Growing up as a Jewish child in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, I never felt that my religious or cultural traditions were overshadowed by the festivities of Christmas. I never felt different because of my religion. In fact, I don’t think I even realized the extent to which Judaism was a minority religion until I left my sheltered community for college in New Hampshire. My lack of awareness changed quickly during the first week of school, when I overheard my two roommates engaged in a serious discussion in which they were genuinely questioning the eternal fate of their first-ever Jewish friend. That conversation was quite an eye-opener for me! Now, as a parent in Orange County, my kids are certainly not growing up believing as I did that half the world is Jewish. Quite the opposite, they are in a public elementary school that has maybe 1-3 Jewish kids per grade, and each year I have taken on the charge to ensure that Jewish traditions and good literature have at least a small role in classroom holiday celebrations (without which there might be a Hanukkah craft during a multi-cultural holiday party but possibly nothing more). In this spirit, I have come up with my list of favorite Hanukkah-themed picture books that are appropriate to share with elementary school classrooms.
Thursday night as I was eating an amazing and indulgent Hanukkah-Thanksgiving feast, I realized half way through my meal that I had been dipping the latkes in the cranberry sauce rather than in the apple sauce. This merging of traditional foods made me think how seamlessly the two holidays actually go together, both being celebrations of two quests for religious freedom. The Thanksgiving spin on Hanukkah is especially meaningful because it reminds us to be grateful for all that we have (including religious freedom). Since it is the mission of this blog to raise lifelong readers through great literature, it feels appropriate to share here how grateful I am for the great Jewish (and in particular, Hanukkah) literature that has been published in the last twenty years. There are quite a few picture books with important themes that can stimulate great discussions for children of all backgrounds — discussions about religious freedom, bravery, perseverance despite hardship, tolerance, and acceptance of people of diverse backgrounds.
I wanted to write and post this a couple of weeks ago, along with some suggestions for building comprehension and thinking that I like to couple with my book recommendations. The craziness of life and prepping for the holidays got in the way, and I haven’t had three minutes to breathe, let alone to write a thoughtful post. Now, though later than I had hoped, I want to get up my list so that teachers (and parents) can hopefully still use it if they want to find some good Hanukkah stories to share.
1. Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story (by Marci Stillerman).
Oma shares with her grandchildren a moving story about an incident in a Nazi concentration camp in which she had to be brave and creative in order figure out how to craft a menorah so that she could observe Hanukkah. This book reminds readers to be thankful for what they have, thus reinforcing this year’s “Thanksgivukkah” message. It also communicates messages of creative thinking to solve problems, the importance of observing holiday traditions even in hardship, and self-sacrifice.
2. Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah (by Tilda Balsley).
With rhyming text, this book relates the Hanukkah story in a fun and engaging manner. It is an informative, non-religious read-aloud of the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom and the importance of fighting for your beliefs.
3. Emmanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue (by Heidi Smith Hyde).
Upset that his father is afraid to light the menorah lights, Emanuel sneaks away on a whaling ship, leaving his father this note: “I need to know what it’s like to be free. I hope someday you can be free, too.” This is a great little piece of historical fiction that tells the story of 18th century Jewish immigrants from Portugal who were afraid to reveal their Jewish identity. It is well-written with great pictures, and it lends to rich discussion about the right of religious freedom
4. Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat: A Chanukah Story (by Naomi Howland). A spin-off of Tomie DePaola’s Strega Nona with latkes rather than pasta, this is a fun and lighthearted read aloud that is great for a class holiday party. (And it’s especially fun when coupled with latkes to taste!) It is a good goal-based narrative so it works for building strategic thinking with narrative text, including eliciting predictions, inferring author messages, and identifying key elements of stories (e.g., setting, problem, resolution). As big fans of dePaola and lovers of latkes, this book has been a Hanukkah treat in our family for years.
5. One Candle (by Eve Bunting).
Grandma shares with her grandkids a personal story of perseverance and courage during the Holocaust. This story lends to great discussion following about observing rituals, persisting in the face of difficulty, and the importance of reflecting on the past to keep it from happening again. This book is a good introduction to the Hanukkah story as well as to the Holocaust.
6. Moishe’s Miracle (by Laura Krauss).
Generous Moishe is given a magical frying pan that will produce as many latkes as he wishes, yet when his selfish wife does not heed the warning that only Moishe may use it, havoc ensues. This story of kindness, caring, and selfishness reads like a classic folk tale with beautiful illustrations. Its rich and varied word choice is sure to add to the vocabulary of elementary-aged students. It is also a great book to pair with Latkes, Latkes Good to Eat to inspire text-to-text connections between books with similar problems and themes.
7. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (by Eric Kimmel).
This is a creative adaptation of the ancient Hanukkah story in which the Greeks forbade the Jewish people to practice their religious beliefs. In this tale, a group of goblins prevents a town from celebrating Hanukkah, until brave Hershel outsmarts them and rescues the town. With a fun and compelling plot that invites many predictions, this is a great read-aloud for classrooms regardless of religious background. It also explains some of the Hanukkah traditions along the way.
8. The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story (Lemony Snicket). In this literary relative of the Gingerbread Man, a latke leaps out of the oven screaming and tries to explain itself (in vain) to many Christmas icons (a pine tree, flashing colored lights, cane-shaped candy). This is a super fun and funny read-aloud choice for listeners of all traditions that addresses some misconceptions about Hanukkah as well as the importance of understanding and accepting different cultures, religions, and identities. As a misunderstood and fed-up potato pancake, I can’t help but think of the latke as a frustrated and feeling-left-out Jewish child in the midst of America’s Christmas-centric consumer culture.
9. The Trees of the Dancing Goats (by Patricia Polacco).
This is a fantastic story for the holiday season for all families and classrooms with elementary-aged children. While Trisha’s family is preparing for Hanukkah, she visits her neighbors whom she expects will be busy with their Christmas preparations. Instead, she finds that they are all sick with Scarlet fever and have not been able to get Christmas trees or enjoy their holiday festivities. I love this story for the holidays, especially for classrooms, because its core messages are that (a) everyone’s holiday traditions are important even when they are different and (b) people with different religious and traditions can share the same compassion and generosity during the holiday season. Patricia Polacco is a favorite author in our household and this story will not disappoint!
10. The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate (By Janice Cohn). Based on real events that occurred in Billings Montana, this story begins when a rock is thrown through a boy’s bedroom window in which a menorah is displayed. In response, the community unites to fight against anti-Semitic attacks. This is a terrific read aloud for elementary and middle school aged children regardless of racial and religious backgrounds. Teachers and parents must be ready to tackle some difficult discussion topics including prejudice, hate crimes, the right for religious expression, tolerance, and the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs. Huge kudos to author Janice Kohn for tackling such a difficult topic so well! For further learning, spend some time with your child(ren) searching the internet for articles that address the real events that occurred in Billings twenty years ago. PBS created a series called “Not In Our Town”, which highlights communities working together to stop hate (starting with their first short film about the incident in Billings).
Happy Hanukkah/holiday reading!!!