Hello, and thanks for joining us at Tundra Telegram, the column where we address the topics of the (holi)day, and offer some book recommendations we’re kvelling about – books that are anything but drei-dull.
There’s no escaping it; the holidays are right around the corner. Just this coming Sunday evening (December 18) will see the start of Hanukkah, the eight-day celebration to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Jews rose up against their oppressors during the Maccabean Revolt in the second century BCE. It’s a holiday filled with song, games, menorah lightings, oily foods like latkes and sufganiyot, and books – at least it should be!
From the smallest kinder to readers who had their bar or bat mitzvahs long ago, we’ve got Hanukkah books for every age to read during the Festival of Lights. There might Macca-be one right for you! Chag sameach!
Let’s start with the most important part of Hanukkah: the food. Latkes and Applesauce: A Hanukkah Story by Fran Manushkin and Kris Easle is the story of a stray cat and stray dog (named ‘Applesauce’ and ‘Latke’) who are taken in by the Menash family during a Hanukkah blizzard. The terrible weather dashes their hopes of harvesting apples or potatoes for either of their favorite Hanukkah eats, but the two animal guests may bring with them a brand-new miracle worthy of the holiday.
Likewise, Meet the Latkes by Canadian Alan Silberberg has potato fritters at its center – an entire family of them! Lucy Latke’s family celebrates Hanukkah, which includes a fractured retelling of the holiday legend from Grandpa Latke, who describes how the mighty Mega Bees (?) use a giant dreidel (?!) to fight against the evil alien potatoes.
The power of a good latke propels the plot in Eric A. Kimmel and Mike Wohnoutka’s Hanukkah Bear. Nearsighted Bubby Brayna makes the best latkes in the village. And the scent of her delicious potato pancakes attracts an unexpected visitor the first night of Hanukkah: a bear, wakened from hibernation! Brayna mistakes the lumbering beast for the Rabbi, and invites him in for food and few spins of the dreidel, proving Hanukkah can be enjoyed by everyone.
But if you have a young reader experiencing one of their first Hanukkahs, you may want to start with the reasons for the season. Enter Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights by Bonnie Bader and Joanie Stone. This Big Golden Book not only tells preschoolers how people usually celebrate Hanukkah – from the food eaten, the dreidels spun, and the gifts exchanged – but also why. Young readers will learn all about the destruction of the Temple, the bravery of the Maccabees, and the miracle of a tiny bit of oil that somehow lasted for eight nights.
David Martin and Melissa Sweet’s Hanukkah Lights similarly bring the winter holidays to life for the youngest readers, but on top of the usual traditions, adds a bit of free-form fun, including shadow puppetry (!), singing, and dancing.
Having trouble interesting young kids in the Festival of Lights? No arbet is too big, no quantity of oil too small! The PAW Patrol rushes to the rescue with Happy Hanukkah, Pups! Marshall, Skye, Rubble, and the rest of Ryder’s furry first-responders help their new friends Rachel and Jimmy decorate for a Hanukkah party. Along the way, they also help readers count from one to ten, with objects like dreidels, candles, and snowflakes.
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel and Trina Schart Hyman is, by this point, a bonafide holiday classic. Based on a Ukrainian folktale, the book tells the story of folk hero Hershel of Ostropol, who, the first night of Hanukkah, arrives in a village where the villagers are too afraid of goblins haunting the synagogue to light the menorah. It’ll take a little cleverness on Hershel’s part to trick a series of goblins, one night after another, to help the locals truly celebrate the holiday.
Want your Hanukkah celebrations to get medieval? You need The Eight Knights of Hanukkah by Leslie Kimmelman and Galia Bernstein. A kingdom’s Hanukkah celebrations are disrupted by Dreadful the dragon, who is determined to scorch every dreidel and scarf up every sufganiyot. The kingdom must call upon eight special knights to perform deeds of kindness and bravery, in this fun interpretation of the holiday.
