What I love about Passover is the tradition, the same old same old I know and love. It’s comforting as well as delicious. And, since Seder, the meal we enjoy, means “order” in Hebrew, we repeat the same rituals Jewish people have done for centuries to feel a connection to the past. Here are a few new Passover picture books plus a link to a fourth (an interview) to share with your children this year and for years to come.
Fans of Meet the Latkes, get ready for a wild and whimsical ride! This follow-up picture book promises to bring smiles to young readers with its tale of Alfie Koman, a piece of matzah known to hide, who needs to unmuddle the sourdough bully Loaf’s version of the Passover Story. Who enslaved the Hebrews according to Loaf? Pha-roach! With the help of his braided bff, Challa Looyah, Alfie must emerge from undercover to set the record straight. The hilarious artwork is what I’d call the butter on the matzah. It just doesn’t get funnier than this! Don’t miss the adorable book trailer here.
Matzah Craze is a great introduction to matzah and its history for anyone who is unfamiliar with it and the tradition of not eating bread during Passover.
This fast-paced rhyming read opens at lunchtime when everyone in the school cafeteria swaps food except for Noa. You’ll want to slow down to enjoy the Gallegos’s lively art and diverse student body. On this day Noa’s got food in her lunch bag no one recognizes and she doesn’t have enough to share. “All week long, I don’t eat bread. Matzah’s what I eat instead,” she tells her friends.
She then explains how the Jews fled Pharaoh’s oppression with no time in the rush to escape for bread to rise. As her friends walk away, Noa wonders. “Is there more that she could do? Let them taste Passover too?” When she brings in enough matzah to share with her friends the following day, with an assortment of toppings, its popularity causes a matzah craze.
Eating matzah is always a fun part of the holiday. I’m a big fan of chocolate-covered matzah as well as matzah spread with haroset. This food made with fruit and nuts symbolizes the mortar used by slaves in Egypt. I hope anyone reading Matzah Craze will experiment with all the delicious ways to enjoy matzah just like Noa’s friends. There’s also a note in the back matter explaining a bit more about the Passover holiday. Families and teachers will find this picture book helpful to discuss sharing, introducing a new food and its cultural and religious importance to those unfamiliar with it, as well as an enjoyable holiday read-aloud.
Whenever my husband and I went on vacation we always took the kids to a zoo so I was happy to be introduced to the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem, aka the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo where this story unfolds.
Ellie the beautiful purple elephant would like to find a family to celebrate the first night of Passover with and she can count on her friend, Kang, the Kangaroo, to join her. Chimp, on the other hand, is not keen on this risky adventure and would prefer to sleep.
Every time Ellie or Kang discuss the seder they’d like to attend, they get all the words wrong and Chimp is quick to correct them which is something children will enjoy. Ellie calls the Haggadah a coloring book. Kang calls it a notebook until Chimp sets them straight. The eager pair plan their escape for the following evening. It seems Zookeeper Shmulik, who cleans Ellie’s habitat, has told her all about Passover and one part especially appeals to her, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Naturally to escape the pals will need the help and agility of Chimp who is pretty easy to convince. Once out of the confines of the zoo, Ellie, Kang, and Chimp stroll through the neighborhood in search of a seder. When eventually the animals peek in a well-lit window, they see a beautifully set table and are surprised to discover who the welcoming host is.
I admire Weiser’s atmospheric artwork with people in shadow at nighttime, as well as her lovely color palette perfect for Israel’s warm climate. There’s a fun, retro look to the illustrations that add to the playfulness of Moritz’s story.
I had a smile on my face while reading this entertaining book because it was not only such a sweet animal tale, but it was gently educational without hitting readers over the head. While it does help to have some understanding of the Jewish holiday Passover, readers will still learn about certain Passover words like seder, the traditional meal, some of the foods on the seder plate such as haroset and maror, and what they symbolize as well as the story of how Passover came to be. Back matter goes into more detail about the Passover holiday and also includes photos of the real Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.
Don’t miss Ronna’s interview below with debut picture book author Susan Kusel about her soon-to-be classic,The Passover Guest.
WhenAmy B. Muchawrote A Girl’s Bill of Rights, she was not planning to publish it. Mucha says, “I wrote it years ago, only for myself! Like so many women, I was raised to be a people pleaser and put others before myself. Writing this was a way to help me declare and own my rights to have my own opinions, feelings, and preferences. And it helped!” But after a while, she thought her book could also be an inspiration for many girls and women. And by taking a chance and submitting her pitch during a Twitter pitch event, she got a like from Beaming Books, and voilà – a beautiful and inspiring book was born.
“I have the right to look how I look and wear what I wear.” That’s how it begins. e
And from there, more beautiful spreads with diverse girls talking about all the rights we, girls, have.
I love Sonda’s illustrations showing diverse girls – diverse races, body types, abilities, and disabilities. This makes the message even stronger that we all have the same rights to choose our path, have our own feelings, and say yes and no when we need to.
This book will be an empowering tool to show girls their rights and that they can be whatever they want to be. “Si, se puede.”
And today, on International Women’s Day, when we celebrate so many achievements by so many girls, it’s important to keep on inspiring them to fight for their rights.
In Charlotte Offsay’sdebut picture book, The Big Beach Cleanup, the main character, Cora, is looking forward to the upcoming Crystal Beach Sandcastle Competition which she intends to win. So you can imagine her disappointment when a sign at the beach says it’s “Postponed due to beach conditions.” And what are those conditions you might wonder? The ever-growing problem of plastic and other kinds of trash that wash ashore from the ocean in addition to being left by people are ruining our beaches.
Together with her mom, the pair clean up what they can but four hands will never be enough. The next day Cora and her mom return, this time with Grandpa in tow, but the task of collecting the vast amount of litter and empties feels daunting for just six hands to tackle. Cora’s grandfather also explains how animals mistake the trash for food which further concerns the little girl. Clearly this pollution is wreaking havoc on the environment and its inhabitants. Then Cora comes up with a plan.
