Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy for Readukkah

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By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)


Dreidels on the Brain car



When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:

“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.

Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.

As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.

Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.

Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.

The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah

Gift It! The Power of CUTE

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Like the monster featured in this adorable and truly original lift-the-flaps, pull-the-tabs, turn-the-wheels and pop-ups book, I succumbed to the fearless main character’s contagious cuteness. 


The Power of Cute by Charise Mericle Harper ($10.99, Robin Corey Books, ages 4-8)  had me from the first speech bubble! “I am not afraid of you!” is spoken boldly by a superhero baby after encountering the stomping and roaring big monster.  In what is billed as My Very First Graphic Novel, young readers will find a baby they can identify with; a baby who does not whimper in the face of something scary, but rather, relies upon his own inherent powers to turn what could be a fearsome creature into a reduced-sized, tame and cute baby monster. The clincher for me was when the cute baby brought her new friend home to a house full of cute little monsters, who had already experienced The Power of Cute. Your child’s self-esteem is sure to be buoyed by this charismatic hero, a match for any menace who happens to cross his cute path.

Gift It! The Wizard of Oz: A Scanimation Book

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This blog post comes from Ronna Mandel:

Who doesn’t love giving and getting books as presents?  The best part about giving a book as a gift is that you can dedicate it on the inside cover with a personalized book plate or a simple, but meaningful handwritten note.  I may donate a lot of books, but I can never part with a book that has a date and message inside, reminding me of a special friend’s present to one of the children or to me and my husband.

In the next few days I’ll be writing about books that would make wonderful holiday gifts whether as stocking stuffers or wrapped and placed under the tree. Or like me, you can plan on giving a book for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Now here’s a book that’s perfect for everyone in the family – The Wizard of Oz: A Scanimation Book from Rufus Butler Seder ($14.95, Workman, all ages) – because we should all have at least one book with the amazing Scanimation technology on a coffee table at home! If you haven’t perused the pages of one of these types of books  (i.e. Gallop!, Swing!, Waddle!, and Star Wars: A Scanimation Book), it’s time to be introduced.  The book opens with Dorothy’s ruby slippers clicking together because with this technology, pictures move bringing motion with every turn of the page, recreating memorable moments to enjoy all over again. You’ll find famous quotes opposite the iconic images such as the Wicked Witch of the West warning, “Ill get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” or the Tin Man’s line, “The tinsmith forgot to give me a heart. No heart. All hollow.” There are 10 terrific scenes in all and each one cleverly conveys the movie’s progression in much the same way a movie or video work. Why not see for yourself?

Children’s Holiday Book Roundup and Giveaway

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We may not get snow here in sunny Southern California, but we do get all the wonderful holiday books to help us get into the festive mood!  Ronna Mandel and Debbie Glade have put together a brief collection of recommended books for parents to consider when making up their gift lists this season. No matter what time of the year, one of the most important things to do with your child is read. So buy a book or two, put the kettle on and then snuggle up close to your little ones and explore lands near and far as they come alive with every page you turn.  For a chance to be the winner of three of these terrific holiday books, please leave a comment on the blog, LIKE Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook and be sure to provide an email where you can be contacted.  The contest ends at midnight on Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. Scroll down for contest *rules.

Record a Memory: Our Family Christmas Memories (approx. $15.95, Publications International, Ltd., all ages) makes it easy for families to share memories and then treasure them for years to come.  The sparkly, embossed cover beckons readers to open the book, fill in the requested info, add voice messages wherever there’s an icon pictured and turn good times into a customized scrapbook. With a little help from an older sibling or adult, even the youngest child can add their input by simply following the handy instructions provided on the opening page. Everyone will enjoy the 48 beautiful pages, with their ample room to include photos of Christmas stockings, Christmas dinner plus places to jot down specific recollections like a favorite Christmas past or yummy recipe.  Best of all is the six-button module designed to allow users to record a special memory, making Our Family Christmas Memories a keepsake families will return to again and again. Three AAA batteries are included and the books can be found at major retailers nationwide.  Add Record a Memory to the rest of your family’s holiday traditions and capture cherished moments for a lifetime.

