You know that thing we do of constantly bemoaning the fate of the Jewish people? Here’s how we clap a bookend on that mishegas: Remember that we are the people of the book. My solution for future generations is that we buy books for all our children and encourage them to enjoy literature and questioning and reveling in reading for pure pleasure’s sake. We give them a variety of fiction and nonfiction that teaches them about Jewish history and ethics and joy and tradition without being boring. We do not concern ourselves with books that are “virtuous” or “well-intentioned.” We focus our Hanukkah gifting not on Christmas-competing expensive ungapatchka crap, but on books that tell kids that words are delicious. We talk to them about ideas. We understand that every kid is different, and we pay attention to and nurture his or her interests, rather than dutifully buying “important” books that say, “This is who I want you to be.” To that end, here’s a list of my favorite Jewish kids’ books of the year, in a variety of tones and genres, for all your gifting needs.
I like my literature like I like my men: shaggy, warm, and a little bit weird. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.) Simon and the Bear (ages 3-6), by Jewish kid-lit all-star Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Matthew Trueman, fits the bill. It’s the shaggy-bear tale of a Russian immigrant who winds up stranded on an iceberg on Hanukkah with a polar bear (as you do). The two share latkes and herring and take care of each other, and it’s all one big Hanukkah miracle. I wasn’t nuts about illustrator Trueman’s work in Erica Silverman’s (also weird and fun!) Rosh Hashanah tale How the Chickens Went On Strike, but I love it here: He makes the backgrounds and the iceberg lushly, mystically painterly, but the humans are cute and cartoony, and the bear is somehow all of those things. And while we’re on the subject of Eric Kimmel, it’s the 25th anniversary of his Caldecott Medal-winning classic Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, (ages 5-9) and Holiday House has reissued a new hardcover edition. You can skip it if you already have it (but if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?) because only the afterword is new. The story is dark (Kimmel was influenced by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and Trina Schart Hyman’s shadowy, toothy illustrations scared the crap out of Josie as a little kid, but it’s thrilling and spooky and timeless and belongs in every Jewish family’s library.
Also in the weird camp is I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel (ages 3-6), by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by David Slonim. The familiar refrain rhymes “swallowed a dreidel” with “perhaps it’s fatal.” (It isn’t. Which kind of annoyed me. Come on, she’s supposed to die at the end! But I suppose surviving after ingesting the menorah, the gelt, the brisket, the latkes, and the boiling oil makes the story gentler, for those who care about such things.) The rhymes are funny; the goofy illustrations make winking nods to Warhol, Van Gogh, Wyeth, Matisse, and more (teachable art-history moment!); and I have yet to meet a little kid who isn’t amused by cumulative poems.
Of course, not every Hanukkah present has to be about Hanukkah. As long as it’s a good book, it’s a great gift, right?
I tend to be irked by Holocaust books for kids—they’re often age-inappropriate, emotionally lazy, and gauzily happily-ever-aftered. But this year I loved both Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust (ages 6-11), written by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano, inked by Greg Salsedo, and translated by Alexis Siegel, and The Whispering Town (ages 6-10), by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro. They’re not good Holocaust books; they’re good books, period. And perhaps more important for our purposes here, they have kid appeal.
I also flat-out adored My Grandfather’s Coat (ages 4-9), by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by the inimitable Barbara McClintock. You know how much I love Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, right? Well, Aylesworth’s book is a retelling of the same “you can always make something from nothing” Yiddish folksong, this time as an immigrant-to-America tale. If you’re gonna play in the same stickball game as Simms Taback, you better bring it, and this book does. Grandfather, a tailor, comes to Ellis Island as a boy, and his old overcoat is gradually recycled through four generations. The book has roisterous read-aloud rhythms and vintage-y but lively ultra-detailed illustrations kids will pore over. There are cute kittens! And mice! I even love the font—the font, people. You can’t miss with this one. (And again: tons of discussion fodder about both immigration and consumerism.)
Chik Chak Shabbat (ages 4-8), by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Krysten Brooker, is the kind of book that makes me happy to be a New Yorker. It’s set in a multiethnic tenement building, where Goldie welcomes her neighbors for cholent every Saturday afternoon. But one Shabbat Goldie’s not feeling well. So, everyone else steps up, using a different cholent ingredient to make something from his or her own culture to share. Mr. Moon makes Korean barley tea, Signora Bellagalli makes a tomato pizza, the Omars whip up a potato curry, Tommy Santiago and his mom bring up a pot of beans and rice, and everyone eats lunch together. Kyrsten Brooker’s sweet-but-not-cloying illustrations combine visible brushstrokes with collage, and Goldie’s last line (“Then she looked around the table, her face shining like a silver spoon, and said, ‘I think it tastes exactly like Shabbat’”) brought tears to my eyes because I am a big sap.
Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson (ages 6-9), by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome, tells the true story of the first interracial jazz band in history. The narrative alternates between Benny’s and Teddy’s childhood and musical histories, telling their stories (the Chicago-bred son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who played in his shul’s marching band, and the black son of music teachers from Tuskegee, who dutifully studied classical music while yearning for something livelier) with the syncopated rhythms of jazz.
The stage was hot
The dance floor was hotter
The music was hottest.
The afterword offers a lot more info about these two musicians. Read that part first (to yourself) then blast some of their work, have a swing dance party in the living room, and finally read the book with your kid. I’m not sure non-musical kids will be into it, but I admire the ambition at play.
The Littlest Levine (ages 3-6), by Sandy Lanton, illustrated by Claire Keay, would be a good gift for the youngest kid in your family. Poor Hannah: It’s no fun to be too small to hang things in the sukkah, too small to light the menorah, too small to use the oven to bake hamentashen. But on Passover, smallest is best, because you get to be the one to rock the Four Questions. Youngest sibs will identify with Hannah’s refrain (“I hate being the littlest!”), and the book might even ease Mah-Nishtanah-induced performance anxiety. The watercolor illustrations are conventional and soothing for littles.
But if you’re up for a livelier, goofier, more amphibian tour-de-force, Matzo Frogs (ages 3-6), by Sally Rosenthal, illustrated by David Sheldon, delivers. When Minnie spills the matzoh ball soup, the denizens of a nearby pond spring into action to help their kind neighbor, using their sticky tongues to pull down a cookbook, leaping on a spoon handle to catapult each matzoh ball into the pot, etc. (I am horrified by their decision to use bouillon cubes instead of making their own stock, but very few frogs watch Ina Garten.) The book teaches kids the expression “mitzvah goreret mitzvah”—one good deed leads to another. The nutty frogs are bold and vibrant, outlined in black ink, against blurry backgrounds, so they really jump.
Never Say a Mean Word Again (ages 5-9), by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard, reworks a story about the medieval poet Samuel Ha-Nagid, an adviser to the Berber court during the golden age of Moorish rule. (Wait, where are you going? The book’s not boring, I promise!) Jules turns the tale into a conflict between two boys, one Muslim and one Jewish, and shows how to make a friend of an enemy. The tidy resolution may be wishful thinking nowadays, but Never Say a Mean Word Again is an odd, lovely story infused with anger, confusion, and touches of humor. Bright colors depict fancy robes, beautiful architecture, and the swirling curlicues of Islamic art. The afterword explains the tale and gives parents a lot to discuss about modern-day conflict resolution, power imbalances, and the prospect of peace.
I’ve already written about My True Love Gave to Me a rapturously reviewed roundup of diverse Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s stories by today’s biggest-name young adult authors. This one’s a slam dunk for romance-loving teenagers (and honestly, grownups—many of these little tales are perfectly crafted little morsels, and if you are one of those pretentious, pearl-clutching “Adults? Reading young-adult literature?” schmucks then allow me to throw a fancypants name at you: Kelly Link, the current queen of the American short story, is in the collection). I’ve also already written about the swoony Isla and the Happily Ever, by Stephanie Perkins, but since that’s the third book in a trilogy I’d check to see whether the teenager in question has read the other two. If not, buy all three, since various characters make return appearances. Bonus: The covers are beautiful, so they look super-gift-y. Also! There are sequels to two sci-fi/fantasy novels that were on my best-of list last year: Starbreak, by Phoebe North, is the sequel to Starglass, and Guardian, by Alex London, is the sequel to Proxy. Again, buy the kid both books in the duology or you’re mean.
My favorite middle-grade discovery this year, by far, is Fleabrain Loves Franny (ages 8-11), by Joanne Rocklin. I cannot rave hard enough. The story’s set in a multicultural neighborhood in Pittsburgh in 1952. Frannie Katzenback, age 10, is recovering from polio. She’s in a wheelchair, depressed and isolated, subjected to a truly bitchy visiting nurse and snubbed by her friends who refuse to believe that she’s no longer contagious. But she finds a mysterious new friend: a magical flea who has survived the mass extermination of his community, which used to reside in Frannie’s dog Alf’s fur. Frannie and Fleabrain begin an epistolary relationship. Frannie’s obsessed with a just-published book called Charlotte’s Web, and Fleabrain—who is multilingual, un peu pretentious, and more inclined to read Kafka than kidlit—finds himself jealous of Charlotte and of Frannie’s relationship with the book. This book is smart, funny, and very odd; it’s a love letter to reading and to the life-saving power of imagination. (You know, like Charlotte’s Web.) It’s crammed with big ideas, addressing disability, genocide (a scientist in the neighborhood who works with Jonas Salk has lost his family in the Holocaust), the power of music, tikkun olam, sibling relationships. The vocabulary and philosophical ideas are definitely complex, and the blend of historical novel and fantasy may confuse some readers. (Please ignore the negative Goodreads reviews by unimaginative moron people.) This is a book for kids who truly love to read. And their grownups. Also, please give it to people who refuse to vaccinate their children.