Maybe six hands aren’t enough to pick up all the trash, but many hands might be. So Cora creates flyers to post all over town with her mom’s help. When initially people don’t seem to respond to the flyers, Cora’s mom explains that people are busy and there are lots of ways to reduce trash such as cutting back on one-use items and not littering.
Undeterred, Cora continues to ask friends and neighbors to help her in a big beach cleanup and soon “more and more and more hands joined together.” So many people pitch in for this community effort initiated by one very motivated and caring young girl that before long the competition is back on! And though ultimately Cora does not win the contest, she can claim a much bigger and enduring prize—the knowledge and self-satisfaction of having made a difference.
Katie Rewse’s art is at once simple yet expressive and optimistic for a topic like pollution. Her emphasis on conveying the variety of garbage that washes up on the beaches and is left by humans will help children get a good sense of what a big mess the trash, especially plastics, is causing for our planet.
Offsay shares important and easy-to-grasp information for young readers to learn in a relatable way. After seeing how the abundant beach litter disrupts the sandcastle event, children will hopefully realize the impact that they as individuals can have and feel empowered to fight for the cleanliness of our oceans and our beaches. Perfect for Earth Day, The Big Beach Cleanup would also be a welcome year round read for homes, schools and libraries who view environmental conservation not as an option, but as a necessity. An added bonus to buying the book is that all author proceeds from the book are being donated toHeal the Bay.
Click hereto buy a book and support a local indie bookstore.
Click here to read about another environmental-themed picture book.
This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER ★Starred Review – Kirkus
The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.
Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlem—those big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.
The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly
Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best.
In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.
Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.”
Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings.
And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.
Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.
Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.
In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.
Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.
Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.
Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click herefor an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild Westpoints out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.
All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.
I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.
Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.
Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Review – Booklist A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.
When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.
Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.
Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com
Click here to read another Black History Month review. e
Alex’s Good Fortune, a 32-page early reader, takes us through Alex’s day on Chinese New Year. She invites her best friend, Ethan, over and, together, they prepare for the holiday. Exciting moments (joining the parade and decorating) and mundane ones (sweeping away the bad luck) are illustrated expressively in vibrant colors that accentuate the kids’ emotions. I longed for dumplings as Nai Nai showed the kids how to fold and pinch, fold and pinch.
Back matter includes the pronunciation and meaning of several Chinese New Year wishes, more information about the holiday, and the Chinese zodiac.
Celebrate the Year of the Ox with Benson Shum’s likable book that’s suited for early readers or as a read-aloud story. Xīn xiǎng shì chéng (say: sin see-ang shee che-eng) / May all your wishes come true!
Little Blue Truck’s Valentine, the latest installment in this popular series, finds Blue delivering cards to all of his friends on the farm. But after delivering all the cards, Blue is sad as he thinks he is not going to be getting any cards in return—or is he? Children will delight in the rhyming text which bounces along as each animal receives a personalized card: an egg-shaped one for Hen, a sail-boat floating one for Duck, and so forth. With the sounds the animals make in bold and in the same colors to match the color of the cards they receive, children will absorb color concepts and animal sounds while enjoying a sweet story of friendship about giving and receiving on this holiday. • Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
What could be cuter than Bear having a crush on Panda? In Bear Meets Bear, the third book in the Bear and Spider series, that’s exactly what happens to the tea-loving bear when Panda shows up on his doorstep. This lovely delivery person bringing him his new teapot also brings him a fluttering heart.
Finding himself lost for words, Bear watches with dismay as she goes away. Spider, Bear’s BFF, watches as his pal becomes besotted with Panda, ordering teapot after teapot just to see her again. Despite Spider’s encouragement to invite Panda over for tea, at her next appearance, Bear again is speechless. When his final teapot order comes, it’s not Panda but a “gruff raccoon.” Bear cannot bear the pain. He yearns to see Panda so his little friend sets off to find her.
When at last he locates Panda, Spider is now the delivery person as he hands her an invitation. The very next day she reappears at the front door and, on Spider’s urging, Bear welcomes her inside for his favorite spot of tea. Love blossoms, but not over tea this time in a charming surprise ending. In the funny final two-page spread readers will enjoy the trio sharing togetherness while a bunch of animals check out assorted tagged teapots in a yard sale. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
WAYS TO SAY I LOVE YOU Written by Marilyn Singer Illustrated by Alette Straathof (Words & Pictures; $18.95, Ages 4-6)
Between the stunning artwork and the variety of animals featured whose varied ways of expressing their love is fascinating, Ways to Say I Love You is a beautiful book to help spread the love.
Singer’s rhyming story introduces young children to nine creatures including bower birds, cranes and dance flies to peacocks, whales and white-tailed deer. “Furry, finned, or birds of a feather, how do critters get together?” While learning about animal courtship, children will also see a comparison of how of kids, teens and adults show their interest in finding a mate whether by bringing flowers or warbling “love songs, too.”
Straathof’s art, textured and with a muted palate, likely digitally created, blends its warm water-color quality across every page. I was drawn to the appealing folk art style, too. Backmatter details how the nine animals find their mates. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Porcupine is on a mission in the charming picture book Porcupine Cupid. Determined to spread the love for Valentine’s Day, he sets off to find some forest friends for a bit of matchmaking. I just love how we see them hiding from Porcupine in the second spread. Making tracks in the forest then gently pricking his pals with his quill, poor well-intentioned Porcupine only manages to irritate them. Therein lies the humor in this story that works wonderfully with the funny illustrations to convey what the spare text purposely does not.
