What Makes a Good Hanukkah Picture Book?

Let’s say, for some reason, you wanted to read the worst Hanukkah picture book ever written. Why would you wish to do this? Well, such a book could serve as a fine blueprint for how not to write a lousy Hanukkah book and/or how not to choose a lousy Hanukkah book to read to impressionable children. Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf is that blueprint.

Now, I hear some of you protesting that it is not in the spirit of the season to frame a discussion of what makes a good book by parsing the flaws of a terrible book. And to you I say: what season might that be? I will tell you: the Christmas season. Peace on earth, goodwill to all men is a goyish concept. It is tied to the birth of Jesus. Jesus was a peaceful dude. The historical Hanukkah, on the other hand, was a celebration of war. And here I am declaring it is in the spirit of my season. Fight me.

Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf is a bad book because it is a Christmas book pretending to be a Hanukkah book. The story of a heroic elf who feels bad for all the Jewish children because Santa doesn’t visit them, its climax features a ­Hanukkah visit, not from old St. Nick but from an elf wearing light blue and white, driving a sleigh with a big Jewish star on it, pulled by a reindeer named Asher.

To put it mildly, this book frames Christmas as the desirable default. Trust me, Jewish children already know they’re Other and that Christmas is more enticing than Hanukkah. The term “December Dilemma,” used by many Jewish librarians and educators, reflects the balancing act faced by many Jewish families. How do we respond to our kids’ and our own feelings of being left out? Do we get a Hanukkah bush? Do we sit on Santa’s lap at the mall? Legit questions all.

Compare this with a good Hanukkah picture book, such as Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein by Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer, illustrated by Christine Davenier. Rachel is bummed that Santa always skips her house, so she writes all kinds of wheedling notes asking him to come (“Dear Santa…I know that you are a fair person and will not mind that I am Jewish. After all so was Jesus, at least on his mother’s side”). Her parents, however, do not yield. They light the menorah, play dreidel, give gifts, and go out for Chinese food…where Rachel sees a lot of her other classmates, from various backgrounds, who also don’t celebrate Christmas. The closing sense of unity is nice but also a little melancholy, like being left off the guest list for the big party. Some of the book’s critics objected to the fact that Rachel doesn’t wind up loving Hanukkah more than Christmas, but to me, the book is both legitimately funny and a cool blast of honesty.

It’s important for a Hanukkah book to note that Hanukkah, unlike Christmas, is a minor holiday. The practice of artificially pumping it up to compete with Christmas is an early-twentieth-century American invention. A good Hanukkah picture book, like, say, All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins (based on the classic novels by Sydney Taylor and set in 1912, when Hanukkah was just starting to become a Big Megillah in this country, as it were) focuses on family togetherness, tasty fried food, and candle-lighting involving a beautiful ritual object brought out only once a year — all things that remain special about Hanukkah today. All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah also deals with over-the-top emotions, temper tantrums, feelings of being left out, and generalized rage, which are also immediate and familiar to Jewish kids today. (The absolutely glorious art by Caldecott medalist Paul O. Zelinsky doesn’t hurt either.)

For me, a Hanukkah book that stresses the “miracle of the oil” is also a Hanukkah book that misses the mark. Hanukkah is a holiday grounded in actual historical fact. It’s not in the Torah (and please do not rhyme Torah and menorah, poets) because it postdates the Torah. And, ironically for American Jews at Christmastime, it commemorates Jewish resistance against wider, non-Judean cultural pressures. A Seleucid king named Antiochus, who seized power after his brother’s assassination in 175 BCE, swept through Judea, Syria, and Egypt, demanding that everyone worship Zeus. But a small band of rebels, the Maccabees, refused. They went to war not only with Antiochus’s forces but with their fellow Jews who were more acculturated and Hellenized. We know all this from the writings of the historian Josephus in the first century CE, as well as from other ancient and medieval sources. The so-called “miracle of the oil,” in which a tiny jar of oil lasted for eight days, is a sweet story. But to me, focusing on a legend rather than documented history — history that’s so relevant to Jews struggling with acculturation today — seems like a missed opportunity.

