Eight nights of reading: Chanukah books for preschoolers to teens

Eight nights of reading, December 2010

By Tova Stabin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

For preschoolers
A Chanukah Present For: Me!
by Lily Karr, illustrated by Jill McDonald. Scholastic. $6.99. A book designed to have the look and feel of a sparkling wrapped gift. Inside are the basics about Chanukah with simple, engaging questions, “Dreidel: Which side will it land on?” and “Menorah: How many candles are lit?” Included is the Sephardic/Israeli tradition of fried donuts — sufganiyot, as well as latkes.

Happy Hanukkah Lights by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Michelle Shapiro. Kar-Ben books. $5.95. Award-winning author Jules uses simple, enticing rhymes to show family time at Chanukah. The last page has eight panels — each with one more candle lit and an array of family activities. Bright illustrations help tell the tale.

Hanukkah: A Mini AniMotion Book, by Accord Publishing. $9.99. Children can enjoy flickering menorahs, spinning dreidels, and flipping latkes through AniMotion technology. Some pages are more engaging than others, but the basic traditions of Chanukah are discovered in a unique way. The book includes Hanukkah Facts to help parents and teachers who need to know a little more about the holiday.

Hanukkah: A Counting Book by Emily Sper. Scholastic. $6.99. While not new, this is one of my favorite Chanukah board books. Count one to eight in three languages — English, Hebrew and Yiddish — with original alphabet, transliteration and a guide to pronunciation. Each page has a die-cut of one more candle and a symbol from Chanukah, including some lesser-known symbols such as elephants for the number three, representing the Syrian-Greek soldiers who attacked riding on elephants. Pictures are brightly colored and lively.

Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig by Anna Levine, illustrated by Ksenia Topaz. Kar-Ben. $7.95. A young Israeli girl wants to be an archeologist like her father and begs him to take her to a dig. Her brothers think she’s too small and not strong enough, but on Chanukah her father takes her to the site of a dig in Modi’in, where the Maccabees fought the Syrian-Greeks. She learns the hard, hot work of being on a dig and conquers her fear of spiders and the dark when lowered in a bucket down a hole too small for the workers to fit through. Soft, impressionistic watercolors give a strong sense of the Israeli countryside. While not strong with references to contemporary Chanukah traditions, this book provides something different for Chanukah that speaks of history, independence and conquering fears.

Nathan’s Hanukkah Bargain by Jacqueline Dembar Greene, illustrated by Judith Hierstein. Pelican. $15.95. Young Nathan saves his money to buy a menorah all his own. He goes shopping with his proud grandfather, but all the menorahs are not quite right or too expensive. After his grandfather tells him how he used to bargain with peddlers, Nathan sees the perfect menorah in a junk store and his grandfather lets him bargain with the owner until the price is just right. This is a gentle, entertaining intergenerational story with soft, painted illustrations that “grow” with excitement as the bargaining goes on. A brief description of the Chanukah story is included.

Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah by Tilda Balsely, illustrated by David Harrington. Kar-Ben. $7.95. The historical story of Judah and the Maccabees is told here with a modern rhyme scheme and large cartoon-like illustrations. Repeated throughout is the refrain, “Sometimes it only takes a few/Who know what’s right, and do it, too.” Judah is picked from all his brothers to be a leader not because he is the strongest or smartest, but because he has the largest heart. In the epilogue, children are asked to imagine what Judah would do today and how he would react to contemporary Chanukah celebrations.

The Kvetch Who Stole Hanukkah by Bill Berlin and Susan Isakoff Berlin, illustrated by Peter Welling. Pelican. $16.99. In another homage to Dr. Seuss, this time, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, this rhyming book takes place in Oyville. Chanukah almost does not take place when the town Kvetch steals all the menorahs because the “…thought of the (Chanukah candle) lights, filled him with fear.” Before he destroys the menorahs, however, some children explain that the Chanukah spirit is “joyous and strong” and the holiday is about “justice and strength.” Though the book focuses a bit more on the Kvetch than the joy of Chanukah, the silly, exaggerated illustrations liven up the book.