Once he sees that his quills haven’t had the effect he wanted, Porcupine must find a new way to spread the loving spirit. As a ruse, clever Porcupine pins a poster to a tree alerting all to a town meeting where they can air their grievances. When children realize that his ultimate goal is really to help everyone including Bear, Bunny and Raccoon unknowingly find a mate, they will be pleased as I was at the adorable end results. They may not be matches made in heaven, but the woods is close enough! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Love Is Powerful, inspired by The 2017 Women’s March, is written by art director Heather Dean Brewer, who participated in the March, along with illustrator and Caldecott Honor recipient, LeUyen Pham. It brings home the message that there are all kinds of love including love for people of every race, gender, and religion, from all walks of life.
Readers are greeted with Pham’s eye popping water-color illustrations showing women, men and children creating signs in the windows of their New York city apartments. Turning the page we see our main character, Mari, at her table with crayons. Mama is seated behind her computer, when Mari asks her what they are coloring. “Mama smiled. A message for the world.”
Pham draws people marching passed Mari’s apartment while Mari presses her nose against the window watching with curiosity. “Mari asked, How will the whole world hear?” “They’ll hear,” Mama said, “because love is powerful.”
The loving teamwork of Mama and her daughter working together to create the signs is beautifully conveyed with both Brewer’s inspiring words and Pham’s evocative drawings. Through Mari’s thoughts, we see illustrations of people from all over the world creating their own signs in various languages but the same message is felt. Signs read “Girl Power,” “We will not be silent” and the John Lewis’ quote “We may not have chosen the time. But the time has chosen us.” Ahh, so powerful and so true for today’s political climate.
The streets are packed with more people than Mari could imagine, so again she questions how their message will be heard. “Mama said, ‘They will, little Mari.’” Mari is lifted up on Mama’s shoulders and drawings of red hearts are displayed across the crowd’s heads. We know they are surrounded by like-minded people and lots of love.
Brewer writes, “Mari bobbed above the crowd like a canary fluttering over trees. She felt as tall as one of the buildings.” Holding up her handmade crayoned sign with the words “Love is Powerful,” Mari begins to shout these words then “Through the roar, her voice was heard and someone shouted the message back. Mari yelled again, and more joined in. Again she yelled the message.”
The backmatter displays a letter and photo from the real-life Mari, who explains that she was only six-years-old in 2017 and knew that people were feeling scared and angry. She felt the power as she shouted “Love is Powerful” and the crowd shouted back. This moving and uplifting story needs to be read to children everywhere. Brewer explains that she often felt quiet and small, and felt like no one could hear her. Well, her powerful message of love has been heard now, and she is correct when she says that even the smallest voice has the power to change the world. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Clickhere to read a book we reviewed last year for Valentine’s Day.
In The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.
GoodReadsWithRonna:Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Passover Guest!
Susan Kusel:Thank you so much for having me here! I am honored to be on this blog
GRWR: How does it feel as a synagogue librarian and indie bookstore book buyer to know your new book, The Passover Guest, has landed on shelves?
SK: It’s an absolutely surreal feeling to know that my book has a spot in some of my favorite libraries and bookstores. I am humbled by the idea of a child pulling it off the shelf and reading it.
GRWR:When did the seed to become a storyteller first plant itself in your soul? Can you recall the first books that sparked your imagination?
SK:I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long, it’s hard to remember the exact moment I started. I do remember the first time I ever wrote a complete book though. It was for a 5th grade English assignment and was about a Russian Jewish girl named Rachel. I remember being very proud of the special folder I put the book into.
My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child and some of my favorite books then were Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry, Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and of course, The Magician by I.L. Peretz, adapted by Uri Shulevitz.
GRWR:What inspired you to write The Passover Guest as a retelling of the classic I. L. Peretz’s story adapted by Uri Shulevitz in 1973 rather than create a new tale?
SK:As I mentioned above, The Magician was in regular reading rotation by my mother when I was younger and so it’s a story I’ve been in love with for a long time. When I rediscovered the book in a library as an adult, I still thought it was an amazing story, but I noticed some plot elements that I wished were different. That started me down the path of doing an adaptation of Peretz’s story, a process that took about ten years.
GRWR:Aside from setting the story in 1933 Depression-era D.C. are there any other notable changes you wanted to make for 21st-century young readers?
SK:The most significant change I made was adding the character of Muriel. In the Peretz version, the story is about a couple but I thought that it was very important to add a child character. There are also a number of subtle changes I added, such as Muriel putting a penny in the Magician’s hat, the rabbi coming to Muriel’s seder, the whole community filling the house, the matzah breaking itself in two, and several smaller plot points. My goal was to stay true to Peretz’s message while making the story my own.
GRWR:What were your go-to Jewish holiday books growing up and right now? Do you have a collection?
SK: Jewish stories have always been very important to me, but when I was growing up, we owned very few. Our whole book collection, which took up half a shelf in my brother’s closet, was primarily obtained from library book sales. We supplemented these with library books. I only had a few Jewish books including The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Potato Pancakes All Around by Marilyn Hirsh (which we used then, and I still use now for the latke recipe).
As for now, I am typing this while sitting in my home library surrounded by picture books, including several shelves just for Jewish books. Current favorites include Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel (no holiday list is complete without it!), I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, The Matzah Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin (sadly out of print but still extraordinary), and Here is the World by Lesléa Newman. That’s really just a small sample though because there are so many Jewish holiday books I love.
GRWR:Has your experience on the Caldecott Medal selection committee or as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee influenced your writing in any way?
SK:One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read extensively in your field. I think those committees, as well as others I’ve been on, have certainly helped me with that. When you are reading hundreds and hundreds of books in a genre, it does give you a better sense of what is currently published. Being on so many committees has helped me see what the conventions are, and how they can be broken and how I can be a better writer.
GRWR:Sean Rubin’s art is as magical as your prose and the mysterious guest himself. Do you have a particular favorite spread from the book you can tell us about?
