Need a break from Christmas themed books and movies?
“Eight Nights of Flirting” is the Hanukkah equivalent of a Hallmark Christmas movie. Aimed at teens, but enjoyable for anyone who likes a heartwarming holiday story, it comes complete with a large family, multiple celebrations and lots of genuine, human connection.
Throughout this season, the media focuses on Christmas … with Hanukkah as the afterthought. In Hannah Reynolds’ “Eight Nights of Flirting” the Festival of Lights takes center stage, but there’s still a bit of harmony between December holidays.
Gingerbread lattes and sufganiyot, anyone?
Reynolds, who wrote the critically acclaimed “The Summer of Lost Letters,” grew up outside of Boston, and comes from an interfaith family. Her mother is Jewish; her father’s parents were Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic. While Reynolds and her brother were raised Reform — it was important to her mother that they were raised Jewish — they also celebrated Christmas with her dad’s family.
“I wanted a story where a Jewish girl got to experience that same festive romance, in a tale filled with everything I love about the holidays in New England: the snow and starlight and candles and sledding and icicles and hot cocoa.”
“I grew up surrounded by Christmas rom-com books and movies, but there were none about Hanukkah,” Reynolds told the Journal. “I wanted a story where a Jewish girl got to experience that same festive romance, in a tale filled with everything I love about the holidays in New England: the snow and starlight and candles and sledding and icicles and hot cocoa.”
In “Eight Nights of Flirting” readers experience the holidays through the eyes — and heart — of 16-year-old Shira Barbanel, who is spending the season with her extended family — including a dozen cousins, some of whom are quite the handful — on Nantucket.
On a mission to get the perfect boyfriend for Hanukkah (she has the perfect candidate), Shira gets an assist from Tyler Nelson, the popular and charming “boy next door,” she used to love (and was rejected by him a few years ago), but now loves to hate (the embarrassment stuck). As Shira is a disaster with boys, she and Tyler strike a deal: he will give her flirting lessons in exchange for intros and career opportunities. A modern-day romance with a touch of historical mystery, readers are in for a treat.
“I had so much fun writing about the parts of Hanukkah I love, plus inventing a Hanukkah play that Shira is dragged into by her cousins,” Reynolds said.
The author writes “joyful, uplifting stories,” because those are the stories that have always made her feel the best.
“Happiness is a deeply important emotion, and being able to bring happiness into readers’ lives is very fulfilling,” she said. “I consider it very worthwhile — especially when the reader is a young person going through a tough time.”
Reynolds wrote “Eight Nights of Flirting” during the pandemic. She missed her friends and family, and wanted to write a heroine who was also lonely. Shira, however, is lonely because she has trouble letting her guard down, which makes it difficult to develop relationships, especially romantic ones.
“I wanted to explore good communication and opening up, which can be hard for everyone, not just teens,” Reynolds said. “I also wanted to write about a big, supportive family, to show the warmth and importance of those relationships in addition to romantic ones.”
Reynolds hopes her book helps people realize sharing their feelings doesn’t need to be so painful.
“In particular, I hope “Eight Nights of Flirting” shows Jewish teens a world where they’re reflected in positive, familiar ways,” she said. “When I was growing up, I rarely saw Jewish characters outside of victims in Holocaust fiction, and I want future generations to have more varied and positive representation.”
In her youth, every Saturday Reynold’s father would take her and her brother to the local bookstore, where she gravitated towards stories of adventurous girls triumphing over evil and fighting wrongs.
“I loved these books, which showed me how life could be messy and strange and scary, but still wonderful,” she said. “Books brought me so much happiness growing up; books made me laugh and gasp and cry. I became a writer to create those same experiences, and hopefully bring as much satisfaction to my readers as my favorite authors gave me.”
Reynolds spent most of her childhood and teenage years recommending books to friends, working at a bookstore and making chocolate desserts. She received her BA in Creative Writing and Archaeology from Ithaca College. After living in San Francisco, New York and Paris, she came back to Massachusetts and now lives in Cambridge.
Reynolds’ favorite Hanukkah memory is of watching the candles flicker low on the fifth or sixth night, when there’s still a few days left in the holiday. “You’re surrounded by family and warmth and sated by too many applesauce-drenched latkes,” she said.
These days, she celebrates Hanukkah by scraping her knuckles while grating potatoes for latkes, enjoying parties with friends (though their latkes are never as good as the family recipe) and exploring Boston’s pop-up Hanukkah bars.
Reynolds still gets together with her family to light candles and sing songs (“Ma’oz tzur” has always been her favorite), using the same battered collection of photocopies they’ve been using her entire life.
She also hopes “Eight Nights of Flirting” brings joy to its non-Jewish readers, and welcomes them into the warm world she created, filled with family, friendship and love.
“It’s incredibly important right now that people are introduced to communities outside their own, and books are one of the many ways to do so,” Reynolds said. “Reading increases empathy, and teen readers are still forming their worldview. I hope “Eight Nights of Flirting” helps everyone who reads it become more compassionate towards the people around them.”