A Bad Kitty Christmas ($15.99, A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press, ages 4 and up), written and illustrated by Nick Bruel cannot fail when its cover alone cracks me up! Anyone who knows me knows I adore cats and now, having just adopted two maniacal brothers whose exploits compare to those of Bad Kitty’s, I love Bruel’s series more than ever. The picture book opens with, “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the city, not a creature was stirring … (Blam! Crash! Kaboom! indicating sound of garbage pails flying) … Except for Bad Kitty.” If this line does not set the tone for what havoc will be wreaked by this fabulously feisty feline, I’m not sure what does. Soon Kitty shows her disinterest in spending Christmas Eve with Uncle Murray and leaps from her owner’s auto (followed by Puppy), getting lost in the big city until rescued by an elderly lady.  After an afternoon of listening to the old lady reminisce, Bad Kitty  yearns to return home to his family. Sensing the cat’s homesickness, the caring woman realizes she has an important holiday mission to accomplish.  Will Bad Kitty (and Puppy) be reunited with their family for Christmas? Put this book on your holiday list to find out how they all fare.  Still eager to continue the craziness?  Check out more shenanigans at the Bad Kitty website.

Chanukah Lights ($34.99, Candlewick Press, ages 5 and up), is written by Michael J. Rosen with pop-art by Robert Sabuda.  Not all pop-up books are created equal and when you combine the talents of the masterful Rosen with those of Sabuda, you get a rare Chanukah treat for the entire family to enjoy.  Travel across the globe and through time by experiencing eight wondrous and intricately designed scenes of the Jewish Festival of Lights. Whether viewing the Temple where the oil that lasted eight days was discovered, journeying to a shtetl where “six lights flicker,” or traveling to a kibbutz in the Promised Land replete with olive groves and this time showing eight glimmering flames, the faith of those who have carried on the Chanukah tradition is beautifully reflected on every page. This unique interpretation of the holiday will not disappoint.

Create-A-Story Kit: StoryWorld – Christmas Tales ($9.99, Templar Books, ages 9 and up) by John & Caitlin Matthews is just the answer for kids stuck indoors with relatives and other visitors over the holiday break. Christmas Tales allows everyone to take control of their boredom transforming it into fun and games when using the set of cards provided. There are multiple ways to use the colorful cards and a handy storytelling book included that gives tips to get players started. Pick a card and begin telling a tale, or maybe play a card game of hidden clues. Kids can even put on a play based on the card images. My favorite card, The Christmas Ghosts (who appear only at Christmastime) sets my imagination soaring.  Thought provoking questions on the card’s reverse side ask: “What stories can they tell about their lives?”  “Why have they appeared this year?” Or in my case, the question would be “Why have they NOT appeared this year?” Then I would also incorporate the last question, “Who is able to see them and who cannot?” and so would begin my tale … Make Create-A-Story series part of your family’s annual celebration and see what a good time being stuck with relatives and visitors can really be!

The Littlest Evergreen’s talented author and illustrator Henry Cole, ($16.99, Katherine Tegan Books by Harper Collins, ages 4 and up) really knows how to captivate the hearts of his readers. This is an enchanting story, with an environmental message, about a how a tiny evergreen grows into a Christmas tree and about what happens to him after the holiday is over. Cole’s illustrations are beyond exceptional – so much so that I found myself looking at them over and over again. He uses vivid acrylic paints in such a way that they have crisp edges to make featured objects contrast beautifully with the backgrounds. This artist has illustrated more than 50 children’s books, including several he has written himself. Every child, who celebrates Christmas and loves to choose a fresh tree every year, will also adore this book. It is without-a-doubt one to keep and read every year before Christmas. It sure got me in the Christmas spirit!