SK:I think Sean did a truly extraordinary job on the illustrations and picking just one of them is like trying to pick a favorite child. I think his work adds so much to the book and makes it complete.
I could easily go on at length about every individual spread and how much I love it, but if I can only pick one, it would be when Muriel goes to the synagogue to consult the rabbi. Over the course of one continuous spread, Sean shows us four completely separate and distinct scenes and the cause and effect of each one of them. And all of this against the astonishingly beautiful and majestic background of the Sixth and I Synagogue, a D.C. Jewish landmark.
GRWR:Early on in The Passover GuestMuriel meets an unusual street performer to whom she gives her last penny. Can you speak to the story idea of magic and how, especially in tough times, this kind of belief can help people?
SK:I think it’s always a good time to believe in the possibility of magic, especially during difficult times. You never know who that bedraggled stranger might turn out to be. Faith and hope are so important.
GRWR:Where do you find the time to write with all your other commitments? Do you have a daily routine?
SK: I’d love to be able to say that I sit down in the same place at the same time every day and write for the same amount of time. But the truth, as you alluded to in this question, is that I have multiple jobs, commitments, and children, and I do my best to write as much as I can when I can.
GRWR:You mentioned in your author’s note that Passover has always been your favorite holiday, can you tell us why?
SK:I love so many things about Passover: the coming of spring, getting the seder plate ready, singing songs, finding the afikomen, eating too much charoset, being with family, and much more. It’s always been a magical holiday for me and I’m delighted that this book lets me share some of that magic.
GRWR:Are you working on your next book? Will it have a Jewish theme?
SK: I’m working on several next books, all with Jewish themes. I have a real commitment to telling Jewish stories.
GRWR: It’s been wonderful having you as a guest here today, Susan! I really appreciate your thoughtful replies and am looking forward to sharing a review of your book when we get closer to Passover.
Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching, and of course, reading. Learn more about Susan on her website and by following her on social media.
Happy Birthday, Trees!, written by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and illustrated by Holly Sterling, is a 12-page board book that just exudes joy and one I can easily recommend for the annual holiday of Tu B’Shevat, a Jewish Arbor Day. Tu B’Shevat or Tu BiShevat has, over the years, grown to become a celebration of nature and the environment and a time to reflect on the importance of trees since we are their only caretakers. This year, the holiday begins on the evening of January 27 and ends the following night.
In this charming rhyming board book, three diverse children go through all the steps of planting a tree with a soothing repetition that reinforces the progression of the actions. First, they dig a hole. Then they carefully place the tree in the hole and, after a few other important steps, the youngsters watch the tree as it grows and changes through the seasons.
I love how Rostoker-Gruber, in such a short story, has managed to convey not only the pleasure of the planting process but the complete cycle a tree experiences. Sterling’s cheerful illustrations full of movement and expression show readers how, in the year following the initial planting, the tree ultimately blossoms, spreading its perfume for all to enjoy. Happy Birthday, Trees! is truly a Tu B’Shevat treet!
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Clickherefor a Happy Birthday, Trees! Teaching Guide.
Click here to read a review of another Jewish holiday book.
Young readers will be easily charmed by Li’l Rabbit. Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa, now available in a paperback edition, was originally published in 2010 but its story is timeless.
Despite being frustrated during Kwanzaa for multiple reasons in addition to being told he’s too little to help, Li’l Rabbit still looks forward to his favorite part of the weeklong holiday, Karamu, the festive meal served on the sixth night.
But Granna Rabbit is sick and can’t prepare the meal. “Kwanzaa,” Li’l Rabbit recalls his granna telling him, “is a special time when we help each other.” Her words set him off on a search for a Zawadi (gift, often homemade) to cheer her up. During his quest, various forest friends ask him what he’s doing, and after he explains they all remark how they, too, wish there was something they could do to help. It seems Granna Rabbit has always made time to help out these animals and her good deeds have meant so much to them. When Li’l Rabbit returns home empty-handed and disappointed, he is surprised to see the animals he’d encountered celebrating with food, fun, and friendship. What a surprise for Li’l Rabbit to learn from his granna that her spirits have been lifted not only because of what their thoughtful neighbors have contributed but most of all because Li’l Rabbit’s dream made it happen.
Evan’s buoyant illustrations bring the Kwanzaa festivities to life with their rich colors, patterns, and energy. This picture book will resonate with any child who has ever felt left out or too small to make a difference. I appreciated the back matter including The Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa as well as a glossary of words that were used in the story.
Many kids want to pick out books they can read by themselves to improve their skills and feel successful. Parents, teachers, and librarians can’t argue with that. Why not take a look at the Spot (an imprint of Amicus) Holiday series geared to emergent readers? The photographs are beautiful and the text is purposefully simple to encourage beginners while providing an engaging way into diverse cultures and traditions.
In Mari Schuh’s Kwanzaa, as well as all the other series’ books, children can enjoy a search and find feature at the beginning (see the art below), with pictures and words.
“The text uses high-frequency words and repeating sentence structures” empowering new readers while introducing them to new vocabulary via holidays many of their classmates, friends, and neighbors celebrate. Other books in the series include Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah, Easter, and Christmas. I’m glad to have discovered this series and look forward to sharing more Amicus books in the future.
Read a review of another diverse holiday picture book here.
