Fall holidays and more: New books for kids, and parents, too

The fall holidays are here and so is the new crop of holiday-themed children’s books.
September 16, 2016

The fall holidays are here and so is the new crop of holiday-themed children’s books. Again this year, Yom Kippur proves to be a challenging holiday for publishers, but it seems that each of the other Jewish holidays are represented — even Shemini Atzeret, for the first time. 

There are other notable additions to children’s literature, too, including the new illustrated biography of beloved Jewish Angeleno — and “Star Trek” star — Leonard Nimoy. Kids reading this one will find out how pride in his Jewish heritage truly did influence his life and career choices. 

For adults, we conclude this list with an insightful and funny parenting book written especially for Jewish mothers.

Rosh Hashanah

“Gabriel’s Horn” by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Maria Surducan (Kar-Ben, 2016).

Times are tough, economically, for Gabriel and his family this Rosh Hashanah — their antique store and other neighborhood businesses are on the verge of shutting down. As a round challah is baking in the oven, a U.S. Army soldier (astute readers will note his name tag reads “Tishbi” — as in “Eliayhu ha-Tishbi,” Prophet Elijah, the Tishbite) knocks on the door hoping to find a place to store a precious family heirloom while he is on duty overseas. He tells Gabriel and his mother that this old French horn brings good luck. They do their best to clean it, but it remains stubbornly tarnished. However, as time passes, the family’s good fortune improves as they perform various mitzvot and give tzedakah throughout their neighborhood. After seven years, the soldier returns, opens the case and is astonished to see how shiny his old horn has become, and offers it to Gabriel as a gift. This story about the importance of tzedakah and Elijah the Prophet is loosely adapted by famed children’s author Eric Kimmel from Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz’s story titled “Seven Good Years.”

“Little Red Rosie” by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Monica Gutierrez (Apples & Honey, 2016). 

The prolific Eric Kimmel provides another adapted story with a Rosh Hashanah theme: This time, it’s the old English folktale “The Little Red Hen,” turned on its head. When Rosie asks her bird friends who will help her bake a challah, instead of the familiar, “Not I!” they all cheerfully reply, “I will!” Unfortunately for the capable Rosie, her friends exhibit the characteristics of typical young, eager and “helpful” children, and often make a mess of things. “I think I’d better do it myself,” says Rosie, but she remains cheerful and follows the author’s philosophy that “children learn best by doing things themselves, even if they don’t get it right at first.” The emphasis here is the value of hachnasat orchim (“welcoming guests”), which is a mitzvah at holiday time and throughout the year.


“Sky-High Sukkah” by Rachel Ornstein Packer. Illustrated by Deborah Zemke (Apples & Honey, 2016).

Leah wants to build a sukkah, but is sad because she lives in a high-rise apartment building and has no backyard. When she greets Al, the neighborhood greengrocer, she explains the holiday. In Hebrew school, Leah and her friend Ari are excited to hear about a contest for making sukkah posters in hopes of winning first prize: a sukkah! Ari’s poster depicts a sukkah on top of a tall city building, which he titles “Sky-High Sukkah,” and he wins the coveted prize. Many in the neighborhood volunteer to help build and decorate the sukkah, which has been brought to the roof of Ari’s apartment building, but it seems to be lacking. Al saves the day by bringing over enough fruit and schach to make the sukkah extra special. The author based this story on her childhood growing up in Queens, N.Y., and her memories of an annual eight-day period when neighbors “were in and out of the sukkah all the time.” “Being part of a community is an important Jewish value,” she writes in her author’s note at the end of the book, and she encourages children to consider other activities they can do to build a strong kehillah (“community”) after the holiday is over.

Shemini Atzeret

“Maya Prays for Rain” by Susan Tarov. Illustrations by Ana Ochoa (Kar-Ben, 2016).

Shemini Atzeret may be the least likely holiday to be showcased in a picture book, but it’s about time for kids to learn a bit about this Jewish holiday that seems to be part of Sukkot, but actually falls after Sukkot is over. Because of the harvest and Israel’s rainy season, the prayer for rain is an important aspect of this day. But as young Maya walks down her (quite multicultural) street on this beautiful fall afternoon, she encounters her neighbors preparing for a variety of fun outdoor activities — all of which would be ruined if it were to rain. When she learns that people in synagogue are planning to pray for rain that evening, she rushes out to warn her friends that rain is surely coming, then runs to beg the rabbi not to pray the ancient words. He reassures her that when Jews pray for rain on Shemini Atzeret, “We’re not praying for the rain to fall here. We’re praying for the rain to fall in Israel!” The adorable, brightly colored illustrations of Maya’s street and neighbors, along with the depiction of perky, frizzy-haired Maya herself, make this book a likely candidate for reading multiple times.

Simchat Torah

“How It’s Made: Torah Scroll” by Allison Ofanansky. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern (Apples & Honey Press, 2016).

Impressive use of white space and typography, along with colorful photographs and kid-friendly information, provide curious children (and adults) easy access to important information about how Torah scrolls are made. Children may be surprised to learn how many rules are involved, and how these regulations have not changed for thousands of years. “Not a single letter has been changed,” the author writes. “Many of the same materials are used now as in ancient times. … But some things are done differently.” The major difference that is highlighted in some photos is the depiction of women scribes and rabbis. Other interesting photos show traditional Jewish scribes etching lines with a tool, making quills from feathers and ink from gallnuts and tree sap, stretching cow skin on a frame, and even erasing the rare mistake. Instructions for making quills, ink and a yad to read with are attractively highlighted in the sidebars. Families will be better informed for Simchat Torah and throughout the year after reading this book together.


“Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy” by Richard Michelson. Illustrated by Edel Rodriguez (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).

This illustrated biography of Leonard Nimoy geared toward kids opens in 1939, as a 9-year-old Leonard is chosen to sing “God Bless America” at the settlement house theater in Boston because the “new social director had heard Lenny chanting the Shema prayer” at shul. Always attentive to his surroundings at services, Nimoy often witnessed the priestly blessing and practiced doing it at home by taping his fingers together in that particular way. From his Boston tenement beginnings he made his way to Hollywood and worked in minor acting roles until he got a call from producer Gene Rodenberry in 1965. Wearing “pointy ears and a silly haircut” on the “Star Trek” series made Nimoy famous, and his choice of the Vulcan greeting reflects his childhood memories of the priestly benediction. His close personal relationship with popular children’s author Richard Michelson, as related in the author’s end notes, adds a poignant dimension to this appealing picture book that will surely touch readers.


“Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children” by Marjorie Ingall (Harmony Books, 2016).

Nora Ephron meets child psychologist Wendy Mogel in this new and wise look at Jewish mothering from Tablet Magazine’s popular parenting columnist. Author Marjorie Ingall breaks down the issues into 10 amusing chapter titles such as “Distrust Authority,” “Encourage Geekiness” and “Value Money (but Not Too Much)” and concludes with an important chapter on “How to Make a Mensch.” She intersperses funny personal anecdotes about her life and children along with a great deal of Judaic information — all of which helps the reader to combat typical Jewish stereotypes while picking up tips on how to make the world a better place. Dealing with the ups and downs of parenting in the modern age has never been such a fun and rewarding read.

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