January 28, 2020

New Hanukkah Picture Books Feature Hamsters and Talking Latkes

The good news about the recent crop of Hanukkah-themed picture books is that publishers clearly have come to a consensus that the “ch” of the word “Chanukah” is gone for good. It is particularly skewered by author-cartoonist Alan Silverberg in his funny and far-fetched explanation of Hanukkah rituals by a family of talking latkes, titled “Meet the Latkes.” Prolific local author Michelle Markel includes a cute and fuzzy hamster as a Hanukkah companion, and famed artist Paul Zelinsky beautifully reconstructs the timeless family originally introduced by Sydney Taylor in her “All-of-a-Kind Family” series.

“Hanukkah Hamster” by Michelle Markel. Illustrated by Andre Ceolin. Sleeping Bear Press, 2018.
Edgar, an Israeli immigrant alone in a big city, is a cab driver who grabs a welcome nap at the end of his shift on the second night of Hanukkah. He wakes up to discover that someone has inadvertently left a cute hamster in his cab, and he takes the small creature home. When no one claims the hamster, Edgar names him “Chickpea” after an ingredient in his homemade Israeli salad. Edgar celebrates the eight nights of Hanukkah with his new friend, and when the true owners are finally found, they realize that little Chickpea may have already found his forever home. This sweet story was inspired by a true event when the author’s daughter actually found a hamster in her Uber. Readers beware: Kids may ask for their own Hanukkah hamsters after reading this charming tale.

“Meet the Latkes” by Alan Silverberg. Viking, 2018.
“Meet the Latke family.  They’re just like you and me. Except they’re potato pancakes!” Thus begins the story of the miracle of Hanukkah, accompanied by outsized, cartoonish and super-funny illustrations of anthropomorphized latkes, doing appropriate Hanukkah-related things, like making sufganiyot, decorating the house, and singing the dreidel song. Lucy Latke, her parents, her dog, Applesauce, along with her annoying, headphone-wearing teenage brother Lex and her cranky and misinformed grandpa, imaginatively reinvent the ancient holiday tale. When Grandpa confuses giant bees with Maccabees and Antiochus with “alien potatoes from planet CHHHH,” thank goodness Applesauce the dog knows the real scoop and sets everything straight. Human families will surely find this wild spin on the Hanukkah story lots of fun.

“Light the Menorah! A Hanukkah Handbook” by Jacqueline Jules. Illustrated by Kristina Swarner. Kar-Ben, 2018.
For those looking for a more serious take on Hanukkah rituals, this self-described handbook serves as a meaningful “manual for the contemporary Jewish family.” The author posits that the “Hanukkah rituals are worth thinking about” and offers useful poems and reflections that families can refer to on each night, along with the appropriate blessings. The reflections include important information about why some rituals are practiced, such as the lighting of the candles in particular ways or how the hanukkiah is constructed, or why we put it in a window for all to see. One lovely reflection highlights the shamash candle as the “helper” and asks us to remember all the people in our lives who serve and help us, including, “parents, teachers, medical professionals, librarians, police officers, firefighters, custodial workers.” Recipes, songs, crafts and the Hanukkah story are also included and illustrated beautifully by noted watercolor artist Kristina Swarner. This is a recommended first purchase for young Jewish families wishing to begin their own holiday rituals.

“How It’s Made: Hanukkah Menorah” by Allison Ofanansky. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. Apples & Honey Press, 2018.
The author and photographer of the engaging “How It’s Made” series of books about important Jewish objects, previously featured how Torah scrolls and matzo are made. The books are informative and also well designed to catch the eye of a curious child by using appealing photos, sidebars and popping design elements with lots of white space. Different pages show the process of making a wooden, brass or a glass menorah, and then offer tips for making your own. Also included are instructive photos showing how candles and olive oil are made, as well as latkes and sufganiyot. Easy-to-access information for how to light a menorah, blessings, songs and other rituals are also featured. This is a good book for inquisitive children; those who may already be familiar with Hanukkah basics and those who would be happy with an introduction to what this holiday is all about.

“All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah” by Emily Jenkins. Illustrations by Paul O. Zelinksy. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 2018.
It’s about time that someone attempted to write a picture book recalling the characters from the classic Sydney Taylor “All-of-a-Kind Family” series. The books about a Jewish immigrant family in the early decades of the 20th century have been beloved by generations of middle-grade readers since 1951. (The back flap states that author Emily Jenkins read aloud the books to her children for years.) Lovingly illustrated by famed Caldecott Medal-winning artist Paul O. Zelinsky, the plot highlights the family’s busy Hanukkah preparations for the first night of festivities. We meet the girls as they prepare latkes and Hanukkah dinner in their Lower East Side tenement: Ella is twelve. Henny is ten. Sarah is eight. Charlotte is six. Gertie, who is four, thinks it is nice being all girls — “all of a kind,” Papa and Mama like to say.” Unfortunately for little Gertie, most of what looks like fun kitchen preparation involves peelers, knives, graters and hot oil, so it is too dangerous for her to take part. A mini-meltdown follows, and she is sent to her room until candle lighting. When Papa comes home, he saves the day with charming, good-parenting wisdom. Zelinksy’s large, exuberant paintings depicting cramped but joyous tenement life reflect the spirit of the beloved source material well. The choice of an orange-red-brown palette with bold black outlines recalls the early 20th century and the many full double-paged spreads encourage full engagement by the youngest readers. Zelinsky states that he purposely used this style instead of a more delicate “lace and frills” style that would have been more popular in 1910 because he wanted to reflect Gertie’s passionate nature and imitate children’s art “where the laws of perspective don’t apply.” The endnotes pay homage to the original Sydney Taylor books, stating that Taylor was the “first writer to publish books about Jewish children that reached readers from other religions.” Also included is a list of resources that the author used to authenticate the narrative. This is a wonderful beginning to what will hopefully be a new picture book series featuring these wonderful characters.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library located at American Jewish University.