Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy for Readukkah

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DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
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

Hanukkah in Alaska by Barbara Brown

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Hanukkah in Alaska, by Barbara Brown with illustrations by Stacey Schuett (Henry Holt and Company, $16.99, also available in ebook, ages 4-8 ), is reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

Hanukkah in Alaska

Hanukkah in Alaska by Barbara Brown with illustrations by Stacey Schuett, Henry Holt and Company, 2013.

Living in warm and sunny southern California, I was curious to find out if celebrating Hanukkah is any different in our 49th state. What I learned after reading Hanukkah in Alaska was so interesting that I’m certain your children will feel the same. Illustrator Schuett’s muted tones in her acrylic and gouache artwork set the scene of a freezing, snowy winter where a little girl is peeking outside, “making sure there are no moose around.” That could not be any more different from out here in L.A. where residents’ vigilance is devoted to looking both ways for the ever present automobile. We understand about the snow and the sub-zero temperatures, but with author Brown highlighting the presence of moose from the onset, readers can immediately tell they’re about to read something very unique.

The story unfolds during Hanukkah and centers around a little girl’s concern over the moose who’s taken a liking to her backyard. “He sleeps in our yard and eats our trees.” No matter what she does to try to get him to leave, the big antlered moose continues to inhabit the yard posing a threat to the girl’s blue swing. Why the swing? Because it’s attached to the tree he likes to nibble on. As the little girl narrates the tale, we learn that children in Alaska are taught to be wary of moose in certain situations. When playing outside in winter, if a moose comes along, “we have to hug a tree.” These big powerful creatures can cause tremendous damage with their antlers and their kicks so a child can never be too young to learn. I also learned that people who don’t live in Alaska live “Outside.” And because of its northern location, Alaska has very little daylight in winter making it an ideal environment for moose, but no for worried little girls.

So where does Hanukkah fit into this cold climate? When lighting the menorah every evening, it’s hard for our narrator to ignore the moose outside her window. One night her dad suggests they head outside to look at the night sky. There, spread out before their eyes, the family witnesses an amazing array of colors, “swirling and shining and glowing.” The northern lights or aurora borealis happen “only when the sky is just right.” The dad tells his daughter that they have their very own Hanukkah Festival of Lights. But despite the beautiful distraction, reality clicks in when the moose begins yanking on the swing. Everyone looks on horrified, but suddenly the little girl is struck by a delicious, Hanukkah themed idea for how to get the moose out of the backyard.

The satisfying (in more ways than one) ending to this charming Hanukkah story proves that miracles (like the miracle of Hanukkah itself) come in all shapes and sizes, some even edible!! An end page featuring an Author’s Note explains the phenomena of the northern lights and the history of Hanukkah so that the picture book is both accessible and enjoyable for both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.


Of Hanukkah Candles and Christmas Carols

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What happens when your dad, who grew up celebrating Christmas, and your mom, who grew up celebrating Hanukkah, get married and raise a family?  They celebrate both holidays, that’s what!

In the 21st century when more and more families are interfaith ones, it’s common to find beautifully decorated Christmas trees alongside brightly glowing Hanukkias (the special Hanukkah Menorah with places for 9 candles).

daddy-book

Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama written and illustrated by Selina Alko ($16.99, Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 5 and up) brings the right mix of both family traditions in an easy to understand, thoughtfully illustrated picture book. I think it’s fantastic how the family featured in the story embrace both holidays. Together they prepare a meal for the last night of Hanukkah including turkey stuffed with cranberry kugel dressing while Mama makes “jelly donuts and fruitcake for dessert.” Throughout the home readers will see festive decorations of Mogen David (Jewish stars), candy canes, mistletoe and poinsettias.

And while there are indeed gifts galore for the two holidays celebrated, it’s really not about the gifts, but about families being together. The story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight nights is shared for all to enjoy. Soon after presents are unwrapped from under the Christmas tree, the family relaxes and soaks up the last vestiges of the blended holiday festivites that will become memories to cherish for a lifetime.

