No kid wants underpants as a Hanukkah gift, and no one wants virtuous, boring books, either. So, this year’s quirky list of the best children’s books is focused on fun and engaging reads rather than good-for-you literature. Here are the top 18 (chai!) for 2013.
Hanukkah: A Counting Book, by Emily Sper is bright, bold, and graphic, with die-cut holes in the shapes of candles for little fingers to poke through. Count candles, jelly doughnuts, latkes, dreidels, and more in Yiddish and Hebrew (in Hebrew letters and transliteration)—the penultimate page offers an explanation of the holiday. Cute and simple. (Baby to Pre-K)
Your first stop should be three books I wrote about earlier this year: the top-notch biographies The Boy Who Loved Math, by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham; On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky; and (my very fave picture book of the year) Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Check out, too, the lushly illustrated, heavy-paper fold-out Noah story The Enduring Ark and the 25th-anniversary edition of Patricia Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt and its new companion volume, The Blessing Cup.
Among books I haven’t already raved about, try Hanukkah Bear, by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka … but only if you’re willing to growl in an ursine, uninhibited fashion. Bubba Brayna (whose sight and hearing aren’t what they used to be) invites the rabbi for latkes, but her visitor doesn’t turn out to be who she expects. Kids will find Bubba Brayna’s perky cluelessness hilarious, and the ending is very satisfying. The oversized hardcover feels substantial and gift-y, and the acrylic paintings that illustrate this version (a revamp of The Chanukkah Guest, which Kimmel first published in 1990) are cuddly and cheery. The guest in question looks a lot like a brown version of Baloo in Disney’s The Jungle Book. (Pre-K to 3)
Rifka Takes a Bow, by Betty Rosenberg Perlov, illustrated by Cosei Kawa, is a zippy look at the turn-of-the-century Yiddish theater scene. Little Rifka, the daughter of actors, introduces us to her parents’ world—she visits the prop room, watches her daddy apply his makeup, peeks through the curtain at the expectant audience. The illustrations are sophisticated, trippy, and detailed—they hit that rare sweet spot of appealing equally to design-savvy grownups and color-and-teensy-detail-happy children. On the last page we learn that the book is autobiographical, and the author was a child star in her dad’s weekly Yiddish radio soap opera. Standing ovation for Betty Perlov, 96-year-old debut picture book author! (Pre-K to 3)
The Longest Night: A Passover Story, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Catia Chien, tells the story of the plagues and the Exodus from Egypt from the perspective of a young slave girl. The acrylic illustrations are majestic without feeling too formal (the colors and backgrounds are sweeping and painterly, but the characters’ faces are cartoonishly endearing), and the rhyming couplet structure—with a few stand-alone or repeated lines to emphasize dramatic moments—will make it a good read-aloud choice at Seder time. Sometimes the trochaic structure gets wearying and the couplets don’t scan as well as they could (That night I had dreams of claws/ Matted fur and hungry jaws), but sometimes the simplicity and rhythms are lovely (Packed our bread in haste and flew,/ Running from, but also to.)
Is this the first modern Jewish-inflected book for just-starting-out chapter-book readers? Sam and Charlie (and Sam Too!), by Leslie Kimmelman (author of The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah), illustrated by Stefano Tambellini, consists of five short stories linked by the theme “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Each story about new neighbors and pals Charlie (girl), Sam (boy), and other Sam (girl) is about being kind—letting a friend pick up the last ring from the bottom of the pool at camp, bringing a friend chicken soup when she’s sick, apologizing to a friend on Yom Kippur (aka “I’m Sorry Day”). But what kind of friend wants the last prune hamentaschen? Gross. (Grade 1 to 3)
KIDS’ CHAPTER BOOKS
I don’t grade Holocaust books on a good-intentions curve. Odette’s Secrets, by Maryann MacDonald, a first-person verse novel (based closely on a true story) about a little Jewish Parisian girl sent to hide from the Nazis in the French countryside, is a great book, not a great Holocaust book. It’s exciting, moving, and gorgeously written. (Paris seems only a faraway word,/ light as a goose feather.) Odette’s reactions to anti-Semitism in her hometown, her terror at being sent away, her joy when her mother joins her, her guilt about forgetting her father’s face and voice are all depicted poetically. Odette finds solace in Catholicism, to her mother’s dismay, and discovers that the world is a lot more nuanced than she’d ever thought. The book is scary but manageable (both parents survive), making this a good choice for younger readers. In an afterword, MacDonald explains that she wanted to tell a story about why 84 percent of French Jewish children survived the Holocaust, a greater percentage than in any other European country. She wrote the book with input from the real Odette’s son, and the text is dotted with family photos. (Grade 4 to 10)
Erica S. Perl is the queen of funny, contemporary Jewish chapter books. Aces Wild is the sequel to When Life Gives You OJ (which you may recall from my 2011 best books list), but it can be read as a stand-alone. In it, Zelly Fried has at long last gotten a dog. She names it Ace, in honor of her zayde, also named Ace, who has announced that he’s no longer going to go by Ace, except that he keeps going by Ace, and the mix-ups between the two Aces lead to comic mishegas. Ace-the-dog is wild, in that he can’t seem to stop peeing and pooping hither and yon. Ace-the-grandpa is wild, in that he seems to have forgotten his late wife Bubbles and is going out with all kinds of lady friends. Can Zellie get both Aces in hand? As with the first book, the story provides tons of giggles but also packs a sneaky emotional wallop. (Grade 3 to 7)
