I wanted to highlight eight books for the Jewish festival of Chanukah, which starts on Tuesday evening, because that’s how many days the festival lasts. However, I got a bit excited, and found twelve! I don’t think this is a bad thing though, as living in London, I get asked for books that celebrate different faiths and cultures quite frequently, and you can never have too many.
Chanukah celebrates the miracle of an oil lamp lasting for eight nights rather than one, and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 BC.
For the very youngest in the family I heartily recommend My First Hanukkah Board Book (unashamedly self-promoting here as I wrote this book with Dorling Kindersley). An excellent pictorial introduction to Chanukah, with the story of the festival told in the most basic way and the cultural symbols photographed to ensure a growing familiarity with the festival. The festival’s main song is also included with the Hebrew words spelt out phonetically in English for the youngest reader to follow. Sadly out of print now, but there are some copies floating around.
Another basic introduction is Eight Candles to Light by Jonny Zucker and Jan Barger Cohen. Simple illustrations rather than photography, and a handy guide to which way to light the candles (for those who forget on the first night every year!). At the back of the book there’s also a text only adaptation of the story of Chanukah, which is one of the clearest I’ve read.
Maccabee Jamboree: Hanukkah Countdown by Cheri Holland, illustrated by Roz Shanzer, is a lovely way to celebrate the festival with small children. It’s a simple counting book starting with eight Maccabees, who one by one disappear as they prepare to celebrate Chanukah with a party.
“Five Maccabees cooked latkes
But only four gobbled them up.”
Some children may find this a particularly difficult time of year, as not celebrating Christmas really marks out their difference; it can be hard to know what to say when strangers in shops ask you ‘What are you hoping for this Christmas?’ and ‘Have you decorated your tree?’. One wonderful book that manages to encapsulate that difficulty and celebrate diversity is The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff, illustrated by Jeff Hopkins. It tells the story of a girl called Jennifer who is the only one in her class who celebrates Hanukkah, and makes Hanukkah decorations whilst everyone else makes decorations for Christmas. Throughout the book though it becomes apparent that everyone has something that is ‘unique’ about them and that each child has their own ‘only one club’ individuality. By the end Jennifer doesn’t feel so ‘marked out’.
For those who celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, or Chrismukkah as it’s known in the States, Light the Lights! A Story about Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas by Margaret Moorman fits the purpose. Totally secular, the story follows Emma and her family as they follow the traditions of first Chanukah and then Christmas, with lights on the chanukiah and then on the Christmas tree. It’s very limited and doesn’t try to explain the significance or story behind either festival, but is a good start for those who celebrate both without adhering to one faith in particular. Also on this theme is Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko – you can’t get more of a mash-up than the recipe within for cranberry kugel.
My new favourite is Sadie’s Almost Marvellous Menorah by Jamie Korngold, illustrated by Julie Fortenberry. Every child can sympathise with Sadie, who, at school, makes a beautiful menorah out of clay ready for the festival, only to break it on the way home to show her mother! Upset ensues, until Sadie’s clever mother shows her that the ‘helper’ candle – the shamash – which is used to light all the other candles, can still be used to light all the other candles on the family menorahs. If only most children were so easily appeased when their artwork gets destroyed!
Three books that elucidate some of the qualities of the festival by telling stories are A Chanuka Story for Night Number Three by Dina Rosenfeld, illustrated by Vasilisa and Vitaliy Romanenko, Lots of Latkes by Sandy Lanton and illustrated by Vicki Jo Redenbaugh, and Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Shahar Kober.
A Chanukah Story for Night Number Three tells the tale of a boy whose birthday is on night three of Chanukah and is determined to make it special by making the largest latke in the world. The moral framework of ‘sharing’ lies behind the story, which is a good distraction from the increasingly materialistic nature of the festival. It is full of humour and hilarious illustrations (particularly the one of cleaning the kitchen). Lots of Latkes by Sandy Lanton is the story of when the preparations for a Chanukah party go wrong, and each guest brings the same food to the party. The story is a sweet tale, but presupposes knowledge about the festival. Engineer Ari and the Hanukah Mishap is part of a series of adventures of Ari and the Jewish festivals, but can be read as a stand-alone story. Ari is travelling home for Chanukah, gathering what he needs on the way and meeting a host of people who inform him about the story and traditions behind the festival. He’s delayed by a camel on the line at Modi’in though, and invited in by a local Bedouin, with whom he celebrates the first night of Chanukah. It aims to show that miracles, such as that which happened in 165 BC, still happen and that sharing the festival is a good way of celebrating it.
Those of you who like the series of How Do Dinosaur books by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague, will be delighted to learn there is even a Chanukah version – How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?, including such gems as:
“Does he fidget and fuss through the candlelight prayer?
Does he blow out the candles when no one is there?”
Perhaps a touch contrived, but actually the familiar format is a winner for me.
Lastly, National Geographic have a series of books that aim to show how different holidays from different religions are celebrated round the world, without going too far into the religious aspects. Celebrate Hanukkah: with Light, Latkes and Dreidels (Holidays around the World) by Deborah Heiligman highlights the main components of the festival, including the story, the food, the games and the lights, but what sets it apart is the beautiful photos of people celebrating the festival around the world. Good for Jewish people who already understand the festival as well as newcomers who are learning what Chanukah is for the first time.
A note of warning: if you’re searching online for books on the festival, you will find that the festival is spelled many ways in English, so one search may not bring up every book.