The date on which Hanukkah falls is based on a lunar calendar, and this year it comes far earlier than usual—which means we don’t have much time to choose Hanukkah books for the children in our lives. You can’t go wrong with these selections. They either add a new twist to an old story or succeed in emphasizing timeless values with a light touch, and all are very entertaining.
A SNOWY CELEBRATION
Hanukkah in Alaska (ages 4 to 8), written by Barbara Brown and illustrated by Stacey Schuett, proves that there can be fresh, new children’s stories for Hanukkah, and that even one as specific as this—set in Alaska—can have universal appeal. A young girl describes winter in Alaska: the snow, the moose that wander at will throughout her neighborhood, the scarce hours of daylight. Pages later, the family kindles Hanukkah candles, but no mention is made that the family is Jewish or that everyone else in Alaska might not be. The narrator seems to take it for granted that her family celebrates this holiday, so readers will, too. It’s a relief, this easy-going tone about identity, and it’s believable. The story’s conflict is peculiarly Alaskan, involving one of the aforementioned company of moose, and is resolved when the quick-thinking narrator averts mild disaster with a Hanukkah-themed solution.
ONE MORE MENORAH
Sam’s dilemma in The Eighth Menorah (ages 4 to 7), written by Lauren L. Wohl and illustrated by Laura Hughes, might resonate with those of us whose kids bring home a handmade menorah from school every single Hanukkah, year after year. Is there such a thing as too many menorahs? My answer would be an emphatic no, but Sam is not so sure. He asks to make something else, please, but the teacher gently insists, assuring Sam that his newest creation will be well met at home. She’s right, of course. Sam’s menorah does find the perfect home, and ends up brightening the lives of grateful residents in Grandma’s new retirement facility. This value-oriented tale of a thoughtful boy and his Bubbe is a sweet addition to a Hanukkah picture book library.
HANUKKAH AT HOME
Hanukkah lasts eight nights, with a new candle added to a Hanukkah menorah each evening. In Eight Is Great (ages 1 to 4), written by Tilda Balsley and illustrated by Hideko Takahashi, eight is so great, every page of this board book rhymes with it: celebrate, decorate, late, great and so on, while describing cozy family Hanukkah scenes at home. “Each night with Shamash tall and straight a candle’s lit. Soon we’ll have eight.” And a page or two later, “Dad serves eight latkes from the plate. “There’s more,” he says, “don’t hesitate.” The rhythm and page turns are just right for the youngest listeners, who get a window into cozy home observance. No history here, which is just fine, but the illustration on the last page links the contemporary family’s Hanukkah menorah with the original, seven-branched lamp from the Temple.
SORTING THINGS OUT
Sadie’s Almost Marvelous Menorah (ages 2 to 6) is the third picture book collaboration by Jamie Korngold ("the Adventure Rabbi") and illustrator Julie Fortenberry, and this time, their preschool heroine navigates the holiday of Hanukkah. Sadie loves school. Her awesome teacher, Morah Rachel, lets the kids take a whole week to make and decorate a clay menorah and learn the special Hanukkah blessings for candlelighting. Sadie is very excited about her own pink and blue creation, but as she runs to show her mom on Friday afternoon, she trips, and the menorah shatters into smithereens. Here’s where Mom shines: she notices that the one surviving chunk of Sadie’s menorah is the part where the helper candle would sit—the Shamash—that lights the eight Hanukkah flames and ushers in a new day of the holiday. So, Mom suggests to Sadie that this bit can become something very special, a kind of “Super Shamash.” Sadie is immediately on board, which proves her mettle once again. Mom and kid demonstrate resilience in the face of disappointment, creativity in figuring out how to make the best of a bad situation. For some sensitive (or perfectionist) children, the working through of the story from disaster to a beautiful solution can be especially redemptive. Sadie later uses the Super Shamash to light all four of her family’s menorahs.
The illustrations are lively and expressive, and, in one subtle way, rather miraculous: Not only does Morah Rachel wear a kippah (yarmulke), which is a traditional male headcovering, but several of the female students do, too. I can’t think of any other illustrator depicting this sort of thing in a picture book.
Another bonus: on the last page, the author includes all three Hanukkah candle blessings in English, Hebrew and in transliteration, so kids can welcome Hanukkah just like Sadie.
THE POWER OF GIVING
“It’s Hanukkah from A to Z. An alphabet of things to see,” begins ABC Hanukkah Hunt (ages 3 to 8), another entry written by Tilda Balsley. Every page has a simple rhyming couplet and busy, colorful illustrations by Helen Poole. Young listeners are prompted to find and point: “The leader’s Judah. Can you find him? Brave Maccabees all stand behind him.” Pages progress from history (King Antiochus “would not let the Jews be free”) to how we celebrate Hanukkah today. A maze to the Holy Temple, a page showing the calendar month of Kislev (Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev), and a pile of Hanukkah doughnuts called by their Hebrew name, sufganiyot, help bump this picture book from just cute to downright educational.
Best of all, even in a book with a whole alphabet to work with, gifts do not get much attention. In fact, the letter T puts the emphasis on giving, not getting: “A Tzedakah box—what goes inside? Who needs your help? You can decide.” So, not only do we see a kid with a collecting box, we see what she’s imagining: a hospital and a food bank. She’s the one with the power to ponder where her donations should go. This is powerful message for little eyes and ears, especially during these months when the big holidays are so hyper-commercialized.
AN UNEXPECTED GUEST
Hanukkah Bear (ages 4 to 8), written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka is a do-over. Kimmel, a Jewish picture book celebrity, published The Chanukah Guest with a different illustrator in 1990, and Hanukkah Bear is the same story, but tightened, edited perhaps for a new generation of parents and children who like to cut to the chase. It works. The charm and suspense are both heightened with the reduced word count, and I don’t miss a thing (I’ve still got my 1995 copy right here). Perhaps more importantly, the illustrations are truly delightful this time around.
Bubba (Granny) Brayna is 97 years old and can’t see or hear very well, but she keeps up her tradition of feeding friends and family the best latkes in the village. This year, she makes a double batch because a special guest is coming: the Rabbi. The Rabbi arrives first, so the two of them light the menorah, play a game of dreidel and then get down to the latkes, which are gobbled in a surprisingly short amount of time. What Bubba Brayna doesn’t realize is that her guest is not the Rabbi, but a bear, who was hungry from interrupted hibernation, but leaves the house full and happy. The mistaken identity interplay between bossy Bubba and the complacent bear is charming. When the real Rabbi and all of Bubba’s friends come for latkes and find none, they realize what has happened and all pitch in together to make more. A latke recipe and short explanation of Hanukkah are included.