Wait, there’s more than one delightful contemporary funny Jewish middle-grade novel this year? Why, yes! In The Sasquatch Escape, by Suzanne Selfors (with illustrations by the superb Dan Santat), 10-year-old Beverly Hills kid Ben Silverman is banished for the summer to his Yiddish-speaking, Catskills-rhythm-y grandfather in the dull boonies of Buttonville. (His grandfather’s suggestion for a fun activity is Pudding Night at the senior center.) But when the cat drags in something that looks an awful lot like a wounded baby dragon, Ben and his new pal Pearl talk their way into Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital, a mysterious veterinary practice in the town’s boarded-up old button factory that turns out to serve imaginary (but real!) animals. When Ben accidentally unleashes Bigfoot, he and Pearl have to recapture the creature before the rest of the world discovers that magical beings exist. There are charming story and art prompts for kids at the end, plus a pudding recipe. (There’s a sequel, The Lonely Lake Monster, told from Pearl’s point of view, involving a Nessie-like beast, a leprechaun, and an assignment to clip the sasquatch’s toenails, but it has less Grandpa Abe, so it’s less Jewy. A third book is due in January.) (Grade 3 to 5)
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust, by Leanne Lieberman, is so good! Don’t let the in-your-face title scare you; it’s funny, smart, and thoughtful. Sixteen-year-old Lauren’s dad is a Holocaust scholar, and she’s been dragged to memorials and museums nearly every vacation. (She reflects acidly, “Some kids got Disney. I got Hitler.”) When she was younger she went through a period of obsessively reading Holocaust books, but now she’s burned out. She doesn’t want to go to synagogue or Jewish youth group, she’s haunted by Holocaust nightmares, and she wonders why Jews don’t seem to worry about other people’s genocides. She secretly decides she’s no longer Jewish. But when the guy she has a crush on starts playing Nazi war games with his friends in the park (all of them wearing swastika arm bands drawn in Sharpie and wielding squirt guns), she has to figure out whether to speak up. Teenage readers will relate to Lauren’s obsession with hypocrisy, as well as her worries about popularity and boys and her autistic brother. My 12-year-old loved this book, as did I, and it spurred some really great conversation. Highly recommended. (But why, why, why did the cover have to be so generic?) (Grade 7 to 12)
I wrote “OMG” and “holy crap” repeatedly in the margins of The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi, by Neal Bascombe. This is a gripping spy thriller about the capture of Adolf Eichmann. I knew that the Israelis had kidnapped him from Buenos Aires nearly two decades after WWII and brought him to stand trial in Jerusalem. I’d seen pictures of him in his glass box in the courtroom. But I had no clue what a twisting, nail-biting endeavor his discovery and capture were, with many near-misses and almost-disasters. Bascomb’s book is so suspenseful it puts Robert Ludlum to shame. Who knew that the first clue to Eichmann’s whereabouts came from a Jewish teenage girl in Argentina who went on a date with his son and got suspicious? (Grade 6 to 11)
Is your kid into sci-fi and fantasy? I’ve already ordered you to pick up the whip-smart thrill ride that is Proxy, by Alex London, but if your kid can handle a more deliberatively paced book (translation: OK, so it could have been shorter), check out Starglass, a first novel by Phoebe North. It is insane, in a good way. In the distant future, a 15-year-old girl named Terra Fineberg lives on board the Asherah, a city-sized spaceship populated by Jews from the doomed planet Earth. Five hundred years earlier, the ship was launched in search of the distant planet Zehava … and now they’ve almost arrived. The ship is ruled with an iron fist by an oppressive council of leaders that has gradually increased its own powers over the years, assigning everyone’s jobs, approving everyone’s life partners, and dictating everyone’s reproductive choices. (Children are all “born” on the same day every year, grown in womb-like eggs in a lab, and cut out by their parents at the same time. It is creepy.) Terra’s beloved mom has died, and her dad is perpetually drunk with grief and anger. Wandering through the bowels of the ship in search of escape, she witnesses a murder and is gradually drawn into a populist rebellion. Starglass’ world-building is terrific, and the novel is rich with ethical dilemmas, friendship, and passion. The incorporation of Hebrew words and Jewish ideas is clever and consistent, and Terra’s relationship with a cynical female botanist is especially well-drawn. The book could have been more tightly edited, and some of the twists are easy to see coming, but I’m still jonesing for the sequel. (Grade 8 to 12)
So, there you have it. I felt like this year was particularly strong for books about the Holocaust and WWII—I’ll put a longer round-up of best-book contenders on my personal site so you can see for yourself—and particularly weak for picture books. Regardless, there’s something for every reader and reader-to-be on this list, so happy reading, and Happy Hanukkah!
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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
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.