I’ve been a fan of Greg Paprocki’s artwork and book design since first discovering his books several years ago. His latest holiday board book for toddlers, Christmas: A Count and Find Primermay be slightly too big for a stocking stuffer, but will easily fit into welcoming hands. Youngsters will happily search each of the 10 spreads to find the correct amount of holiday items corresponding to the respective number. Illustration “4” shows four “cookies and carrots,” but there are also four of many other things such as four stars, four pictures on the wall, four purple ornaments, and four stockings. I like how colors are also worked into the art so adults reading with children can point these out as well. “The last spread contains 10 more holiday-themed objects hidden throughout the book for little ones to find next.” Paprocki’s pleasing retro-style art is another reason to pick up a copy of this entertaining book. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
If your children adore Tad Hills’s character Rocket, this Christmas they’ll fall for Mistletoe. The story begins with a sweet illustration of little Mistletoe who is enamored with all things Christmas. Readers will sense her anticipation to share her favorite holiday experiences like a walk in the snow with her elephant friend, Norwell. He, on the other hand, prefers to avoid the cold and remain cozy indoors sipping tea with his mouse friend beside a blazing fire. No matter how she tries, Mistletoe cannot coax her pal outside. A quiet walk in the snow inspires her and she hatches a creative plan that will not only get her friend outside, but will be the most wonderful gift for Christmas. Kids will excitedly turn the pages to see how much yarn Mistletoe’s surprise project entails (“… elephants are big!”) and watch with delight as she cheerfully offers the gift to Norwell. The spirit of friendship and giving shine in this new holiday book that families can enjoy for years to come. A sparkly cover and special “undies” art underneath the book jacket only add to the charm of Mistletoe. Here’s to more Mistletoe and Norwell tales in the future! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
A Christmas book for readers of all ages and stages of childhood, Lara Hawthorne’s 12 Days of Christmascelebrates the traditional song with double-page spreads of visual masterpieces.
Hawthorne’s illustrations are reminiscent of folk art, festive colors dominant in classic Christmas red and green as well as shades of calming blue. There is a lot to see but bold patterns and vertical lines help the eye manage the details from one space to another.
As young readers listen to the original lyrics, they can dive into these detailed illustrations, playing a sort of I-spy game to find the items mentioned in the song. Older readers who are familiar with the popular Christmas song will enjoy singing aloud the lyrics. While readers explore the items, birds, and people mentioned in the text, they will also be acquainted with familiar, friendly pets that faithfully appear in each spread-making this book a perfect gift for that animal/nature lover on your list.
Secondary lessons abound: counting, memory strengthening, and identifying shapes. There is even a game in the backmatter – “everything from the song hidden in” a beautiful, busy scene that children can discover. An author’s note at the end explaining the Christian origins of the 12 days of Christmas and the history of the song is an added bonus. The fun of exploring The 12 Days of Christmas will undoubtedly last 12 months of the year. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Written by Erin Guendelsberger and illustrated by Elizaveta Tretyakova,Little Red Sleigh is a heartwarming Christmas story about dreaming big despite your size and experience.
Tucked inside the corner of a quaint Christmas shop is Little Red who is longing to become “Santa’s big red sleigh.” Despite discouragement from her friends in the shop, Little Red’s determination to accomplish her goal leads her on a quest to meet Santa and “show everyone what she [is] made of.”
Along her journey to the North Pole, she befriends others who lend a helping hand. Train takes her as far north as the tracks allow; Yellow Truck, who is on his way to deliver Christmas trees to Santa, offers a ride as well.
Impressed by their skill, Little Red wonders if she’ll ever achieve the kind of experience they have. A beautiful refrain speaks to her heart. “Life builds up one car at a time,” says the Train. “Life…build[s] up one tree at a time,” says Yellow Truck. When a snowstorm changes her original plan to visit Santa, Little Red comes to understand how she is meant to build her life up: “spreading joy, one child at a time.”
Little Red Sleigh is perfect for bedtime or anytime you’d like to cozy up by the tree with a good book. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
A little boy plants a little spruce tree, taking extra care to nurture its growth. As the years pass by, we watch both him and the tree grow up. Eventually, the little spruce becomes a magnificent, towering tree and the little boy a proud grandfather.
Joosse’s lyrical language highlights the love and care poured out on this tree, while Graef’s stunning illustrations center the spruce in double-page spreads, showcasing its evergreen majesty. The beauty of the tree (now approaching its end of life) is celebrated communally when it’s taken to the city for all to appreciate. As it winds its way from rural countryside to the big city, a sense of shared excitement and anticipation builds. People gather to watch the decorations being placed, “wait[ing] and wait[ing] and wait[ing]…everybody’s singing…for the lighting…of Everybody’s Tree!” And what a glorious tree it is, shining brightly and sharing its light for all, (including the cover which glows in the dark!).
If you’re looking for a quieter picture book this season, Everybody’s Tree is that gentle holiday story about the joy of sharing and community building. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Click here for our recent roundup by Christine Van Zandt of 7 new Christmas books. Click here for Ronna’s roundup of 5 new Christmas books.
If you’re looking for a board book that’s full of feathered fun this holiday season, look no further than 24 pages of The Twelve Birdies of Christmas. Little ones will want to see the pictures again and again as a bunch of birdies recreate their own version of the beloved Christmas carol while getting up to all sorts of silliness across the pages. The 3 French hens illustration is my favorite and I also laughed at the 7 swans-a-swimming, but I’m sure your children will choose their own while singing along to Sattler’s new lyrics. If you want some context, the original version is included in the back of the book.
Calling all dino and transportation fans. The winning combination of dinosaurs and heavy-duty utility vehicles featured in Dinosaur Christmas will entertain the youngest revelers in your household. The premise is a simple one that will be satisfying to children. Santa’s stuck in the Northpole on Christmas Eve and only his dino pals have the brawn required to set his sleigh free. But the best part is the variety of transportation modes they use to get through the stormy weather to mount their rescue. There’s lots of repetition and onomatopoeia to add to the read-aloud experience of this sweetly illustrated picture book. “Team Dinosaur arriving. Arriving and starting to dig. Starting to dig out Santa’s sleigh. Scoop! Scoop! Scoop!” My son and daughter used to memorize books like this when they were little and no doubt your children will too. Kids can search the art for hidden polar bears and study both the front and back endpapers for pictures and names of all the dinosaurs and vehicles included in the story.