*This giveaway will run through midnight on December 23,  2011 (PST). Winner will be chosen using Random.org from all valid entries and notified via email. Winner will have 48 hours to contact us at Ronna.L.Mandel@gmail.com before another winner is chosen. Giveaway is open to U.S. (18+) residents only.

*Good Reads With Ronna did not receive monetary compensation for these reviews.  Three (3) giveaway items worth a total value of  $67.97 will be provided by Good Reads With Ronna. 
 The reviews are in our own words and is our opinion. Your opinions may differ.

Making New Friends From a Hanukkah Mishap

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Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap written by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Shahar Kober ($17.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback; Kar-Ben, ages 5-9) was reviewed by Ronna Mandel in the December issue of L.A. Parent.

Engineer Ari is trying to get from Jerusalem to Jaffa, Israel, to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah with friends Jessie and Nathaniel. He’s bringing dreidels, a hanukkiah, a bottle of oil, a bag of Turkish coins and some sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts; a glossary in the front of the book offers more handy definitions), and children he meets on the way to the station chat about the story behind the holiday.

On board the train Ari can almost taste Nathaniel’s potato latkes and hear Jessie singing the Hanukkah blessings, but he will have to wait. Coming around a bend, Ari spots a camel relaxing on the tracks and must make an emergency stop, causing his caboose to derail.

Kalil, a Bedouin with long robes and a shepherd’s staff, comes to help Ari remove the stubborn camel. As the sun sets and the two men wait in a desert tent for help to arrive, Ari misses the chance to celebrate Hanukkah’s first night with his old friends, but is blessed to share the Festival of Lights with a new one.

While there may be a mishap, it turns out that everything about Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap is just right!

Hanukkah Around The World

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hanukkah-around-the-worldHere’s a book for the whole family to share this December after the Menorah candles have gone out and all the latkes have been eaten. Called Hanukkah Around The World from Kar-Ben Publishing, this enlightening book, is written by Tami Lehman-Wilzig and illustrated by Vicki Wehrman.

booksFrom Istanbul, Turkey to Turin, Italy to Nabeul, Tunisia, readers are introduced to Hanukkah customs, traditions and recipes they’ll want to return to again and again.

I found the facts included both in each country section and in the end Hanukkah Potpourri end pages to be of particular interest. For example I had no idea it’s traditional to sing two songs after lighting the candles, nor did I know that Gerona, Spain has one of Europe’s best preserved medieval ghettos or that the Jewish community in Bukhara, Uzbekistan supposedly goes back 2,000 years.

books-1Between the beautifully drawn maps and other artwork plus the tempting international recipes and the handy glossary, there is much to enjoy and learn about. Whether you already celebrate The Festival of Lights or are just interested in other cultures, Hanukkah Around the World will take you on a fascinating journey.

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) Down Deep

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covermenorah-under-the-seaHappy Hanukkah! I have been hearing such wonderful things about this new book from Kar-Ben Publishing I had to blog about it. So the first thing I did when I got the galley was to ask my son, Coleman to read it. On a scale of 1 – 4, he enthusiastically rated it a 5!

Menorah Under The Sea by Esther Susan Heller introduces readers to marine biologist, David Ginsburg, at work one December in Antarctica. As The Festival of Lights approaches, Ginsburg wonders how, with constant daylight, he can celebrate menorah-sea-imagethis holiday when we traditionally light candles for eights days at sundown? While he had a portable Hanukkiah, a nine branched Menorah used only at Hanukkah, it was the darkness he sought.

My son and I enjoyed the photographs in this book because they took us down under to explore the sea along with Ginsburg, and in such a colorful way. But most of all, we loved the imaginative way marine biologist Ginsburg created his Menorah from sea urchins and star fish!

menorah-sea-image-2This/These [image[s] from Menorah Under the Sea appear with the permission of Kar-Ben Publishing, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, Minneapolis, MN. Copyright © 2009 by Lerner Publishing Group. For more information, please visit www.karben.com.