A Mixed Bag of Surprises and Disappointments


By Esmé Codell
Illustrated by Le Uyen Pham
53 pages. Hyperion Books for Children. $16.99.
Ages 5 and up.

By Lesléa Newman
Illustrated by Elivia Savadier
24 pages. Harry N. Abrams. $12.95.
Ages 2 to 5.

A New Spin on Hanukkah
By Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi
Illustrated by Susanna Natti
48 pages. A Deborah Brodie Book. $16.95.
Ages 8 to 12.

I was all set to go on one of my frequent tirades about Hanukah books for children. I really was. Staring at the three new Hanukah tomes I was to review this year, I noticed that two of them found their inspiration in Christmas traditions, something that really pushes my buttons. I had my grumpiest, most Hanukah-has-nothing-to-do-with-Christmas face on, ready to rip the two books apart.

The first, Hanukkah, Schmanukkah! by Esmé Codell, uses Dickens' A Christmas Carol as the basis for a new Hanukkah story. My first reflex was to ask, "Why would anyone want to reinforce the artificial and (to me) offensive connection between Christmas and Hanukah if one didn't have to? Just because the two holidays are close to one another on the calendar doesn't make them related, right?"

I began reading, and soon discovered that Hanukkah, Schmanukkah!, through the device of the "Rabbi of Hanukkah Past," actually tells the story of the Macabees in a way that is dramatic and compelling, yet not too disturbing for kids. I softened… a little, and settled into the story of Scroogemacher, a Jewish turn-of-the-century factory owner who works his immigrant employees very hard and treats them unfairly. The resemblance to Dickens' Scrooge is painfully obvious, but I continued on, becoming interested in what I was learning about the Jewish immigrant experience in New York City in the early 1900s. Codell even draws from the actual experiences of Jewish workers from this time period, culled from letters written to The Jewish Daily Forward by immigrant workers.

The illustrations by LeUyen Pham add an Old World style to the pages, recreating urban Jewish life at the start of the 20th century, ancient battles fought by the Macabees, and the hardships of the long sea voyage that immigrants endured to reach the Goldeneh Medineh (meaning literally "golden country," but also "fool's paradise") of America. Yiddish words add to the richness of the story, but they are almost too generously sprinkled throughout. Readers can get help from a glossary at the end, but it's annoying to have to keep flipping the pages back and forth to find definitions for lesser-known terms like hoking a chainik (literally "banging a kettle," but figuratively meaning to bother someone), zetz (punch), and mazik (cheerful maker of mischief).

While Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! is often obvious and preachy in its message about the importance of remembering what the Jewish people have endured, at least it achieves the goal of conveying the importance of the Hanukah celebration in a society that is so over-the-top obsessed with Christmas. The "Rabbi of Hanukkah Future" even shows Scroogemacher that "Christmas is a big part of America," and provokes him by adding, "What can I say? They have good decorations."

So, despite the opening of Scroogemacher's heart and the obligatory happy ending, Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! exceeded my scroogy expectations by winning me over with its expressive illustrations, compact history lessons, and dramatic storyline.

But the next book put me back in my bah-humbuggy mood.

The new volume by award-winning author Lesléa Newman, The Eight Nights of Chanukah, turns to the 12 Days of Christmas for its form, and it doesn't do enough to make up for it. "On the first night of Chanukah I clap my hands to see… A present waiting for me." And it continues through the eight nights, adding items as it goes. While the illustrations by celebrated illustrator Elivia Savadier (two-time winner of the Sydney Taylor Award and a National Jewish Book Award recipient) are charming and fun to look at, there's just no substance in this book, save for a page-long note and a glossary that appear at the end, like an afterthought, attempting to paste some meaning onto the preceding pages.

To be fair, very young children may enjoy sitting on a parent's knee, looking at the pictures, and hearing what's in store on each of the eight nights of Hanukah. It may be amusing for them to watch as the pages become more and more crowded, first with presents, then with Macabees and challahs and matzo balls and bags of gelt and dreidels and latkes and maidels dancing. But this type of story could have been done to any rhythm. Why model it after the 12 Days of Christmas? Why reinforce the non-existent connection between Christmas and Hanukah?

Thankfully, the last book, Four Sides, Eight Nights: A New Spin on Hanukkah by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, is a delightful surprise, full of great information about Hanukah, its history, and its traditions. As I read it, I was amazed at the interesting nuggets I learned, like the origin of the dreidel and the science behind it. Did you know that dreidels originated from sheep bones and fire starters? Or that in 168 B.C.E., students used a small top—an ancestor of the dreidel—as a diversion to prevent soldiers of the Syrian-Greek king, Antiochus IV, from finding them engaged in the prohibited act of studying Torah? I, for one, didn't know that we're supposed to eat dairy products on Hanukah to commemorate a gruesome plot executed by a beautiful widow named Judith that involved the General Holophernes, salty cheese, a lot of wine, and a beheading. Now don't you want to read the book?

This book is a great resource for families that want to learn about the holiday together. Older kids can read this book on their own, and younger ones may enjoy hearing it one chapter at a time. Conveniently, there are eight chapters, one for each night of the Festival of Lights. The pencil illustrations by Susanna Natti are cute, but a little color would have livened up the pages of this wonderful book. That's my only gripe.

In the end, my advice to parents is to be picky in choosing Hanukah books that put forth the attributes of the holiday that you hope to impart to your kids. If your goal is to link Hanukah with Christmas as another winter holiday with lots of presents, there are plenty of choices. But if you aim to discover the rich history and meaning of the Festival of Lights, stick to gems like Ben-Zvi's Four Sides, Eight Nights.