Ideal for blended families, but definitely delightful for anyone to read, Laktes for Santa Claus is a clever Hanukkah meets Christmas spin on leaving cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve. Even if it’s not Chrismukkah (when Christmas and Hanukkah overlap), this picture book still shows a way for Jewish children living with a non-Jewish step-sibling and/or step-parent how fun it is to share a bit of their Jewish holiday traditions during Christmastime. Emaus introduces readers to Anna, who is Jewish, as she emails Santa who she guesses must be tired of the same old cookies every year. She promises to leave him a special treat and then sets about to make that happen. Anna just has to figure out what Jewish food will work. Her step-brother Michael, intent on baking cookies, points out how most of Anna’s ideas will require a utensil which Santa will not have after coming down a chimney, hands full of presents. What can she offer that won’t make a massive mess? When she realizes that latkes can be noshed as finger-food, she’s excited to put them out along with Michael’s cookies. When the siblings discover all the food gone on Christmas morning, Michael is eager to work together with Anna to plan something unique for the next Christmas. The back matter includes recipes for both the latkes and the cookies so kids can try their hand at baking with an adult. I love how the cover features a menorah on the mantle as well as a Christmas tree welcoming readers of all faiths to dive into this fun story. There is some rhyme and onomatopoeia for reading aloud enjoyment and at 40 pages, the story flows quickly complemented by the colorful, comic-style art. Despite the title giveaway, young readers will want to see the process as Anna narrows down her choices for Santa. I enjoyed every page of this charming new picture book because it showed how there is not only room for compromise in every family, but how easily a new tradition can be created bringing everyone closer.
This story brought to mind the classic, Big Bird Brings Spring to Sesame Street. That story, about Big Bird buying a bouquet of flowers but ultimately giving them all away to his pals on his way home, is about the joy of sharing. The beauty in Nellist’sLittle Mole’s Christmas Giftis the selfless generosity of the main character which exemplifies the true spirit of the holiday. Little Mole finds the perfect, “biggest, most beautiful” mushroom to bring home for his mother’s Christmas gift but along the way encounters forest friends in need of food, a pillow, an umbrella for protection. Mole knows his mushroom can make a difference, so rather than ignoring the cries for help, he offers part of the gift to each animal. He presents what remains of the mushroom to his grateful mother. Mama Mole understands and appreciates the kind-hearted gesture her child has made and that is indeed the greatest gift a mother could ask for. Garland’s charming illustrations bring a warmth and richness of color to the winter setting and will make kids want to read her other book in the series. A free Little Mole activity pack is available for download on the website too.
Santa.com is a picture book that feels like an episode from children’s television and is certain to engage youngsters who might ordinarily prefer TV over books. Authors Hicks and Cubberly have come up with a neat storyline for a 21st century Christmas. At Santa.com gifts get handled robotically and are “delivered by peppermint drones.” Things run smoothly until the system gets hacked by a cyber Scrooge. Luckily Yo-Yo the elf knows from his Grandpa’s stories that Santa still exists and, with the help of his elf pals, might be coaxed out of retirement to solve the problem. I found the ending really the only slightly ambivalent part and leave it up to readers to come to their own conclusion about how Christmas got saved. I enjoyed the energy and movement Garcia’s art conveyed and the adorable characters he’s imagined. For tech-loving kids, this modern take on Christmas is an original read for the holidays.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Read Christine Van Zandt’s roundup of seven new Christmas books she loves by clickinghere.
Welcome to our annual Christmas books roundup. Today author, editor, and reviewer Christine Van Zandt has chosen seven of her favorite new books for you to enjoy. We hope it gets you in a festive mood.
Tomie dePaola’s death this year hit the children’s lit community hard. Reading his posthumous Hurry, Santa! is bittersweet. The clever title led me to think that, certainly, all kids want Santa to hurry to their houses, yet, the twist here is that once Santa’s suited up, he faces the same dilemma that many bundled up kids do: he forgot to go potty before suiting up.
This 14-page board book gives Santa just enough time to get dressed and undressed again. As dePaola has in more than 260 children’s books, his art delights us. This book is a lighthearted farewell to his devoted fans. Note: Book says it was previously published as Get Dressed, Santa.
Sandra Boynton’s books are best-sellers because of her fun rhyme and lively art. Her 32-page board book, Christmas Parade, is another resounding hit. Kids will enjoy hearing the animal band boom boom and rat-a-tat-tat through town. I love that “chickens with silver bassoons [are] followed by piggies with Christmas balloons.” And Santa is (of course!) a rhino.
Emma Dodd’s 24-page picture book rhyming Christmas Is Joy shares holiday enthusiasm from a reindeer family’s perspective. As with Dodd’s other books, this one is beautifully crafted using minimal words to convey emotion. Heartwarming art captures the book’s cheerful theme; metallic silver accents add fun by evoking glistening snow and ice. This book is part of Emma Dodd’s Love You Books series.
The book’s smaller size (eight x eight inches) helps little hands easily hold on. Like a perfect cup of cocoa, the story comforts you: “Christmas is happiness, / smiles of surprise, / the warmth of affection / that lights up your eyes.”
Tracey Corderoy’s rhyming picture book, Mouse’s Night Before Christmas, uses Clement Clarke Moore’s famous first stanza to launch into a different direction, telling us “it wasn’t quite so” that not a creature was stirring. Rather, little Mouse prowls about, wishing he “had a friend to give gifts to.” The story cleverly weaves in some original lines while spinning a new tale.
The art by Sarah Massini warms wide spans of white or gray with muted, lively colors. A nostalgic touch makes Mouse, Santa, and the town seem welcoming and familiar. My favorite scene is the surprise ending where the story reduces to two characters enjoying each other’s company—Mouse is irresistibly cute!
