DIJ – Do It Jewish, written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by Daria Grinevich, makes a unique gift to give tweens who are eager to flex their creativity muscles. It even had me thinking about looking for my Nana’s rugelach recipe to play around with and update.
From filmmaking, songwriting, art, cooking, graphic novels to cartooning, midrash, and Judaica, there’s something here to suit everyone’s creative tastes. This clever nonfiction book jumps right into the first of its seven chapters. While the cooking chapter spoke to me the most, the songwriting chapter might resonate with your child or perhaps the one on painting and art.
Bietz approaches each chapter by first presenting motivational insights from an expert in the respective topic whether filmmaking, catering and cookbook writing, cartooning, or creating Judaica. These pros tell readers how they became involved in their area of expertise which is always interesting. Then they offer suggestions on how to get started, what tools/equipment tweens will need, and what to do next. I can picture kids taking the book along with them as a reference guide when first getting their feet wet in a particular area covered in the book. e
Bietz then goes on to share the individual experiences of someone pursuing a creative field that resonates with them, as a hobby or career. Everything is broken down into manageable steps as seen in the text and illustrations above and below.
I especially liked how certain words are presented in a different font and color so readers can refer to these words in the glossary provided at the end of each chapter.
Every chapter is neatly tied into Judaism so just before Passover is a great time for kids to read this book. I remember recording my family at one seder for a Jewish holidays project I had in my university media class. My professor taught me how to edit the recording so I could add layers of my dialogue on top of my family reading from the Haggadah, sharing jokes, and commenting on the food served. My whole family was on board which added to the festive atmosphere that evening. This book reminds me of that course in that it’s like having a teacher, professor, or mentor at your child’s side as they dive into an area of the arts that they feel passionate about.
Bietz and the professionals she’s interviewed all explain how easy it is to gain experience by seeking help from those closest to us—family and friends fieldwork so to speak. Grinevich’s spot art, as well as occasional photos, nicely break up the text and add colorful appeal. I hope your kids will take advantage of the upcoming holiday to explore some of the topics in DIJ-Do it Jewish by joining you in the kitchen, the synagogue, or out in your community as they gain a better understanding of what Jewish creativity is all about.
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.
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.
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
Indestructibles: Hanukkah Baby is a welcome addition to this multimillion-copy series. If you’re not familiar with Indestructibles and have a little one at home or need to give a baby gift, look no further. The books, made from Tyvek, are “chew-proof, drool-proof, nontoxic” and hold up to “gumming, spilling, dragging across the floor, and even a cycle in the dishwasher.” Plus they feel good in your hands, are bendable, lightweight and extremely portable. Need I say more?
In under 40 words and at 12 pages long, the beautiful message of Hanukkah is conveyed in simple shapes and language ideal for the youngest celebrants. The spare text invites conversation about what is happening on every page. On a snowy day, grandparents drive to join their children and grandchildren for the Jewish Festival of Lights.
All the illustrations, featuring a vibrant blue background, depict beloved Hanukkah activities such as decorating cookies, lighting the menorah, spinning the dreidel, singing songs, exchanging presents and of course, enjoying family time together. In addition to the traditional latkes and donuts, an adorable orange kitty can be found in every spread. Spread the holiday cheer with this charming and indestructible introduction to Hanukkah that can withstand all the grabbing, tearing and dribbling your children can muster.
In this adorable story, seven different farm animals show up on seven consequent nights knocking, tapping, rapping, swishing, thumping, rat tat tatting and scratching on Bubbe’s front door. Each one leaves a different present such as oil, onions, and eggs. Bubbe’s porch is a busy place during Hanukkah! Young readers get a glimpse of assorted hooves, paws and even a tail in the artwork as well as an accompanying animal sound printed in larger font such as neigh, bwak, or woof to clue them into the gift giver’s identity. Having children guess what all those ingredients are for and who is dropping them off only adds to the enjoyment of this engaging holiday book.
Klein-Higger and Sharf have given a fun Festival of Lights spin to the popular “Twelve Days of Christmas” song: On the first night of Hanukkah, what did Barnyard Bubbe see? One sack of meal. “Oh, my. Who has left this for me?” After seven nights of anonymous donations, Bubbe knows just what to do on the eighth night—make latkes for the bevy of adorable barnyard animals!
MEET THE AUTHORS
Meet Joni and Barbara on Sunday, December 8 at 10:30a.m. at Pasadena’s Southern California Children’s Museum. This co-hosted PJ Library event is part of the Jewish Book Festival. Klein-Higger and Sharf deliver a “special Hanukkah treat” as they “bring their story to life and perform original songs sure to please the 5 and under set.” Cost is $5 per child at the door.