For older children (tweens) or for aloud around the menorah
A Hanukah Present
by Mark Binder. Light Publications. $9.95. When my 15-year old son heard this was a book of Chelm stories, he was annoyed that I got to read it first, so I read him one aloud before he got ready for bed. Stories of the foolish Jews of the legendary town of Chelm entertain all ages. Here, short stories and a novella have classic Chelm characters, such as Little Doodle, the town orphan who saves the village, and Mrs. Chaipul, who makes horrible latkes. All the stories are filled with wit, though some are more “Chelm-ish” than others. The novella in which the Chelmites outwit the Cossacks has a few parts that may be scary to younger children. Talk of “Chanukah bushes,” while an interesting twist on its origins, may be too nontraditional or assimilated for some families.

A Hanukah Present by Mark Binder is also available on audio CD from Light Publications for  $9.95. Binder’s storytelling is good entertainment in these eight stories, mostly from the book with the same title. The Chanukah bush story is different on the CD. The liner notes explain this as Binder’s “…attempt to reconcile two aspects of Jewish culture in America, the tendency to assimilate and the history of persecution.” Most stories are introduced with a sweet, lively bit of Jewish music. Binder also has a CD, A Holiday Present, about all the winter holidays, including the story The Boy Who Hated Latkes.

An Adventure in Latkaland: A Hanukkah Story by Karen Fisman, illustrated by Thomas McAteer. JoRa Books. $13.50 hardcover, $7.99 paperback. This illustrated chapter book for early readers or as a read-aloud story, is a quick paced adventure with fantasy, history, tradition and triumph. With the spin of a magic dreidel, Jacob conjures up Sarah and together they go to Latkaland where they meet Oily and the Lunchkins. All join forces, and, with the spirit of the Maccabees (and a nod to the Wizard of Oz), outwit the Chanukah goblins that have been boiling all the potatoes so they cannot be fried to make latkes. Included are recipes for latkes, a jujube dreidel treat, and a “teaser” for the sequel — Problems in Purimville. Latkaland was selected by the Jewish Book Council for its 2010 Jewish Book Network.

Teen books with Jewish themes and characters
So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother)
by Micol Ostow, art by David Ostow. Flux. $9.95. This prose/graphic novel hybrid is a clever presentation addressing issues of “coolness” in a Jewish framework. Ari Abramson, who attends a private Jewish day school, decides he’d be seen as cool if he started a band, which he names Tribe. He enlists his best friend, the ever naturally cool Jonas, studious Yossi because he owns drums, and Yossi’s sister, Reena, because Yossi’s parents say if Yossi’s in the band, Reena has to be also. After a one-song gig at a Bar Mitzvah, the Tribe is a big hit. All have to deal with what being local stars entails, from friends to parents to romance. A 2010 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teen Readers, So Punk Rock was created by a sister and brother team.

Jewish Comedy Stars: Classic to Cutting Edge by Norman H. Finkelstein. Kar-Ben. $9.95. From vaudeville to online comedy, comedians such as Fanny Brice, The Three Stooges, Billy Crystal, Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Stiller are included in this book with more than 40 short biographies and black and white photos of Jewish comedians. Divided into three “Acts” — On Stage, On Air, and On Fire — this is a great non-fiction book to engender pride in the accomplishments of diverse Jews, and for a laugh or two. Each “act” includes an overview essay that sets the stage for the bios. Great for anyone but, of course, especially for those teens who devour biographies or love comedy. Source notes and a bibliography are included.

Inconvenient by Margie Gelbwasser. Flux. $9.95. Although 15-year old Jewish Alyssa Bondar lives in Glenfair, N.J., dubbed “Little Russia,” she and her best friend, Lana, are the only Russians in her class and have been subject to teasing for years. As sophomore year starts though, Lana’s new “sexy attitude” is attracting the popular kids and Alyssa is left behind. At home, Alyssa’s parents drink all the time, but when her mother loses her job, her drinking gets out of control. Her father’s denial of her mother’s alcoholism leaves Alyssa to deal with the challenges of home and school. Gentle, sometimes poetic prose, and complex characters and themes make this a compelling read for older and mature teens. The author is an immigrant from Belarus who moved to the suburbs of New Jersey.

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