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The Best Kids’ Books of 2012

From pirates to dinosaurs, superheroes to baseball, the best of the year’s Jewish-themed children’s books

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From How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague, copyright 2012. (Used with permission from Blue Sky Press/Scholastic)

Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words, by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Gerard DuBois. Oh, is this a good one. Yes, I know I had a Marceau book on my 2011 list. But you can never have too many books about mimes, a sentence I thought I’d write … oh, never. But it’s true if the mime is Marceau. Last year’s entry, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, offered more biographical detail; this one has more lyricism. DuBois’ oil paintings capture the expressiveness of the mime’s face and body, with touches of surrealism (one spread shows Marceau crossed with a slippery fish), while Schubert’s poetic text leads us through the eventful life of Maurice Mangel (who, like Milton Finger, changed his name because of anti-Semitism)—how he worshiped Charlie Chaplin, worked for the French Resistance, and created his character Bip. The back matter, by a circus director who worked with Marceau, offers basic mime exercises for kids. (Ages 5-8)

Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah, by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler, illustrated by Ursula Roma. You better not buy a kid a cookbook unless a) the kid likes to cook, b) you’re willing to cook with the kid, and c) the parent knows you’re buying the kid a cookbook, lest the parent wind up seething about having to make sufganiyot by herself in an oily, jammy mass of resentment. If you are confident about a, b, and c, you could do worse than this sweet little cartoon-riddled paperback that alternates recipes (coded by level of difficulty) with crafts, stories, dreidel instructions, and Hanukkah party etiquette lessons. (Ages 5-12)

CHAPTER BOOKS

Hereville 2: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, by Barry Deutsch. Yay, Mirka’s back! Her first graphic-novel adventure, How Mirka Got Her Sword, made my 2010 best-books list. This installment is just as weird and delightful. It’s not every day you meet an Orthodox Jewish girl from an unnamed village who battles trolls, bullies, and a mysterious girl from outer space. The Hereville books have a flawed but good-hearted heroine, a non-evil stepmom, an appreciation for daring and wisdom (both!), and a fun and whimsical spirit. A lot of Jewish graphic novels have good intentions but really crappy art; no worries on that front here. Deutsch is a master of layout and line; he varies panel size and structure and makes Mirka seem alive with energy and personality. (Ages 7-12)

Small Medium at Large, by Joanne Levy. A charming, short, funny, middle-grade novel for girls who don’t like anything too scary or heavy. You’d think Small Medium at Large would be more emotionally wrought, what with a plot about a girl who is struck by lightning and wakes up able to communicate with the dead. But no! Twelve-year-old Lilah Bloom has a ball hanging out with her adorable, matchmaking, dead bubbe, helping ghosts and living beings alike with their problems, even getting her first kiss from cute Andrew Finkel. Throw in divorced parents, a cat named Salvatore Lasagna, a Mean Girl, and various dead-undead misunderstandings, and you’ve got a modern-day middle school comedy of manners with otherworldly apparitions. My fave bit was when Lilah and her bubbe and the ghost of a fabulous designer go bra shopping. (“I mean, I was kind of excited about getting a bra, but I had always assumed it would have been one of those mother-daughter bonding moments, not a dead grandmother-granddaughter-dead-fashion-icon bonding moment.” Indeed.) Sometimes Levy sounds more like a trying-too-hard middle-aged matron than a kid (“very stylish”? “really hip young saleslady”? “totally kicking it”?), but that’s a quibble. (Ages 9-13)

Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, by Doreen Rappaport. I hold Holocaust books to a higher standard than any other kind of kid book. The Holocaust should not be used for inauthentic uplift, a narcissistic story of personal growth, a dry means of instilling guilt, or a half-assed tool in forced identity formation. Beyond Courage is none of those things. It’s a rigorously reported yet fluidly written look at Jews from various countries and backgrounds who fought back against the Nazis in different ways. Rappaport educates readers about different kinds of resistance and shows how Jews and non-Jews worked together to save lives and obstruct Hitler’s plans. Beyond Courage is illustrated with maps and vintage photographs and dotted with contemporary poems and letters. Plus Rappaport breaks new research ground; some of the stories in this book have never been reported before. This book has rightly gotten starred reviews from every review outlet that bestows stars; it’s a vital contribution to Holocaust literature as well as a very gripping book. (Ages 10 and up)

Sons of the 613, by Michael Rubens. From the sublime to the ridiculous—this is so not a Holocaust book. It’s a gross, profane, graphic, sometimes sexist, and often very funny coming-of-age story about a bar mitzvah boy learning what becoming a man really means. If I tell you it opens with a scene involving a bimah, a rabbi, and an unfortunate vomit and poop explosion, you’ll get the vibe. The plot: In the days before Isaac’s bar mitzvah, his parents leave on an extended trip to Italy. (As if.) They don’t know that Isaac’s haftarah tutor, a heavy-lidded young Israeli, has basically never shown up. Isaac is woefully unprepared, but his scary, buff, and closed-mouthed older brother Josh steps in to teach him both his portion and the meaning of manhood. Josh’s version of manhood involves brawling, underage drinking, strippers, and various kinds of effluvia. The very somber ending seems to come out of nowhere, and I’m not exactly sure who the audience is (kids mostly don’t want to read about younger kids, which rules out older teens, but the subject matter makes it inappropriate for kids under 11, so I am confused), but this is a singular ride. Full disclosure: I worked with Rubens for a short time a decade ago. Geez, Mike, you kiss your mother with that mouth? (Ages 12-14)

The Whole Story of Half a Girl, by Veera Hiranandani. Sixth-grader Sonia Nadhamuni is half-Jewish, half-Indian, and entirely in transition. Her dad has lost his job, and she’s had to move from her cozy private school to an unfamiliar public school, where she often feels “too dark to be white, too light to be black.” Who should she sit with at lunch? How can she convince her intellectual, serious, hippie-leaning mom to let her go out for cheerleading? How can she explain her Jewishness to people who can’t reconcile the way she looks with the way she identifies, especially when she’s not entirely sure who she is herself? When Sonia’s dad starts struggling with profound clinical depression, life gets even harder. This novel received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly; it’s nuanced and lovely and beautifully written. (Ages 9-14)

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Marjorie, I wait for your list every year! My daughter will be so excited about another installment of Mirka. And fortunately there’s just time enough to order these before Hanukkah.

Mirka is back?!?!? How did I miss that memo??? I LOVE Mirka!

Um… I mean… thanks for these book ideas for my kids.

Laurie Rappeport says:

Don’t know how far over the ocean Allison Ofanansky’s books have made it, but here in Israel, the trilogy, What’s the Buzz (honey for Rosh Hashana), Harvest of Light (olive-picking for olive oil chanukah lights) and Succot Treasure Hunt (4 species for Succot) are a bit hit, and very educational.

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The Best Kids’ Books of 2012

From pirates to dinosaurs, superheroes to baseball, the best of the year’s Jewish-themed children’s books