The Gift of Reading

Some years ago, the American Booksellers Association’s holiday advertising theme was the phrase: “Give a gift of love; Give a book.” Jewish Book Month, scheduled in November, anticipated the gift-giving season. This year, as always, a fresh crop of children’s books appeared for the holiday. Consider choosing one of these instead of toys that beep and break:

* Highly praised in publications of the American Library Association and other reviewing journals, Cathy Goldberg Fishman’s “On Chanukah” (Atheneum, 1998) describes the meaning and rituals of the holiday as observed by a young girl and her family. As each candle is lit, a different aspect of the observance is examined and differing qualities are associated with each night’s light: a light of hope, strength, giving, knowledge, freedom, happiness or faith in the darkness. Illustrations by Melanie W. Hall are in mixed media, soft and somewhat abstractly rendered images of family celebration, which include specific symbols in their fluidly glowing composition. Ages 4-8.

* “A Chanukah Treasury” (Henry Holt, 1998), compiled by prolific children’s writer Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Emily Lisker, is a delightful compendium of not only history and tradition, but stories, songs, poetry, recipes, legends and lore. It offers information found nowhere else I know of: for example, the source of the White House Menorah (did you know there was one?); how to celebrate Chanukah in Alaska while being stalked by a moose (hint: he loves latkes); and a few interesting variations on the dreidel game. The pictures, in acrylic paints on canvas, are brightly colored, reminiscent of folk art and a definite asset to this entertaining and educational work. For family use; all ages.

* Little people are not unknown in Jewish children’s literature. We did, after all, have K’tonton. But he was an out-in-the-open human family member. In “When Mindy Saved Chanukah” (Scholastic Press, 1998), also by Eric Kimmel, Mindy Klein’s miniature family — like The Borrowers — live very much behind the scenes, in the back of the walls of the famous Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York. When the shul brings in a predatory cat, the Klein family’s plans to go foraging for a candle with which to celebrate Chanukah become very dangerous indeed. After Papa fails, intrepid Mindy dares all and succeeds, helped by zayde, who understands that cats can seldom resist pickled herring. Barbara McClintock’s ink, watercolor and gouache illustrations are a delight, using sepia tones to enhance the early 1900s setting and amusing details to underscore the family’s size (zayde’s helmet is a thimble; Mindy’s climbing hook is a paperclip). Ages 4-8.

* Mark Podwal, whose work appears both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Times, is the author/illustrator of many Jewish books. His latest, “The Menorah Story (Greenwillow, 1998), is in simple text and glowing pictures. Podwal gracefully casts light on this important symbol and its place in Chanukah’s history. Ages 5 and up.

* In 1987, Jane Breskin Zalben began writing and illustrating a series of warm and cozy stories that brought Jewish holiday tales into the popular tradition of using small animals to tell universal stories. This holiday season brings us “Pearl’s Eight Days of Chanukah (Simon & Shuster, 1998). Pearl, a young lamb, celebrates each of the eight days along with visiting cousins Harry and Sophie. Linked by short segments describing the family’s activities for each night are recipes, crafts, puppet shows, songs, history of the holiday and more. Painstakingly and charmingly illustrated in pencil and watercolor, this is an excellent guide for families celebrating with young children. Ages 4-9.

* For a Chanukah chuckle, seek out David A. Adler’s “Chanukah in Chelm,” wonderfully illustrated by Kevin O’Malley, (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1997). In this picture book, Mendel, the caretaker of the shul, has a big problem when the rabbi instructs him to place the chanukiyah on a table by the window so its glow may be seen outside. Finding the menorah in a closet, he goes off in a futile search for a table, ignoring (like many of us) what is right under his nose, the table the menorah rested on in the first place. Funny and fond old-world watercolor and pen pictures by O’Malley are just the thing to expand upon Adler’s humorous folk tale. Ages 4 and up.

Also appropriate for Chanukah are several new books that not only address Chanukah, but the entire Jewish year:

* Gilda Berger’s “Celebrate! Stories of the Jewish Holidays” (Scholastic Press, 1998), with vivid and dramatic watercolor paintings by Peter Catalanotto, first ties each holiday to a story from the Bible (e.g. the story of Jonah for Yom Kippur), Berger then appends three sections on each story: What We Celebrate, exploring the background of the holiday including a timeline; How We Celebrate, explaining traditional observances; and Crafts and Food, which provides activities and recipes with careful instructions. All ages.

Rita Berman Frischer is the librarian at Sinai Temple