November 21, 2018

Light Chanukah reading for all ages

Chanukah is “late” this year, so that gives everyone plenty of extra time to shop for gifts, including those for book-lovers. There are a few notable 2016 picture books about the holiday for younger children, a couple of gems for middle-grade students, and even something for their parents. 

Picture books

“A Hanukkah With Mazel,” by Joel Edward Stein. Illustrated by Elisa Vavouri. Kar-Ben, 2016. 

Misha is a poor struggling artist who lives alone outside the village of Grodno with only his cow, Klara, to keep him company. One morning when Misha comes to the barn to milk Klara, he finds a hungry kitten curled up next to her, and he names her Mazel. On the first night of Chanukah, he is able to find two potatoes and a bit of oil to fry some latkes, but unfortunately, no candles to light a menorah and no money to buy any. Since he is an artist, the one thing he does have is paint, and he comes up with a creative way to celebrate: He paints a menorah and adds one painted “flame” each night of the holiday. Mazel’s cheery companionship buoys Misha’s holiday spirit until he meets a traveling merchant who has been looking for little Goldie, a kitten who had jumped from his cart weeks earlier. All ends well in this sweet tale that provides smiles all around and in which Mazel indeed earns her name. The pleasant pen and ink watercolor art by Elisa Vavouri, an experienced European illustrator of over 70 books, depicts Old World simplicity with charming expressiveness.

“Yitzi and the Giant Menorah,” written and illustrated by Richard Ungar. Tundra Books, 2016.

Canadian author and illustrator Richard Ungar is experienced at telling Jewish children’s folk tales. His fifth picture book is a newly imagined Chelm story that is a bit more lengthy than typical picture books, but it is so well told that it should really be read out loud for best effect. Ungar sets the stage on a cold morning before Chanukah in the Polish shtetl of Chelm. The mayor of Lublin has sent over a special gift unlike anything the town has ever seen: a huge Chanukah menorah as big as a tree. The town now needs to figure out how to thank the mayor for this wondrous gift. Of course, being Chelmites, they come up with some pretty hare-brained schemes that readers will find amusing — but none of these ideas will be able to solve their problem. It is left to young Yitzi, the only child character, to think up the most fitting way to thank the faraway mayor, who is asked to climb up the big hill outside of town to view the town’s offering. The watercolor illustrations by the author are busy and bright with a bit of an old-world feel to match the story.

Middle grade

“Dreidels on the Brain” by Joel Ben Izzy. Dial, 2016.

It’s Chanukah 1971 in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and life is not going great for Joel, an amateur magician and the only Jewish kid in his middle school class. Not only is he “seriously funny-looking” but his family’s monetary situation has hit hard times and his dad has to be hospitalized due to debilitating arthritis. Author Joel Ben Izzy is a professional storyteller who says  the book is semi-autobiographical. The excellent writing is full of Yiddish-tinged humor as young Joel channels his inner Catskill comic when explaining Jewish traditions (including the myriad ways of spelling “Chanukah”) and typical embarrassing middle-grade situations. This touching story of a boy searching to just be “normal” will engage young readers and keep them turning pages until the satisfying conclusion — when the dorky kid triumphs after spinning the dreidel enough times to find his own miracle.

“The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog,” by Adam Gidwitz. Illustrated by Hatem Aly. Dutton, 2016.

It would seem unlikely that a story about three children that questions religious tenets and takes place in 1242 France would become one of the hottest books of the year for 10- through 12-year-olds, but by the end of the first chapter, you’re hooked. It’s a little bit like Chaucer and Joan of Arc meet “The Princess Bride,” and a lot like nothing else the world of American children’s literature has ever seen. Jewish and general religious themes abound in this hybrid of humorous and serious adventure-packed historical fiction. Told in multiple voices, the reader follows the journey of the three magical children (and their resurrected greyhound dog) as they traverse French villages in an attempt to rescue “the entire wisdom of the Jewish people” (20,000 Talmuds and other books) from being burned by King Louis IX. This particular historical event is just one of the many accurate details cleverly integrated into the storyline. Those who love chapter books with illustrations will be delighted in this profound achievement by a popular author who always keeps the vocabulary level high and the adventures suspenseful and thought provoking.


“The Art of Hanukkah,” by Nancy M. Berman. Universe, 2016.

Nancy M. Berman is known to Los Angeles residents as the past curator and director of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Skirball Museum, and one of the founders of the Skirball Cultural Center. Her career in Jewish art and culture began at the Jewish Museum in New York, where she was assistant curator of the Judaica department. She has particular expertise in the art of the Chanukah lamp. This book is actually a reissue of a 1996 publication from a different publisher (now with an updated cover), but the art within is stunning, and the essays accompanying the selection of 48 holiday-related masterpieces are rich and informative. The featured Chanukah lamps reflect the Jewish experience throughout history, such as the fabulous Hirsch Lamp from 1814 Germany, which reflects the architectural style of the period and place in which it was made, or the Statue of Liberty Lamp, which showcases nine Lady Liberties holding aloft candle cups instead of flaming torches. This is a book that is fun to flip through, allowing everyone to choose their favorite chanukiyah while marveling at the creativity of Jewish artisans through the ages.