If Fleabrain Loves Franny is this year’s pick for serious readers, The Quikpick Papers: Poop Fountain! (ages 7-12), by Tom Angleberger, is a fine choice for reluctant ones. Come on, it’s about a poop fountain (at the local waste-treatment plant)! There is grossness galore, but also serious treatment of issues of capitalism and class. The moral questions are delivered lightly, and also coated in poop. There’s a multicultural group of friends, including a kid with a demonstrated Jewish identity (as opposed to just a Jewish name), and the story is told through a spew of doodles, scribbled notes, illustrations, and fake newspaper pages.
Sam and Charlie (and Sam Too!) Return (ages 6-8), by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by William Owl, is the sequel to Sam and Charlie and Sam Too, which was on my best-books list last year. (The sequel totally stands alone, though.) I love that this series is for newly minted chapter-book readers, who are, I think, a hard audience to write for. They don’t want babyish books, but independent reading is a work in progress for them; that means sentence structure and vocabulary can’t be too complicated. Here, each chapter is a stand-alone story in the connected world of the characters. Some of the stories are Jewishly inflected; some aren’t. (The first book dealt with Purim and Yom Kippur; this one looks at Tu B’Shevat and Hanukkah.) It’s a great choice for kids taking their first steps into chapter books.
For comic book fans, Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem (ages 10-adult), by Steve Niles, Dave Wachter, and Matt Santoro, is a good choice. It’s a beautifully published hardcover compilation of three Dark Horse comic books, with an unusual trim size (so it looks sophisticated and book-ish, not cheap and comic-book-y). It’s the story of the Golem of Prague, transposed to an unnamed Jewish village during WWII. A British pilot crash-lands in a field near the village, which triggers a Nazi search party. An old man shows his grandson how to animate a golem to protect the townspeople. The art is cool, in classic comic book style (there are even machine guns that go RAT-A-TAT-TAT), but there isn’t much historical backstory. Do the educating about the Maharal yourself, or pair this gift with David Wisniewski’s Golem, a not-at-all-babyish picture book that retells the Maharal legend in a Frankenstein-like way and won the Caldecott Medal in 1997.
Just as grim but grounded in reality is Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (ages 11 to adult), by Susan Goldman Rubin, which recounts that hot summer 50 years ago when black Southerners and white student volunteers from around the country fought together to end voter discrimination. (Ha.) As most of us grownups know, three young civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were run off the road and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Rubin’s book reads like a mystery, as family members of the young men try to determine what happened to their loved ones. The activist Fannie Lou Hamer also plays a big part in the story. Another new book, The Freedom Summer Murders, by Don Mitchell, seems to be getting all the review love, but I think the writing in Rubin’s book is much more engaging. Historical photos and interviews are incorporated well. For Jewish kids whose conscience has been awakened by the recent Ferguson and New York City grand jury decisions, this book is a great, if saddening, choice.
And now for something as far from the headlines as a book can get: Storm, by Donna Jo Napoli, is about a 17-year-old stowaway on Noah’s ark. The first few chapters are bleak as heck: The description of the storm is harrowing—our heroine, a Canaanite girl named Sabah, loses her home and family in a matter of moments. She manages to rescue her pet kit fox, throws in her lot with another survivor, builds a raft, and barely survives the first three weeks of flooding. Then she bumps into the ark and is rescued by a pair of bonobos. (Go with it.) She meets another stowaway on the giant ark, a huge guy she nicknames Bash. Noah and his family don’t come off at all well (the bonobos are way more likable) but the how-to’s of Sabah’s survival, her budding relationship with Bash, and her coexistence with the depressed, caged creatures in this giant floating zoo make for compelling reading. The story is suspenseful even though we all know how it ends: Mount Ararat! Raven! Dove! Dry land! (Again, there’s a parenting convo op here: Read Napoli’s afterword, where she talks about the midrashic background of Bash and tracks her text to specific verses in Genesis.) I could have done without Sabah’s sexist fellow survivor from the beginning of the book—a disturbing, underwritten character—and I’d want my teenage daughter in non-flood times to know that she could do better, because even drowning would be better than that guy. Also, be forewarned that this book contains exhibitionistic bonobo sex.
So, there you have it. As ever, I’ll put a longer list of notable books of 2014 on my personal blog. Happy book-hunting, and happy Hanukkah!
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.