Jewish Journal

Favorite childrens’ books old and new

Lisa Silverman

Posted on Nov. 21, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Remember “The Chanukkah Guest” by Eric Kimmel? Those 20-somethings who consider their favorite Chanukah stories from childhood would no doubt recall the tale of the 97-year-old woman who “did not see or hear as well as she used to, but she still made the best potato latkes in the village.” Now it’s been reimagined with a shorter text (by the same author), new illustrations (by a different illustrator), and a new title: “The Hanukkah Bear” (Holiday House). The original version regaled scores of first- and second-graders with the antics of a hungry latke-sniffing bear as he is mistaken for the town rabbi by a misguided old woman who has invited her rabbi for a Chanukah feast. The new incarnation simplifies the text, but remains the same spirited, humorous tale. When the old woman tries to take the bear’s “coat,” he roars, “Grrrrowww!” so she lets him keep it on. When she attempts a game of dreidel, he eats the nuts she offers for game pieces. She admonishes him for not using a fork to eat from the large stack of latkes, but she is pleased to find that he is so enthusiastic about her cooking. Eventually she wipes the jam from his messy “beard,” offers him a knitted scarf as a Chanukah gift, and the satiated bear goes back to his den just as the old woman’s real houseguests arrive at her door. Everyone pitches in to make more plates of latkes, and a happy Chanukah is had by all. The updated illustrations in this new version are whimsical, featuring a more endearing bear and a sweeter-looking old lady. Enthusiasts can argue over which version is better, but no matter — this delightful old favorite is back in the hands of children and will again become a perfect holiday read-aloud.

We find more bears celebrating Chanukah in “Beni’s Family Treasury: Stories for the Jewish Holidays” by Jane Breskin Zalben (Henry Holt and Co.) — another favorite from the ’90s that has been reprinted by the publisher. Thankfully it is available again to a new generation of kids who will delight in the intricately detailed illustrations of a colorful bear family who celebrate five major Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim and Passover. Each of the previously published warm and entertaining stories has been collected into this one volume, originally bound together in 1998. 

Those same now-grown kids who remember those two holiday books will also fondly recall “The Keeping Quilt by renowned children’s author Patricia Polacco. A short time ago, Simon and Shuster reissued a 25th anniversary edition of the beloved story of a handsome quilt handed down through generations of the author’s family. The book was cleverly updated to show how even today the quilt continues to move through the celebrations of the author’s family and is now displayed at the Mazza Museum in Ohio. Polacco has drawn upon her family history once again in her new and richly illustrated companion book to “The Keeping Quilt,” titled “The Blessing Cup” (Simon and Shuster). The new book serves as a sort of prequel to “The Keeping Quilt,” this time telling the story of a special teacup lovingly separated from a colorful china set by Polacco’s ancestors fleeing Tsarist Russia. The “blessing cup” was taken with them as they journeyed to America, and eventually it is passed down to her in 1962, when the author received the cup from her mother on her wedding day. The theme of family and tradition shines through this lovely, heartfelt story and would make a wonderful gift to any child. 

A couple of new Chanukah stories for the younger set highlight New York City in text and illustration but retain universal themes of sharing and family. In “The Eighth Menorah” by Lauren Wohl, with illustrations by Laura Hughes (Albert Whitman and Co.), young Sam gets a chance to make a secret clay menorah in Hebrew school but begins to think about how many menorahs his family already owns. They have seven: One came from Russia with his great-great-great-grandmother, one was a gift from Nana and Poppy, one was from his other grandparents’ trip to Israel, two others were owned by his parents when they were children, and one was the menorah his parents bought for their first Chanukah together. What is the point of making another? After a conversation with his grandmother (who has recently moved to a new high-rise condo in the city), Sam figures out how to share his perfect Chanukah gift with new friends. The appealing, childlike illustrations evoke a sense of place and genuine family warmth.

From too many menorahs to too many gifts, sometimes we need to just sit back and take stock of all that we have. “Gracie’s Night: A Hanukkah Story” (Cookie and Nudge Books) also takes the reader through the Big Apple during wintertime. Debut author Lynn Taylor Gordon prefaces her unusual Chanukah tale with meaningful words: “When we are brave enough to reach out instead of looking away, miracles can happen.” The jaunty rhyming text relates the story of Gracie and her father, both of little means living in the big city; charmingly depicted in bold colors by illustrator Laura Brown. When young Gracie gets a holiday season job at Macy’s department store, she is delighted to be able to purchase eight gifts for her papa for the upcoming eight nights of Chanukah. She buys “mittens, sweaters, snow boots and socks, and had them gift-wrapped with a bow on each box.” Her joy at her new-found fortune is diminished, however, as she spies a homeless man huddling inside a cardboard box, cold and sad. She anonymously leaves him the gifts, fully knowing that her papa would approve. The final heartwarming spread shows the meager family of two (along with dog, cat and goldfish) celebrating Chanukah with a bright menorah, latkes, dreidels and gelt, along with loving and knowing smiles. The author’s Web site states that the book is based on the true Gordon family tradition of foregoing gifts on one Chanukah night and giving anonymously to someone in need. Check it out for discussion questions and some fun printable activities. 

For a Chanukah book that makes a double gift, consider the new “Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales” by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand (Barefoot Books), which comes with a two-disc narration by well-known Jewish actress Debra Messing. This is a beautifully imagined book. The publisher has previously published “The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales” and “The Barefoot Book of Buddhist Tales,” and this third offering of Jewish tales shows the kind of care and attention they have taken to getting things right. The volume consists of eight well-told tales, along with source notes, and a useful and thorough glossary. The CDs are professionally produced and Messing’s calm storytelling will captivate children. The stories include, “Elijah’s Wisdom,” “The Boy Who Prayed the Alphabet,” “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster,” “The Challah in the Ark,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Clever Rachel” (a Chelm story) and “The Perfect Mistake.” The author begins the volume with a two-page tale titled “The Power of Story” about the Baal Shem Tov and how his followers forgot exactly how he had prayed but did what little they remembered throughout the generations. She writes that “even when we can no longer remember exactly where to go or what to do or what words to say, we can tell the story and that will be enough. This is a book of stories, to be told from one generation to the next. Tell the stories and pass them on. Whatever your child remembers, that will be enough.”

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library.

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