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

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle

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Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle is reviewed by MaryAnne Locher.

– ⭐︎ Starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus

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Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014.

I had the privlidge of hearing Tim Federle speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books a little over a year ago. Taken by his personal story as well as his charm and sense of humor, I bought his then newly released debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever, and, of course, had him sign it. Little did I know that his book would become one of my favorite middle grade novels in addition to being the most talked about middle grade book of 2013!

Fast forward a year plus later. I’ve now been given the opportunity to review Federle’s fabulous follow-up called Five, Six, Seven, Nate! (Simon & Schuster 2014; $16.99, Ages 10-14).

Nate Foster is your not-so-average kid from Jankburg, Pennsylvania. He’s never really fit in with the other boys. He prefers practicing his singing and acting with his best friend and self-appointed acting coach, Libby. Much to his family’s chagrin, Nate’s landed the role of second understudy for E.T. in E.T.: The Broadway Musical. The only reasons his parents let him chase his dream of becoming an actor are his Aunt Heidi, an aspiring actor herself who lives in New York City, and because Nate is drawing an income from the production.

Nate finds out that Broadway is not all glitz and glamour, people and situations are not always as they first appear to be, and hard work sometimes pays off, despite a lack of formal training. Federle addresses difficult topics and feelings encountered by this late tween/early teen age group with both honesty and sensitivity. This heartfelt coming of age book with its diverse cast of characters is truly inspiring and takes the reader through a gamut of emotions. Bravo! I look forward to future Federle performances.

See Tim Federle discuss writing for kids in this New York Times video.