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Children’s Books Top Hanukah Shopping List

I roll my eyes at them—holiday shoppers who complain about all the Christmas gifts they have to buy. They still don’t get it. What about us Jews, whose kids expect to unwrap something exciting for eight days straight? Next to Playstation 3, one of the best Hanukah presents that parents can give their children is books, whatever subject appeals to them. Reading with your children is a great way to bond with your family any time of year, but sharing gelt and a good story on each night of Hanukkah makes the holiday even more special.

Since Jack and Sari are both readers, I figure it’s time to update my Hanukah library that until recently only included a few titles, including Tommy dePaola’s popular “My First Chanukah,” which, by the way, has teeth marks indenting the mangled cardboard corner. Needless to say, I’m desperate to find some new Hanukkah books—ones that my family can look forward to reading year after year. In my pursuit of the perfect Festival of Lights story, I temporarily pull Sari away from her Junie B. Jones series to flip through Jewish storybooks that describe everything from frying latkes in a crowded kitchen to the historical significance of the courageous triumph of the Maccabbees.

Together, we came up with a list of our eight personal favorites (one for each night of Hanukah). Whether you buy a brand new book or borrow a selection at the library, keep in mind that new titles come out every year.

1. Chanukah Lights Everywhere
With vividly colored illustrations and simple concepts, this cheerful picture book is appropriate for ages three to seven. The clever story gives children an introduction to Hanukah and reinforces the concept of counting. In the story, a young boy and his family celebrate the Festival of Lights at home. On each night of Hanukah, the boy notices how the lights all around the city remind him of the number of candles he just lit on the menorah. For example, on the first night, he observes how the tall helper candle looks like the skinny moonbeam in the dark sky outside the window. On the fifth night, his grandma gives him five shiny silver dollars that remind him of the five sparkly lights on the menorah. On the last night, he looks through a telescope to find seven stars in the Big Dipper, plus the famous North Star, as though God was lighting his own menorah in the sky. The last pages explain the history of Hanukkah and menorahs.

2. Hanukah Lights: Hanukkah Poetry
Different authors contribute to this easily read book filled with a dozen Hanukkah poems. The poems highlight the many ways to celebrate the holiday, including making latkes, spinning dreidels, and lighting candles. To complement the rhymes, the book is beautifully illustrated in mixed media on canvas.

2. Hanukkah Treasury
Well-known children’s book author Eric Kimmel wrote many of the stories in this wonderful collection of short poems, Hanukkah tales, traditional songs, blessings, and more. Yummy recipes include gelt mix, cookies, applesauce, latkes, ponchiks (doughnuts), and a new spin on the dreidel game. Colorful and exuberant illustrations appear throughout the book, making it an excellent choice for children of all ages. Luckily for grownups, this handy reference also includes fascinating explanations of the Hanukkah lamp, the Maccabees, the history of Hanukkah, and rules on lighting the menorah.

4. The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes
This is the kind of picture book that is so sweet, you get a little lump in your throat when you reach the end. The heartwarming story is about a little girl who cleverly convinces her elderly stubborn neighbor to celebrate Hanukkah with them and conveys the true meaning of the holiday. Like most of the Hanukkah books, the mom can’t peel enough potatoes. The fanciful illustrations cheerfully complement every page.

5. How I Saved Hanukkah
No colorful pictures in this chapter book, but that’s okay because the scarce black and white sketches are all you need to get into this charming story of how two best friends—Marla and Lucy—help each other discover the true meaning of friendship, family, and the Festival of Lights. The characters Marla, the only fourth-grade Jewish girl in her class, and her shiksa friend Lucy, remind me in some ways of my own childhood with my best buddy Mary. Growing up, Mary and I lived across the street from each other, and I remember how her beautifully lit Christmas tree shined through her living room window. My mom hung a Star of David with dim blue lights in front of window shade. Every Christmas, Mary helped her family decorate their huge artificial evergreen with cherished ornaments, including a dreidel that my family gave them one year. Anyway, I digress…So Lucy inspires Marla to learn what Hanukah is all about for the first time and why being Jewish is so special.

6. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
This picture book by master storyteller Eric Kimmel is as good as they come, and the goblins who steal Hanukkah away from the villagers rival Harry Potter’s enemies, well, sort of. I was afraid the spooky characters might give Sari nightmares, so I warned her before we got into the story that these mysterious monsters are just pretend. She says, “You mean fiction, mom. Let’s read.” Anyway, the elaborate watercolor illustrations enhance this entertaining tale of how Hershel of Ostropol comes face to face with the evil spirits who haunt the town’s old synagogue at the top of the hill. With his clever tricks and bravery, Hershel outsmarts every goblin, and saves Hanukkah once and for all. In the after word, the author explains the menorah, dreidel, latkes, and the meaning of Hanukkah, which is always a good refresher for parents like me.

7. The Trees of the Dancing Goats
Maybe I’m sentimental, but here’s another tearjerker with a happy ending that teaches us about the miracle of true friendship. Based in the 1930s, this warm and cozy story starts out with an extended Jewish family who is busy getting ready for another old-fashioned Hanukkah. The lavishly descriptive illustrations show everyone doing their job. Babushka, who is from the Ukraine, makes candles by dipping string into a pot of melted beeswax. Grampa from Soviet Russia, meticulously carves wooden animal toys for his grandchildren’s Hanukkah presents. The two children, Richard and Trisha, grate potatoes, peel apples, and basically do everything their Momma tells them. As the only Jewish family in their close-knit farm community, their flickering menorah candles are a welcome sight along with the colorful Christmas lights that illuminate the surrounding forest. Their Christian neighbors, the Kremmels, come down with scarlet fever and are unable to cut down their own Christmas tree like they do every year. So Richard helps his Grampa chop down several small pine trees and even Babushka helps decorate the branches with the handpainted animal ornaments that were meant as Hanukkah presents. Their neighbors show their gratitude to their Jewish friends by carving them a wooden menorah.

8. The Shabbat Box
This story of a magic Shabbat box has nothing to do with Hanukkah, but it still makes the list because it’s one of my favorite Jewish children’s books that can be read throughout the year, especially when we light the menorah candles on a Friday night. The illustrations are bright and colorful and the text is easy for a young reader to master. Plus, I always get hungry when I read the part about challah rolls with raisins and bubbling pea soup on the stove. Ira waits patiently all year for his turn to bring the special shabbat box home from school, and when he loses it in the snow on his way home, he thinks his world has come to an end. Then he decides to stay up all night and create his own shabbat box with purple velvet and shiny sparkles. He makes candlestick holders out of plasticine snakes and paints a pillowcase to use for a giant challah cover. He even tosses in a few lollipops and taffy because Shabbat is sweet. Needless to say, Ira’s new shabbat box is a big hit at school the next day. On the last page, the author describes how to make your own shabbat box—very cool.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to ellie@mishegasofmotherhood.com.