A Jim Benton Christmas book—yes! If you’re like me and your shelves have more Dear Dumb Diary and Franny K. Stein books than you can count, then Benton’s Comet the Unstoppable Reindeer is the holiday book for you. In the beat of Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” Benton’s story gives a glimpse of the mayhem at Santa’s workshop. When Comet breaks up a fight between two elves, Stinky and Stanky, he ends up with a broken leg, unable to fly. In the confusion, Santa forgets the toys, so Comet must figure something out.
The rhyming text flows easily when read aloud and Benton’s art keeps you laughing as cast-wearing Comet tries saving the night—if only Santa would answer his phone! Luckily, Comet’s a trouper when faced with the humungous bag: “He tried with a lever. / He tried with a hoist. / He tried till his forehead/ was reddened and moist.” Go, Comet, go!
When it comes to Christmas, I always think of opossums—what, no I don’t! But, why not? “Milo’s family never missed the big Christmas parade. His passel came for the popcorn, sticky nuts, and bits of peppermint sticks. / Milo came for the view.” He’s fascinated with the parade and how people work on building it year-round. Readers will hope Milo’s dream of being in the parade comes true.
Milo’s Christmas Parade boasts adorable art, from the opossum wearing an ornament on his tail to his close-knit family helping out in the shop. Extra points for the book having a different (secret) image under its jacket.
If you enjoyed Emily Gravett’s Meerkat Mail, then check out Meerkat Christmas. When Sunny, a meerkat who lives in the Kalahari reads about what it takes to achieve the Perfect Christmas, he leaves the desert in search of the supposed elements to achieve holiday excellence.
While on his travels, he corresponds with his family back home. The seven festive lift-the-flaps (designed to look like Perfect Magazine and Sunny’s cards) feel realistic and are a fun way to tell pieces of the story.
Gravett’s vibrant art captures the humor as Sunny encounters obstacles around the world. My favorite holiday treats are the Kalahari candy canes. The recipe calls for 25 assorted snakes, red paint, white paint, and paintbrushes! “Bend each snake into a candy cane shape and hang on tree or cactus.” This book stands out for its interactive design and clever, hilarious art. Peek under the jacket for surprise alternate back and front cover images.
In the colorful picture book, Happy Llamakkah!, adorable llamas young and old gather together for the eight-day Jewish celebration. Each night a new candle is lit by the shamash (helper candle) as dreidels spin, latkes are fried and ribbons are tied. The story is told with few words and many sweet faces of the llama family who end each of the eight nights saying Happy Llamakkah! Children familiar with Hanukkah will enjoy seeing the candle lighting as it reminds them of their own special Hanukkah traditions with every page turn. And the words “Happy Llamakkah” replacing the traditional Happy Hanukkah wish just adds laughter and fun for young readers. I personally laughed each time I read those words. This rhyming picture book closes with an Author’s Note which explains in simple terms why Jewish people celebrate the miracle that happened long ago. Happy Llamakkah! beautifully tells the story of the menorah in the window; and I liked how the reader learns that it was only recently that Jewish families incorporated gifts as part of their Hanukkah festivities. Happy Hanukkah! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
In The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, Max and Rachel’s family move to a new apartment right before Hanukkah begins. So it’s frustrating when they can’t find the box that was packed with all the items they need for Hanukkah: the menorah, candles, Dad’s lucky latke pan, dreidels, gelt, and jelly donut recipe. So how can they celebrate Hanukkah? With help from their new neighbors and a bit of innovative, creative thinking, they try each night to celebrate, although as the refrain says, “It was nice . . . but it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah.” But when Mom’s guitar is delivered the morning after the eighth night, the kids come up with a way to still celebrate the holiday and give back to all their new neighbors who helped them. . . and when the missing Hanukkah box turns up, it finally feels like Hanukkah. Charming cartoon illustrations add to the warmth of this holiday book about a diverse and multi-ethnic community coming together in friendship. • Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
I had a smile on my face throughout my first reading of this clever new take on Hanukkah and again the second time to write this review. Kimmelman’s wordplay in The Eight Knights of Hanukkah makes for a fun Round Table themed romp that delivers in the form of eight knights named Sir Alex, Sir Gabriel, Sir Henry, Sir Julian, Sir Rugelach (♥), and three females, Sir Isabella, Sir Lily, and Sir Margaret. There’s also Lady Sadie whose request to the knights prompts the adventure and premise of this story. “A dastardly dragon named Dreadful is roaming the countryside,” and its antics are disrupting preparations for the Hanukkah party she’s been planning. Their mission is to “fix things with some deeds of awesome kindness and stupendous bravery.”
And so they set out to achieve this goal. While Sir Isabella and Sir Rugelach journey to find Dreadful, the other six knights assist the citizens in whatever way they can. Knightly language adds to the enjoyment, “Hark!” exclaimed Sir Gabriel. “Methinks I hear a damsel in distress.” Whether peeling potatoes to help said damsel or making sufganiyot (donuts) at the bakery where a sign reads “Helpeth Wanted,” there’s no task too arduous for the team to tackle. But what about Dreadful? Alas, the disappointed dynamic duo of Sir Isabella and Sir Rugelach fear they’ve exhausted all hopes of reining in that dragon until a smoky surprise greets their eyes. With their mitzvahs completed, the noble knights can begin their Hanukkah merrymaking with Lady Sadie and all the guests knowing their actions have spread kindness through the realm. In addition to Bernstein’s expressive characters, humorous details, and great use of white space, don’t miss her endpapers map to get a lay of the land. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
First published in 2014, this paper-over-board reissue features a newly formated cover ideal for younger readers. Somehow I missed the original version and was happy to find that Kimmel’s Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Talehad me turning the pages in anticipation as it also warmed my heart.
