October 17, 2018

Say it with song: Children’s books for the Festival of Lights

“I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel” by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by David Slonim (Arthur A. Levine Books). 

It seems that old ladies don’t just swallow flies anymore. Comical illustrations, all satirizing famous paintings, are the stars of this funny book, beginning on the title page. A family on a road trip drives by a billboard of the “Mona Lisa” (with a dreidel in the foreground) reimagined as their friendly bubbe. Upon arrival at her house, they pose for a family portrait à la Grant Wood’s “American Gothic (substitute a menorah on a big stick for the pitchfork), while she prepares bagels and cream cheese. The rollicking rhyme begins: “I know an old lady who swallowed a dreidel, a Chanukah dreidel she thought was a bagel … perhaps it’s fatal.” Although it is clear she possesses an iron stomach, she screams like a famed Norwegian existential work of art, and the silliness continues. Art-savvy adults will be laughing out loud with recognition of the wacky illustrations. But no worries — the last two pages provide the titles of the real artwork, and kids are encouraged to go online to compare and learn more. A successful idea, well told and great fun.

“Lullaby” by Debbie Friedman, illustrated by Lorraine Bubar. (Jewish Lights) 

Another new book and CD set this season is an illustrated version of the beloved late songstress Debbie Friedman’s take on the bedtime Shema prayer. “Lullaby” is one of her most popular songs, and it is often sung to children as they drift off to sleep. The lyrics are simple and taken from the prayers many Jews say at night, but re-created as a prayer an adult might say to a young child: “Know that God will keep you safe throughout the night. … So many things to think about before you go to sleep. You did so many things today and you’ll do so many more tomorrow. … God will take care of the ones you love and keep you safe throughout the night. Shekhinah come to you and stay with you until morning comes. The angels all around you will keep you safe throughout the night.” The melody is comforting, and Friedman’s powerful voice and guitar on the accompanying CD is a gentle reminder of her great talent. Although the back matter provides a short biography of the singer, the one thing missing from this book is an explanation of the depiction of the four archangels — Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael — along with the Shekhinah, who are all illustrated as hovering with white wings above the child’s bed. Although this scene is directly referenced in the siddur, it is not a usual sight in a Jewish book, and some explanation of its origins would have benefited readers.

“The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin: A Toyshop Tale of Hanukkah” by Martha Seif Simpson, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard (Wisdom Tales). 

Folktales about greedy brothers getting their just deserts while the kindest one marries the princess always seem so satisfying. This tale about a striking jeweled dreidel that will not spin for selfish, materialistic children, but does so for the one child who appreciates it, is a charming story that could grow into a family favorite. The typeface is large and appealing to a beginning chapter-book reader, and the colorful illustrations convey an Eastern European sense of time and place — including peddlers and storekeepers (all wearing kippot or hats) and horse-drawn carriages with small-town appeal. After the selfish customers purchase the beautiful dreidel only to find it will not spin, the understanding shopkeeper realizes it should go to the one boy “who saw beyond price or appearance” and “who understood what was truly precious.” Of course, the dreidel does spin for him and amazingly transforms its letters to read “Nes katan hayah poh” — “a small miracle happened here.” The shopkeeper comes to realize that the miracle of Chanukah cannot be bought as the tale provides a noteworthy conclusion: Wonders still happen for those who can appreciate them. 

“The Maccabee on the Mantel” by Abra Liberman Garrett and Four Day Weekend, illustrated by Ivan Escalante (Viper Comics; Toy Vey!) 

For those who think the Chanukah story has gotten short shrift in the toy department, meet this smiling Maccabee plush doll and book set. Clearly patterned after the popular “Elf on the Shelf” Christmas toy, the makers of this attractive boxed set envision Jewish children falling asleep with their own stuffed Maccabee in their arms. Although it takes some brain readjustment to combine “ancient Judean warrior” with “cute” (and many just won’t want to go there), this book remains in the tradition of many other Chanukah children’s books that explain the historical narrative of the Maccabee revolt in language accessible to a young child. Children are encouraged to name their Maccabee and hide him around the house while doing Chanukah-ish things, like eating latkes or playing dreidel, thus creating new family holiday traditions. The story is gently told in pleasing rhyming couplets, and the illustrations and the doll are, well, really cute. The whole set comes in a handsome gift box that even Antiochus would love.

“Honeyky Hanukah” by Woody Guthrie, illustrated by Dave Horowitz (Doubleday)

Here’s another song reimagined as a children’s book, this time including a CD of the Klezmatics performing a great klezmer version of this Woody Guthrie Chanukah song. The illustrations are large, lively and bright, and will surely engage preschool children. The back matter for adults includes interesting information about how “Woody Guthrie’s Jewish songs can be traced to his friendship with his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a well-known Yiddish poet who lived down the street from Woody and his family in Coney Island.” This delightful song is not well-known to the Jewish preschool set, but here’s hoping that this book changes that. The little ones will be happily bopping around in the back seat for all eight days of Hanukah and into the New Year.

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