforgettable elephants. After the miraculous victory, the Jews dedicate the Temple back to God—Hanukkah means “dedication”—and this is where another miracle comes in: the oil. The book’s last two pages deftly cover modern customs like candle-lighting, latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts) fried in oil, songs, gifts and dreidels. My only wish is that our present-day candles could be more overtly linked to the Temple’s oil menorah. Candles are a convenient way to kindle Hanukkah flames, but as a substitute for the original olive oil.
The illustrator’s latke recipe and a handy page of dreidel rules are included. These additions round out The Story of Hanukkah as an excellent and much-needed option for teachers and parents looking for just the right way to tell the story of the holiday.
HANUKKAH IN 3D
Near-miraculous also describes what it’s like when master pop-up artist Robert Sabuda makes a Hanukkah book. Fans of movable books and Jewish kid lit will be thrilled. In Chanukah Lights, Sabuda joins veteran author Michael J. Rosen to imagine the holiday through the world, through time. Each night represents a different stage of Jewish history, starting with the very first first night of Hanukkah at the Temple in Jerusalem. The second night is in a desert encampment, the third in a refugee ship, the fourth in a new continent (Europe), the fifth in a shtetl, the sixth in a tenement block, the seventh on an Israeli kibbutz, and the eighth with a city skyline. Rosen uses “we” to include readers and listeners in the hushed, historic feel, and sums up mood and meaning of each scene in a single, poem-like sentence. No matter that children might miss the subtle historical timeline, because they will not miss the overall effect, which is spectacular.
Sabuda’s artwork—expandable, three-dimensional illustrations in cut, embossed and printed card stock—erupts in ascending layers of white. Like magic, a turn of the page reveals an entire diorama. To give an idea of the detail lavished, the tenement scene includes awnings, pickle barrels, pushcarts, carthorse, a hanging shop sign and two lines of laundry strung on a telegraph pole, all floating in different spatial planes.
Tucked somewhere in each diorama is a Hanukkah menorah, magically indicated only by its ever-increasing number of lights. Even if the youngest kids can’t play with the delicate paper engineering, they can find and point to the gold foil flames shining against a black window. Chanukah Lights is recommended for ages five and up, including adults.
WHEN PLANS GO OFF TRACK
Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap, written by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Shahar Kober, turns mistake into miracle in the third of a series set against the historic Jaffa-to-Jerusalem railway. Engineer Ari is in a rush to get home to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah with old friends, but must halt the engine to avoid a camel on the track. The caboose derails and Ari’s packages are scattered, including his Hanukkah menorah, oil, dreidels and sufganiyot (which is so much more fun to say and write than “doughnuts”).
He meets Kalil, the camel’s owner, who helps to collect his things and invites Ari into his tent for coffee until help arrives. Ari ends up celebrating the first night not with old friends, but with a new one. He lights his menorah using what is left of the oil—“enough for only one night,” as per the first Hanukkah story—and shares dreidels and sufganiyot with Kalil. The spontaneous friendship between Jew and Bedouin, miraculous to grownups, feels natural and inevitable. What a lovely seed to plant in the minds and hearts of listening children.
The plot weaves snippets of history and customs as revealed through encounters with kids at play, and through the discovery that Kalil’s tent lies in what used to be Maccabee territory, site of much of the original Hanukkah action.
Koben’s colorful illustrations are cartoony and adorable. They toy with perspective while conveying the feel of the old walled city, the countryside and helpful flashbacks like the re-lighting of the Temple menorah.
Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishapis recommended for ages five to nine. A brief glossary and Hanukkah summary are included, plus an author’s note about the significance of the 1892 Jaffa-Jerusalem railway.