Also included in the end pages is the Cranberry Kugel Dressing Recipe if your family would like to add this delicious food to your seasonal repast repertoire. So get out your dreidels, your Hanukkah gelt, string lights up on your Christmas tree, and celebrate all the positives of being a blended 21st century family.


When Hanukkah’s Lights Were the Heroes

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Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue  ($17.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback,Kar-Ben, ages 5-9), a new story about the age old Jewish Festival of Lights written by Heidi Smith Hyde with illustrations by Jamel Akib, is reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

I have read dozens of Hanukkah books and always love getting a hold of one that presents the holiday from an interesting new perspective and this one certainly succeeds. The tale takes place in 18th century New Bedford, Massachusetts, a whaling community where many Jewish families who have emigrated from the religious intolerance of Portugal now live secretly as Jews in America.

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Nine-year-old Emanuel Aguilar is one such Jewish boy, son of a merchant whose shop sells whalers all the necessary supplies and food provisions for days and weeks at sea. The thriving whaling industry employs countless fisherman and many hundreds of ships set sail from the New Bedford port seeking their prey whose oil was used in candle making and in lamps.

Emanuel dreams of adventure at sea rather than the mundane life behind a shop counter but his father cautions him, saying a whaler’s life is “lonely and dangerous.” This timid nature of his father was also reflected in his reluctance to express his religious views afters years of persecution overseas. “This isn’t Portugal, Papa. This is America! No one will put us in jail for being who we are,” said Emanuel. Yet despite Emanuel’s repeated pleas for his father to light and display the Hanukkiah or Shabbat candle, Mr. Aguilar continues to live in fear and practices his faith behind drawn curtains.

It is only when Emanuel stows away on a whaling ship on the last night of Hanukkah that things change in New Bedford. The ship encounters a fierce storm and the ship’s main mast is damaged forcing the captain to return to port. Heavy waves and wind have caused the whaling ship to lose its bearings but with not stars to guide the crew and the lighthouse perhaps struck by lighting, darkness appears endless and finding New Bedford impossible.

But like the miracle oil that burned for eight nights when the Jews returned to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, out at sea a miracle occurred, too! The shoreline of New Bedford shone brightly against the night sky. “In the window of every Jewish home, including Emanuel’s, flames were glowing, proclaiming the last night of Hanukkah.”

When son and father are reunited both are thankful for the lessons learned as are we the readers. This moving Hanukkah tale is marvelously illustrated with chalk pastels that seem to effortlessly flow with story’s mood and setting. This is a picture book you will definitely want to share with the family and discuss because the topic of religious freedom is as relevant today as it was three centuries ago.

Wishing everyone a joy-filled Hanukkah!


Fun Crafts and Activities From Pottery Barn Kids

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With six more nights of Hanukkah and just three more days until Christmas, you might be taking a break from books. Maybe your children are already on school vacation and you’re looking for some new ways to keep them busy.  Try a little togetherness and a you’ll provide healthy distraction from computer games and other electronics. Perfect for the whole family, here are some simple and fun ideas from Pottery Barn Kids for hands-on holiday activities that keep you, and the kids happily engaged and entertained.

Check out these tips for planning a Christmas Cookie Exchange, including recipesinvitations and “how to” videos.

  •         Last-minute wrapping to do? Give your presents that extra little flourish of hand-crafted care, and try one of our creative approaches to gift wrapping. Make your presents even more magical this season with Starry WrapKeepsake Footprint Paper and Rudolph’s Nose Wrap.
  •         Share the joy of Hanukkah! This crafty Menorah is easy to assemble – and best of all, kids can “light” the candles on their own to celebrate each night of Hanukkah. Bring a little sparkle to Hanukkah celebrations with these creative Glittery Dreidel Place Cards. They’re simple for kids to make and add a fun element of festivity to the table – plus, they make great party favors!Plan your own Hanukkah festivities with tips and recipes from Pottery Barn Kids.

For more holiday ideas or for inspiration and advice year-round, visit the Pottery Barn Kids Design Studio.


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!

CONTEST RULES:

*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.