Some years I approach the new crop of Hanukkah picture books with trepidation: What new stories could possibly be told about the Jewish Festival of Lights, an ancient holiday that’s become a staple of December festivities? Happily, though, this year’s Hanukkah books include three titles that reimagine the genre in ways that are rich, fresh and delicious.
KINDNESS IN NYC
Holocaust-inspired Hanukkah books can be tough creative territory, but authors Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, with Sibert Honor-winning illustrator Mark Siegel (To Dance), stake their claim admirably in Oskar and the Eight Blessings. Told in a style halfway between a picture book and a graphic novel, this story follows Oskar through a day in New York City, where he’s been sent to live with his aunt after the 1938 anti-Jewish Kristallnacht riots. Wandering the streets hoping to find Aunt Esther before the last Hanukkah candle is lit—on a night that also happens to be Christmas Eve—he meets a variety of kind people, including a generous newsstand man, a whistling jazz musician and even a thoughtful celebrity. A Holocaust story focused on small kindnesses is a pleasantly subversive way to approach this difficult part of history, and Seigel’s illustrations use bright accents against muted backgrounds to achieve an effect that’s perfect for winter . . . and uniquely New York.
SHARING AND CARING
When Sara notices an old man eating—and juggling—an apple that the local market has decided has too many bad spots to sell, she (literally) cooks up a plan to bring him good things to eat . . . along with homemade holiday cheer. It’s hard to choose the best part of Hanukkah Cookies with Sprinkles by David Adler, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler. Maybe it’s the portrayal of Sara’s wise and loving grandmother (when Sara speaks of the apple’s bad spots, her grandmother answers, “It has lots of good spots too.”). Maybe it’s the gentle moral about dignified ways to help the poor, or the illustrations that play with perspective and point of view while showing the ethnic diversity of Sara’s urban school and synagogue. Or maybe it’s the intriguing idea that participation in religious life can be as much about connecting with other people as connecting with the divine.
A YUMMY TIME OF YEAR
A generation of children have grown up learning about Judaism with Sammy Spider, a curious arachnid who always wants to join in his human family’s holiday celebrations. Now readers can interact with Sammy even more through cooking and crafts in Sammy Spider's First Taste of Hanukkah: A Cookbook by Sylvia A. Rouss and Genene Levy Turndorf, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn. Easy-to-follow Hanukkah-inspired recipes, each marked with its kosher category, combine with craft projects, cooking tips and instructions for lighting a menorah in this bright, welcoming addition to the Sammy canon. (I’m a fan of the Fruity De-lights myself, although the Candle-Glow Biscuits sound quite tempting too.) The colorful collage-style illustrations are fun to look at outside the kitchen as well.
Jill Ratzan matches readers with books in a small library in southeastern Pennsylvania.