When Simon sets sail to America from the old country just before Hanukkah, he departs with inspiring words (and a knapsack full of latkes, a menorah, candles, matches, brown bread, hard-boiled eggs, and herring) from his mother. “Wherever you are, Simon, don’t forget to celebrate Hanukkah and its miracles. Who knows? You may need a miracle on your long journey.” This foreshadowing lets readers know something will happen, but I never expected a Titanic-like episode where Simon’s boat sinks. Mensch that he is, he offers the last spot in a lifeboat to an older man and manages to find safety on an iceberg.
All alone but ever the optimist, Simon lights the candles as Hanukkah begins. As he plays dreidel, he also prays for a miracle. He is surprised and slightly scared when a polar bear appears. Simon offers it food in exchange for warmth and company. The passing days see the bear share his fish with Simon until the menorah’s flickering lights attract a rescue boat on the final night of Hanukkah. Arriving safely in New York, Simon meets the man he gave his lifeboat spot to. Now the Mayor of New York, this grateful man is intent on repaying Simon’s good deed making the final miracle happen, bringing Simon’s family to America. Kimmel’s crafted a fantastical and truly satisfying story through and through. In the character of Simon, he’s brought us a selfless main character readers will root for. Trueman’s jewel-toned colors and shtetl clothing design help ground the story in the early 1900s. The play with light always brings our eyes to focus on Simon over multiple iceberg scenes. Together the story and illustrations (I love the newspaper clippings about Simon’s survival) will make any reader a Hanukkah miracle believer. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
The magic of Levine’s, The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol, begins with its glowing golden accented cover and is woven throughout this picture book embuing it with a feeling that it’s always been a Jewish folktale parents share every holiday. But it’s not! It’s a new story about a big-hearted Jewish spirit “whose magic can make things last exactly as long as they’re needed.” The tale was inspired by the author’s observations and emotions he experienced growing up as a Jew whose holiday and beautiful traditions were overlooked, overshadowed, and ultimately influenced by Christmas. Read the illuminating Author’s Note for more on this. Nate’s name is also significant in that it corresponds to the dreidel letters Nun and Gimmel, two of the four initials representing the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” meaning, “A great miracle happened there.“
I was willingly transported to an unnamed American city in the late 19th century where immigrants of all nationalities lived and worked. Nate soon finds himself drawn to the plight of the Glaser family, newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Europe who are penniless as Hanukkah approaches. Additionally, their neighbors’ baby girl is sick and the O’Malley family cannot afford the medicine needed. Whatever the Glasers had they shared with their close neighbors but when there was nothing, Nate knew “he couldn’t stretch what wasn’t there.” How could either family even begin to think about celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas under those circumstances? The have-nots need a miracle. During a serendipitous meeting Christmas Eve on a city rooftop with Santa Claus, Nate is told, “The sleigh magic is nearly empty. Are there a lot of people having trouble believing this year?” The winter of 1881 is a tough one indeed meaning one thing; Nate to the rescue! He helps out the “red-suited man” who returns the favor in kind. Nate’s magic delivers Christmas presents under the O’Malley tree and, much to the surprise and delight of the Glaser children, not just beloved Hanukkah chocolate which was all they usually hoped for, but a pile of presents as well.
Hawkes’s muted color palette enhances the illustrations of this bygone era. His larger than life depiction of Nate Gadol, with a tinge of gold in his hair and a sparkle in his eye convey a positive mood despite the harsh circumstances the two families face. The pairing of Hawkes’s atmospheric art with Levine’s thoughtful prose makes a new story like The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol already feel like it’s been a treasured read in our home for years. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
I appreciate animal facts such as Rabbit purring his thanks and Squirrel using her tail for protection from the weather. As the creatures express what makes them thankful, the story loops back to Bear orchestrating a friendly feast.
Kids will want to repeat the soothing animal sounds such as Raccoon’s “chir-chirrrrr.” And we all could use more comfort as we face a socially distanced holiday season. This story embraces the simplicity of gratitude. The art’s soft lines and warm colors welcome readers to join this gentle celebration, where animals from all walks of life enjoy each other’s company while sharing a lovingly prepared meal.
This year there were so many fun new Halloween and Halloween season books to choose from, especially for the littlest trick-or-treaters, that we decided to share one more roundup to cover them all. If your new faves weren’t included, please let us know in the comments what other books you’d recommend.
This die-cut novelty book is so cute! Shaped like a black cat (it even stands up!), you undo a notch at the collar to reach the rhyming story within. “Black Cat sets out on Halloween / in the dark, without being seen.” Robie Rogge’s 12-page board book, One Black Cat, follows a kitty and trick-or-treaters as they enjoy Halloween. The adorable illustrations by August Ro are in fall-toned colors. I especially like the way Black Cat’s friend (at the end) is drawn.
In a Spooky Haunted House by Joel Stern is a beautifully made 14-page pop-up board book. We’re welcomed in for a funny tour through the rooms. “Now here’s a hallway where young witches learn to fly a broom. / This one’s flown right through a hole and found a secret tomb.” Just about every kind of (not-very-spooky) ghoul is depicted. My favorite scene reveals ghosts making pancakes; detail shows the other items in the kitchen, including a silly vampire bat. The well-constructed rhymes and fun art by Christopher Lee make this book a winning Halloween adventure.
Unicorns Are the Worst!by Alex Willan is the Halloween book for kids who aren’t that into Halloween. This funny story features a goblin who, of course, thinks unicorns are the worst—a clever twist on the ever-popular unicorn tales. Willan’s art contrasts the goblin’s world with that of the unicorns, building the pace. The variety in the illustrations really works. For example, a sepia-toned scene spotlights super-secret goblin magic, and panels throughout give sections of the book a graphic feel. There are also LOL images, such as where the goblin’s trying to wash that all that annoying unicorn glitter out of his smock.
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