If you do prefer to focus on legend (and why wouldn’t you, because legend is often more fun than history, especially Jewish history), why not turn to a story set in a time when Jews lived together in shtetls, with all the pleasures and terrors of insular small-town life, and weren’t pressured to convert (though they were periodically massacred in pogroms — you can’t have everything), and terrifying monsters showed up? I’m talking, of course, about Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel, with absolutely, deliciously nightmare-inducing illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman (for which she received a Caldecott honor). It’s a perfect scary story for kids who love scary, ending in triumph and low-key collective celebration. This is an excellent metaphor for Hanukkah and for most Jewish holidays, which famously can be summed up with the sentence: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”

If scariness doesn’t fly, try Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Tale, also by the indefatigable Kimmel, with cuddly yet dark-toned art by Matthew Trueman. It, too, begins in an Eastern European setting, but moves out to sea, as a young boy immigrates by ship to America. When the boat goes down, the boy lands on the very iceberg that sank it — already home to a polar bear. The story turns warmly fantastical, as for eight days the duo celebrates Hanukkah in a necessarily minimalist way (they’re on an iceberg). Simon is rescued and makes it to New York — where he becomes the Central Park Zoo polar-bear keeper. It is completely over-the-top, but it doesn’t oversell Hanukkah as a religious holiday. It also doesn’t make the joys of Hanukkah all about consumerism, and it doesn’t futz with actual immigration and American history (looking at you, Oskar and the Eight Blessings) to make a point about the ongoing nature of miracles in our lives.

Or, for a contemporary example, try The Ninth Night of Hanukkah by Erica S. Perl, illustrated by Shahar Kober (reviewed in this year's Holiday High Notes). It suggests a whole new celebration that illuminates the role of the shamash as the “helper candle” — a post-­Hanukkah day to help others, just as the family members in the book are helped by their non-Jewish neighbors, whom they’ve never met, when the family can’t find the box of Hanukkah stuff as they unpack their new home.

If you want actual historical truth — not myth, legend, metaphor, or meddling elf — check out Jackie’s Gift by Sharon ­Robinson. It tells the story of the author’s father, Jackie Robinson (yes, that Jackie Robinson), who obliviously brings his friendly Jewish neighbors, the Satlows, a Christmas tree. Unlike the kids visited by Shmelf, the Satlow family doesn’t respond with unbridled joy. But the two families wind up working through the awkwardness together and forge a tender, amused, cross-cultural understanding. The story of America’s racist history is also right there, but it’s not presented didactically. This is a good, nuanced tale with realistic, ­painterly art by Caldecott Honor–­winning illustrator E. B. Lewis.

Or, you know, you could dispense with Hanukkah entirely and read/write a book about the actually important Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, or Shavuot. Just a thought.


Good Hanukkah Picture Books

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2018) by Emily Jenkins; illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Holiday, 1989) by Eric Kimmel; illus. by Trina Schart Hyman

Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Tale (Disney-Hyperion, 2014) by Eric A. Kimmel; illus. by Matthew Trueman

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein (Doubleday, 2015) by Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer; illus. by Christine Davenier

The Ninth Night of Hanukkah (Sterling, 2020) by Erica S. Perl; illus. by Shahar Kober

Jackie's Gift (Viking, 2010) by Sharon Robinson; illus. by E. B. Lewis


From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Marjorie Ingall

Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, the co-creator of SorryWatch.com, and the co-author of a forthcoming book about apologies. She often writes about children’s books for the New York Times Book Review and has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including Tablet, The Forward (where she was the “East Village Mamele”), New York, Ms., and the late, lamented Sassy. She just finished a stint on the Sydney Taylor Book Awards Committee.

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