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Jewish Journal

Books: Wrap up new worlds for your young readers

by Sandee Brawarsky

December 7, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Many inns throughout the Mid-Atlantic states claim that George Washington slept here or there, but a new book makes an altogether new claim about the first president: that he learned about Chanukah from a Polish-born soldier at Valley Forge in 1777, when he noticed the young man lighting a candle.

"Hanukkah at Valley Forge," by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin (Dutton), is a retelling of the Chanukah story, framed by a story -- based on factual research enhanced by a leap of faith -- about George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The general is surveying his troops, concerned about the cold and their poor conditions. When he sees a soldier speaking softly and lighting a candle, he engages him in conversation about his home in Poland, where the young soldier's family would have to light their candles in secret.

While the soldier explains the origins of the holiday, the commander-in-chief listens intently and then remarks about the brave tale he has heard, "Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees' success, though it is long past."

He adds, "And it pleases me to think that miracles may still be possible."

The story, as the author notes, has its basis on a 1778 meeting Washington had at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pa., during Chanukah. When Hart began to tell the story of Chanukah to his guest, Washington told about how he had heard the story of the holiday the year before from a soldier. Hart's daughter recorded this story in her diary. The dialogue is based in part on Washington's own writings to give the text an authentic feel. Harlin's dreamy paintings are full of light.

Another retelling of the traditional Chanukah story can be found in "The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle" by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben). In this case, the adventures of a large yellow bird with bright red wings are the vehicle for telling of the Macabees and the oil that lasted for eight days.

In "Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House" by Daniel Halevi Bloom, illustrations by Alex Meilichson (Square One), a magical older couple -- a wise and warm set of grandparents -- pay a visit on a family who are not their relatives on the first night of Chanukah. The Bubbie and Zadie float in, as though in a Chagall painting. They are people of great heart, and when they leave, they are missed. Readers are invited to write to Bubbie and Zadie and are given an address.

According to the publisher, every letter will be answered either by the author or by some actual bubbies and zadies who reside in a senior citizen residence in San Rafael, called "Bubbie and Zadies L'Chaim House.

This is a new edition of a book first published in 1985. When that book came out, thousands of children, and adults, too, wrote letters. Now, they can send the letters by e-mail.

Check for These Other Picture Books:

"Before You Were Born" retold by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner (Deborah Brodie/Roaring Book Press), is based on the Midrash, or rabbinic legend, about the guardian angel who teaches unborn children the secrets of the world; the child then forgets it all when born. Folklorist Schwartz first heard this story as a child from his mother. The book, a winner of the Koret International Jewish Book Award, features Swarner's radiant artwork. "The Jewish Alphabet" by Janet Clement, illustrated by Albert G. Rodriguez (Pelican) uses the ABCs to illustrate Jewish concepts and ideas. More sophisticated than usual alphabet books, this pairs the letter U with unmistakable candles every Friday night, and V with victory for religious freedom, linking the letter with the eight nights of Chanukah.

"Izzy Hagbah" by J.J. Gross, illustrated by Ari Binus (Pitspopany), is a lovely and uncommon story about a muscular guy with mighty forearms. Izzy attended shul regularly and insisted on doing the mitzvah of hagbah, lifting the Torah at the end of the reading. Dressed much more casually than the other shulgoers, he lifted the Torah as if it were made of feathers, spreading it so that nine or 10 columns were showing, rather than the usual three or four, or at most five. But no one else in this shul lifted the Torah but Izzy, even as he got older. The congregants, who were a tight-knit group, knew nothing about him, not even his last name. Finally, one Yom Kippur, Izzy himself is lifted by the words of the Torah.

In "Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall" by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Henry Holt), the author describes how the young Moshe (later Marc) Chagall knew early on that he didn't want to spend his days hurling barrels of herring at a factory like his father. A poor student in both cheder and high school, he began to paint. His family didn't like these early works and, in fact, his sisters would wipe their shoes on them. He was then sent to art school and while painting, he felt content. Later, he went to Paris, and his career flourished. Lisker paints in a folk art style, based on Chagall's own paintings, where cows are green and people float.

"I am Marc Chagall" by Bimba Landmann (Eerdman's) similarly tells the story of Chagall's early life and career, in the voice of the artist himself. He explains that his childhood dreams of a bright future, of doing something different from those around him, made him happy, "like I was flying over Vitebsk, over all of Russia." Landmann's illustrations are bright collages in the style of the painter, using fabric, found objects, small constructions and sequin threads.

For Young Readers:

"The Dolls' Journey to Eretz-Israel" by Abraham Regelson (Biblio Books) is a vintage book, now back in print. The author was a well-known and award-winning poet in Israel who made aliyah with his family from America. He wrote this story about his daughter's dolls, at first left behind in America, but later sent across the ocean in 1933. The book was acclaimed by many Israelis, and the late songwriter Naomi Shemer described it as her favorite book. This edition was translated into English by the author's daughter, Sharona, the actual "mother" of the dolls.Another book featuring a doll, "The Doll With the Yellow Star" by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root (Henry Holt), is a beautifully told story of a 9-year-old girl who goes on her own from Paris to stay with some American relatives during World War II. She sets off with her much-loved doll in hand and always in her heart. She and her family suffer many losses, but those who survive struggle and learn to live on after the war. This is a story of war and loss, and also of love and family.

The book was inspired by a story told by a Holocaust survivor of having her doll snatched by an SS officer, and how she never stopped thinking about that doll. As an adult, she made a doll to resemble that one, but felt compelled to sew a yellow star on the doll's clothing, and then made others like that. The author of several children's books and also a doll collector, McDonough says that she wrote the kind of book she knew that she would have responded to as a child.

"A Pickpocket's Tale" by Karen Schwabach (Random House), set in the 1700s in London and then New York City, is an appealing first novel. Molly is a 10-year old Jewish orphan, a skilled pickpocket who gets caught in London and is sent to the United States where she becomes an indentured servant to a Jewish family. The family wants to teach Molly about Jewish culture, traditions and the rituals of home life -- she's not used to washing dishes at all, let alone separating meat and dairy -- but the young girl is mainly interested in getting back to the home she knows, the streets of London. Schwabach tells her tale with attentiveness to true details of colonial Jewish life.

For Teens:

"Lilith's Ark: Teenage Tales of Biblical Women" by Deborah Bodin Cohen (Jewish Publication Society) features stories about 10 women from Genesis, as the author imagines them as teens. Cohen's retellings are based on text, biblical commentaries and historical research. The book is great for girls to read on their own or in groups, and a study guide is included. The author is a rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week Tracker Pixel for Entry

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