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The Four Children’s Books You Absolutely Shouldn’t Buy for Hanukkah

Physics for babies, settler horses, and other terrible ideas, poorly executed

Marjorie Ingall
December 14, 2017

First, a bit of consolation: None of these 2017 children’s books reach the heights of offensiveness of last year’s Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf. These are merely bad, clueless, or cynical. Which means they still do not belong under your Hanukkah bush.*

The Itsy-Bitsy Dreidel by Jeffrey Burton and Chani Tornow, illustrated by Sanja Rescek.

“The itsy bitsy dreidel was reading from the Torah/Learning about the rules of the menorah.”

First of all, this does not scan. Reading it aloud is the aural equivalent of falling down the stairs. Even board books should have scansion standards, dammit. As for “With the shamash they lit eight candles bright./And everyone was spinning for the Festival of Lights!” How exactly is the dreidel family lighting the menorah and flipping their latkes when they HAVE NO ARMS? It makes no sense! Also, dreidels are non-sentient. On a more serious note, the itsy bitsy dreidel could not learn about the rules of lighting the menorah in the Torah, because the events of Hanukkah took place long after the events in the Torah. This level of basic ignorance about Judaism in a book about a Jewish holiday makes me ungabloozen.

Newtonian Physics for Babies by Chris Ferrie.

This board book is part of the “Baby University” series, along with Quantum Physics for Babies, General Relativity for Babies, and Quantum Entanglement for Babies. The tagline: “Simple explanation of complex ideas FOR YOUR FUTURE GENIUS!” THE CAPS ARE THE PUBLISHER’S! The notion of physics books for babies is funny, and I am down. But based on the Amazon comments, parents are mostly not getting the joke. THEY WANT FUTURE GENIUSES AND WANT THESE BOOKS TO GIVE THEM A LEG UP IN THE COMPETITIVE PLAYGROUP LANDSCAPE! I am also down with board books that are really for parents instead of babies. Board books are great for cuddle time, and for encouraging babies to study art and enjoy the idea of reading. I gave Alana a copy of the BabyLit version of Moby Dick when her baby was born, because it has super-cute illustrations! And it offers something to the baby as well as the parent! Elijah was apparently very amused! These physics books, on the other hand, are UGLY. The art consists of simple spheres, arrows and graphs–it looks like it was made with a desktop publishing program in 1992. The text is dull as dishwater. Not enticing for baby. Depressing.

Mr. Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets by Pei-Yu Chang.

I’m not inherently opposed to the idea of a children’s book about German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 after a failed attempt to escape from the Nazis. Alas, this is not the children’s book for the job. In this telling, bad soldiers (wearing armbands with meaningless not-quite-swastika symbols on them) hate Benjamin’s “extraordinary ideas,” so Mrs. Fittko helps him and other refugees flee across the mountains. “Mr. Bennie” refuses to give up his huge, heavy suitcase, saying “the contents of this case can change everything.” When he gets to the border, he is denied entry. He disappears. Everyone wonders what was in the suitcase: A theory about a theory? Cheese? Beer? Sausages? No one knows. Alas, the problem with turning history into allegory is that it risks bleaching out truth. A real woman named Lisa Fittko led Walter Benjamin and others targeted by the Nazis through the Pyrenees to safety. In reality, when Spanish authorities refused to admit Benjamin, he committed suicide. This book is gorgeously illustrated, with compelling mixed-media illustrations, but the text never mentions that Benjamin was a Jew, or that he killed himself, or that the Nazis were motivated by anything other than hatred of “extraordinary ideas.” The book jacket says the story is “highlighting the importance of personal freedom.” As with last year’s gorgeously illustrated children’s book about George Gershwin that somehow failed to mention his Jewishness, an ahistorical take erases one essential aspect of the protagonist’s identity in an ill-conceived attempt at universality. The Nazis didn’t want to murder Benjamin only because of his ideas, kids.

Barack’s First Great Feat: A Little Arabian Horse Caught in the Middle of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by David Mikosz, with Kristina Derby and Aisha Shodeinde, illustrated by “Creative Knot.”

The author is a licensed horse-show judge. And as an author, he makes an excellent licensed horse show judge. The story, with conventional big-eyed Disney-animation-esque illustrations, is about a beautiful Arabian horse, the story’s narrator. He belongs to a little girl who lives in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank. One day he sneaks out to explore and meets a little Palestinian girl. The Palestinian girl, Amel, and the Jewish girl, Jara (“which means honey”) (no it doesn’t), become friends. Jara sends Barack to visit Amel, carrying toilet paper and medicine, and Amel sends Barack back to Jara with flowers and thank-you notes. Then the parents catch the girls being friends! Luckily, upon seeing their daughters together, “years of built-up animosity melted away from the hearts of both sets of parents.” The settlers suddenly understand that “it is just not fair of us to stay” and decide to move “back to the city.” There is no room for a horse in the city, so they leave Barack with Amel’s family and promise to send money. Jara is totally cool with this. Yay! Middle East peace, unlocked! I wonder if Jared Kushner has read it.

*Please do not send me email about Hanukkah bushes. I do not care.

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.

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