Move over, Maccabees. This season’s crop of seven new Chanukah books for kids puts the spotlight on new heroes, from playful llamas to brave and kind knights on horseback.
An eighth book, “Honey on the Page,” that shines light on Yiddish children’s stories in new translation, makes a perfect family gift.
Among this year’s highlights is Arthur A. Levine’s “The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol,” a superhero story that comes to life with Kevin Hawkes’ sparkling illustrations.
Over the years, as a leading children’s book editor, scores of Chanukah books crossed Levine’s desk, but many were retellings of the same story. “Only a few writers … were telling imaginary tales that took Hanukkah as a jumping-off point,” he wrote in an email.
Nate Gadol is the kind of story he longed for, one that enhances the cherished Chanukah traditions with an aura of magic.
This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic prevents families from celebrating Chanukah with large festive gatherings, round up the cousins on Zoom, light the menorah, nibble on sufganiyot and share in the joy of a new book.
Just when the world needs a dose of magic, along comes Nate Gadol, a Jewish mythical superhero who sparks joy for those in need. In Levine’s warm-hearted tale, embellished with Hawkes’ glorious art, the larger-than-life Nate Gadol swoops in to brighten the lives of the Glaser family, poor but kind new immigrants.
“The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol”
Arthur A. Levine; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Candlewick Press; ages 5-8
In the cold winter of 1881 in their urban American apartment, the Glasers stretch what they have to help their neighbors, the O’Malleys. When Chanukah and Christmas coincide, Nate and Santa help each other out and surprise both families with gifts. The hero’s name is a play on the phrase represented with the four letters on the dreidel, Nes Gadol Haya Sham (“A great miracle happened there”).
Laura Gehl; illustrated by Lydia Nichols
Abrams Appleseed; ages 3-5
How does a family of llamas celebrate Chanukah? With “Lllamakah,” of course! Laura Gelb’s tender rhyming verse is perfect for cozying up with the endearing little llamas as they light the menorah, play dreidel and build a snow-llama. Lydia Nichols’ cheerful illustrations brighten the pages.
“Kayla and Kugel’s Happy Hanukkah”
Ann D. Koffsky
Apples & Honey Press; ages 3 -8
The happy pair of Kayla and her rambunctious dog Kugel are back in Ann Koffsky’s latest title in the delightful series. As Kayla gets ready to celebrate the Festival of Lights, she and Kugel are searching for the family’s Chanukah box. In Koffsky’s clear verse, the spunky Kayla explains the origins and traditions of the holiday to Kugel. Koffsky’s color-rich, lively illustrations, including many of the mischievous Kugel, are sure to spark smiles.
“The Littlest Candle: A Hanukkah Story”
Rabbis Kerry and Jesse Olitzky; illustrated by Jen Kostman
Kalaniot Books; ages 4-8
On the eve of the holiday, a box of colorful candles tucked away in a drawer comes to life in this sweet story. While the big candles bicker about who will be chosen to light the first candle on the menorah, the wise candle notices that it’s the littlest, Flicker, who is always helping others. When Flicker is chosen as the shamash, or the helper, the small purplish candle humbly shines in the highest place on the menorah.
The book pairs noted Jewish educator Rabbi Kerry Olitzky with his son, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky. Jen Kostman’s cartoon-style illustrations are as colorful as the bright boxes of Chanukah candles.
“The Eight Knights of Hanukkah”
Leslie Kimmelman; illustrated by Galia Bernstein
Holiday House; ages 3-8
Hark! In this playful tale, Lady Sadie challenges her eight young knights to save their kingdom’s Chanukah celebration from a dragon who’s wreaking havoc on the villagers. She sends them out trotting on horseback to make things right with kind deeds and bravery. Kids will chuckle when Sir Isabella and Sir Rugelach discover that behind the dragon’s plume of smoke is a young creature who joins them in the grand Chanukah celebration. Leslie Kimmelman and Galia Bernstein have created a lively, off-beat story that tickles the funny bone. (Added bonus: the cast of characters are very diverse.)
“There Was a Young Rabbi: A Hanukkah Tale”
Suzanne Wolf; illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
Kar-Ben; ages 4-8
In this playful, rhyming story, the Festival of Lights meets “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” On the first night of the holiday, a rabbi reads from the Torah and lights the menorah. Each night, she adds something new — cooking applesauce, playing dreidel with her family and enjoying chocolate coins. Young kids will join the chorus in this rollicking read-aloud.
“The Ninth Night of Hanukkah”
Erica S. Perl; illustrated by Shahar Kober
Sterling Children’s Books; ages 3-8
Oy vey. When Max and Rachel move into a new apartment on the first night of the holiday, their special Chanukah box is nowhere to be found. The inventive siblings craft their own menorah and knock on the door of a neighbor who comes to the rescue with birthday candles. For eight nights, a multi-cultural array of neighbors helps the kids improvise — a hula-hoop transforms into a perfect dreidel, for instance. As the holiday ends, Max and Rachel invite their new friends to a Chanukah celebration. Israeli illustrator Shahar Kober’s animated illustrations add to the humor.
“Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature”
Edited and translated by Miriam Udel
New York University Press (ages 10-adult)
Miriam Udel, a scholar of German and Jewish studies at Emory University, has gifted the world with a treasure of a book that introduces readers of all ages to the wealth of little-known Jewish children’s stories by more than 25 early 20th century Yiddish writers, including Sholem Asch, Zina Rabinowitz and Mordkhe Spektor. The rich anthology, perfect for reading aloud, is a keeper to return to over the years.
Penny Schwartz writes for the JTA global Jewish news source.