November 21, 2002
Beyond Miracles and Maccabees
The newest literary releases for Chanukah combine modern themes with holiday traditions.
My mother was surprised when I said I was reviewing Chanukah books for kids. "Is there a lot out there?" she asked.
I don't remember ever coming across a Chanukah book growing up. Now there are titles geared for all ages and interests -- historical accounts, folk tales, activities, even poignant literature.
"My First Hanukkah Board Book" (DK Publishing, $6.99) is a good introduction to the holiday. This book combines the story of Chanukah with its practices. Photographs of actual objects and costumed children acting out scenes from the Chanukah story reinforce a sense of involvement for young readers. In addition, the laminated cardboard construction is great for car trips and flights.
Another special story is "Happy Hanukkah, Biscuit!" by Alyssa Satin Capucilli (Harper Festival, $6.99). The familiar puppy accompanies his owner to a Chanukah party at a friend's house where, in typical Biscuit fashion, he gets into all sorts of mischief. Despite his being young and clumsy, no one gets annoyed with Biscuit. This gives the tale the added dimension of modeling patience.
David A. Carter's "Chanukah Bugs" (Little Simon, $10.95) is a delight. It's a pop-up book, and every page features a wrapped present along with the question, "Who's in the box on the first (second, third, etc.) night of Chanukah?" Opening lids or untying bows reveal "a storyteller bug," "a dreidel bug," "bugs who sing and dance out loud" and more. This is sure to be a giggly favorite.
For kids already familiar with the holiday, anticipating it may be the best part. "The Hanukkah Mice" by Ronne Randall (Chronicle Books, $15.95) would be part of my anticipation ritual if I were 4 years old! Three young mice emerge from their hole every night of Chanukah hoping to see the menorah. They come upon dreidels, feast on latke crumbs and discover beautifully wrapped presents. With the help of their mother, they get to see the menorah set aglow on the last night. This book is so sweet that grownups won't mind a bit when little ones pull it out for the hundredth time.
I0n "Light the Lights!: A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas" by Margaret Moorman (Scholastic, $5.99) we meet Emma. Emma lives in an interfaith family and "Light the Lights" chronicles her experience of wintertime festivities. Even more than what the story does tell, this book is notable for what it does not include: there is no tension, no competition over family allegiances, no hint that these holidays are part of different traditions. I imagine this reflects the dreams of more than a few interfaith couples.
As much as "Light the Lights" has a contemporary grounding, "Zigazak! A Magical Hanukkah Night" by Eric A. Kimmel (Random House Children's Books, $15.95) comes straight from the heart of tradition. Set in the Chasidic past, the action opens with two devils causing havoc in a town celebrating Chanukah. Latkes fly, musical instruments play themselves, and people are terrified. Only the rabbi is unafraid. He summons the evil spirits, diffuses their power and when they refuse the rabbi's offer to turn them toward goodness, he destroys them. The question of how to address dark forces is particularly timely in the post-Sept. 11 era. It is also a mystical theme of Chanukah, symbolized in the lighting of the menorah.
In "Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story" by Marci Stillerman (Hachai, $11.95), the author's background as an award-winning journalist is evident from the very first line: "The entire family had enjoyed Oma's famous latkes down to the last delicious crumb, and the children were finished playing the dreidel game." Now what? You wonder, and you aren't sure whether to linger over the drawing or turn the page to find out. What follows is a grandmother's Holocaust memory of Chanukah in the camps. Both the writing and the illustrations convey the gravity of the time without actually imparting fear. What comes through is an ultimately uplifting feeling, and the timelessness of the holiday's message.
Those who have celebrated several Chanukahs will relate to "The Dreidel Champ and Other Holiday Stories" by Smadar Shir Sidi, (Adama, $13.95). The title story in the collection features a boy who wants very much to beat his cousins in their annual game. In the process, he learns about healthy competition, family love between generations and the importance of trying his best. Chanukah is the point of departure, but those are the real themes here.
Ages: Teens and Adults
Dalia Hardof Renberg's "The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays" (Adama, $23) offers just what the title suggests. The Chanukah section begins with a highly readable story of the holiday. There are special sections on women as well as sidebars on specific customs. This is followed by sheet music for several well-loved songs. Craft projects feature clear directions. Finally there are recipes for traditional holiday foods. This book is equally enjoyable when read by an individual or shared with friends and family.
"The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah" by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Sunburst, $8.95) is one of the most heartwarming collections I've ever seen. The stories connect to Chanukah, but reach far beyond it. These are stories about life, and all the best it has to offer -- warmth, hope and faith. Singer's view is summed up by the words of a character in "A Chanukah Evening in My Parents' Home": "I didn't preach. I told them a story. I wanted them to know that what God could do 2,000 years ago, he can also do in our time." Readers younger than 12 may be too young to grasp the beauty here. None are too old.
I once saw a quote that read, "Nothing's as good as an old friend, except a new one that's fit to make into an old one." So it is true with traditions -- and Chanukah reading tops the list.