Since I don’t usually write over the weekends (because most of my waking hours are spent at the book store), this is my last chance to recommend Hanukkah books for this year. It’s a Miracle! A Hanukkah Storybook by Stephanie Spinner and illustrated by Jill McElmurry (Aladdin, $6.99) has a dual function: it tells a story of a boy who is becoming an adult and also demonstrates the importance of passing down the family stories. Owen has finally achieved the designation “Official Candle Lighter” of his family’s Menorah. In his honor, every night, his cowboy-boot wearing grandmother tells Owen the story of a miracle: a girl who wanted to be a rabbi, a man who asked for prayers from his Jewish community when his wife was sick, a boy who had the power to make everyone laugh, a girl who desperately wanted a horse. Each story demonstrates how people can overcome obstacles. The stories seem vaguely familiar to Owen and as he sits around the table with his extended family on the final night he sees each of them in a whole new light. The stories are meaningful, but brief. There are two, however, that seem a little out of sync with the rest: a boy who wanted to act like a baby, and an alien who comes to town. Surely meant to inject a bit of humor, these two stories fail to add anything substantial to an otherwise engaging book. A book that will hopefully inspire other parents to tell stories about their own family’s miracles.
While I don’t have exact statistics, it’s pretty safe to say that the Christmas books still significantly outnumber the Hanukkah books. A few years ago, when I was working at another children’s bookstore, a woman saw the Fancy Nancy Christmas book and was severely disappointed. She and her family were Jewish. Her daughter loved Fancy Nancy, but the existence of a Fancy Nancy Christmas book, even if the mother didn’t buy it herself, still made a statement about Nancy’s religious affiliations and that alienated her. Many popular book characters do have their own Christmas volume, Nancy, George, Judy Moody, Olivia. The list goes on. That’s why, this year, it was so nice to see Jane Yolen, Mark Teague, and Blue Sky Press release two holiday volumes: How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? AND How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? ($16.99 each) The structure for the text is similar to all the other “How Do Dinosaurs” books. The book sets up several bad behavior possibilities and then resolves with a string of good behaviors. The illustrations are what really make this series. The dinosaurs all live in rather suburban settings with two human parents. Small enough to live in houses, the dinosaurs are much bigger than the parents and implicitly reflect the enormous havoc even the smallest children can cause. The dinosaurs’ behavior is so outlandish that it’s humorous, but there is a toddler truth to everything they do: “On Christmas Eve, does a dinosaur sleep? Does he go up to bed without making a peep?” (modeling good behavior) “Or does he sneak out to check what’s to see?” (addressing bad behavior). The Hanukkah book sold out in our store before I had a chance to gather quotations, but it follows a similar pattern. For such prescriptive books, this series is quite fun and whether or not kids actually learn any behavioral lessons, they’ll still enjoy reading the books.
Also new this year is Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko (Knopf, $16.99), in which the child narrator joyously celebrates the dual traditions in her family. Her parents participate in their respective holidays, but also cross-over and actively engage with each other’s. I believe Seth Cohen immortalized Chrismakkuh back in 2003 and now we finally have a picture book that reflects both traditions. In the back of the book, there is a timeline of holidays from a variety of cultural traditions that occur throughout the year.
There are two. Or at least two that I know of. One for young children and one for older children and adults. Chanukah Bugs by David Carter (Little Simon, $10.95) is part of Carter’s bug series, that includes School Bugs, Beach Bugs, Birthday Bugs, etc.
It’s a whimsical book filled with animated, holiday-themed creations, such as the Shammash Bug, the Dizzy Dreidel Bug, and the Menorah Bug. The vibrant pictures will appeal to young children (2-4), and older kids (4-7) will appreciate the complexity of the art.
Michael Rosin’s Chanukah Lights (Candlewick, $34.99) is a gorgeous collection of scenes from each of the eight nights. The text poetically conveys the migratory history of the Diaspora:
Tonight, the third night of Chanukah,
our four flames flicker like moonlight
on the ocean’s waves, where, in the holds of ships,
refugees long for peace like the sight of land.
The illustrations, from the ship of the third night to the city in the eighth night, are truly remarkable. Deceptively simple — using only white paper — the shadows and intricate shapes of the art are inordinately complex and can be looked at and studied for hours. This book is a treasure that should be shared with children old enough to value its delicacy.
Holiday books have officially taken over our front of store. There are numerous editions of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas, some old classics and new favorites. As tempting as it might be to dedicate all of December to holiday books, I’ll try to intersperse other recommendations. But given that it’s officially December, we might as well get started.
The number of Hanukkah books has increased exponentially. While famous character such as Fancy Nancy and Curious George tend to focus on Christmas, some authors and publishers are wizening up and producing books that cross the holidays or offer Hanukkah AND Christmas books. More on that another day. The Hanukkah Hop! by Erica Silverman and illustrated by Steven D’Amico was new last year (Simon & Schuster, $12.99). It’s a delightful romp through the holiday and, as probably gleaned from the title, is the perfect set-up for a dance party. The words tumble out in a sing-song rhythm: “Mommy shines menorahs. // Daddy clears a space to dance. // Rachel swirls with candles // as she sings a bim-bom chant”.
I’ll whirl all night
at our Hanukkah Hop!”
Adult readers will need to practice reading, while holding the book, and swirling and whirling. This is no bed-time book, it demands to be danced to. Rachel two-steps her guests inside, dips and pirouettes, and spins like a dreidel. There are some quiet moments when Mommy tells a story and the family debates the merits of traditional foods. But the party really gets started when the klezmer band appears: two contiguous double-page spreads show the party “swaying”, “snapping”, and “flap-flap flapping”. D’Amico’s illustrations are vibrant and energetic. I personally love the little cat who always shows up somewhere on the page participating in the Hanukkah hop.