You may have noted the lack of a Santa-Claus-esque figure in Hanukkah. Author Arthur A. Levine and illustrator Kevin Hawkes have created an answer to that with The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol, a picture book that introduces a mysterious gift-giver to the Jewish holiday. Set in late 1800s America, it features a miraculous figure who can make anything last as long as it is needed, whether it’s that legendary bit of oil that must stretch for eight nights, a flower that needs to stay fresh to keep someone cheerful, or a small lump of chocolate that grows to treat the entire family. Nate Gadol even teams up with St. Nick, in this Infinity War of holiday picture books.
Speaking of modern legends about Hanukkah, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about Richard Ungar’s Yitzi and the Giant Menorah. The Mayor of Lublin sends the people of Chelm a special gift: a giant menorah that they place in the square and gather around for the lighting each night of Hanukkah. The Chelm villagers try to figure out a fitting gift for the Mayor in return, and after multiple attempts, it’s Yitzi who figures out the perfect gift is sometimes . . . song.
There are also a few Hanukkah ditties in All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky, featuring the characters from Sydney Taylor’s classic All-of-a-Kind Family, an immigrant family with five sisters living in New York’s Lower East Side in 1912, as they prepare for Hanukkah. Gertie, the youngest, is not allowed to help prepare the latkes, which bothers her to no end until she realizes – spoiler alert – she has the best job of all: lighting the first candle of the menorah.
A perfect gift for families that celebrate multiple holiday traditions, Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko, features Sadie’s family, who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah! (Watch out, Sandy and Kirsten Cohen.) Young readers can expect golden gelt under the Christmas tree, and candy canes hanging on eight menorah branches in this celebration of modern, blended traditions.
And Hanukkah, Here I Come! by D.J. Steinberg and Sara Palacios features a pile of funny and festival Hanukkah poems. Even better, the book comes with a sheet of Hanukkah stickers. So, if you’ve ever wanted to adorn your laptop or notebook with a menorah sticker, this is the book you need!
CHAPTER BOOKS & MIDDLE GRADE
An epic fantasy adventure inspired by Jewish traditions at Hanukkah? Yes, please. The Golden Dreidel by award-winning fantasy author Ellen Kushner has the adventure you crave, as Sara is gifted an enormous golden dreidel by her Tante Miriam that comes with a caveat: spinning the dreidel will spin literal miracles! So, she must be careful. But what kind of adventure would it be if Sara was careful? In no time at all, she’s spun herself into a dimension full of magical princesses, enigmatic riddles, and terrifying demons.
The only Jewish kid in school gets a new appreciation for the Festival of Lights in Amy Goldman Koss’s How I Saved Hanukkah. Marla Feinstein hates December. While everyone else is decorating trees, she forgets to light the candles on the menorah and stares at a big, plastic dreidel. Marla decides to find out what Hanukkah is really all about – and soon she has made Hanukkah the most happening holiday party in town.
Koss’s book has some genuinely funny moments, but for something to get you rolling with laughter, there’s always Hanukkah Mad Libs, in which young readers can fill in nouns, verbs, and adjectives in 21 Hanukkah-themed stories. The book is sure to be a shamash hit with kids who love funny stuff.
There aren’t too many YA books with a Hanukkah plot or theme, but an exception is the brand-new bubbly romance Eight Nights of Flirting by Hannah Reynolds. Sixteen-year-old Shira Barbanel has a mission to get a boyfriend over Hanukkah, she’s going to get a boyfriend. She even has a boy in mind – reliable and super-hot Isaac – but she is terrible at flirting. When she gets snowed in with Tyler Nelson, her nemesis and former crush, who is perhaps the most charming boy in school, she offers up a trade: flirting tips for career connections. (I think you can see where this is going.) Check out this holiday rom-com that’s hotter than an oiled pan.
And the anthology It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman, features a number of stories – some of which take place during Hanukkah! In particular, the stories “Jewbacca” by Lance Rubin, about a very secular boy invited to a disastrous Hanukkah dinner by the rabbi’s daughter, and “Some Days You’re the Sidekick; Some Days You’re the Superhero” by Katherine Locke, which tells the story of Gabe, who writes fanfiction of the X-Men as the Maccabees (!), most directly deal with the holiday. If your Hanukkah has Wolverine, count me in!