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Haul out the Hanukkah Books: It's That Time of Year!

December 2005

Book Reviews:

Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! By Esme Raji Codell, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Hyperion Books for Children; 2005; ISBN 0-78685179-1; $16.99

The Winter Witch, by Clay Bonnyman Evans, illustrated by Robert Bender. Holiday House 2005; ISBN 0-82341615-1; $16.95

Who needs another book about Hanukkah? When your shelves are already groaning from the stack of holiday books, there has to be a good reason to buy another. Esme Raji Codell, the talented young author of a bestselling book about her first year in the Chicago Public Schools and several charming children's books, gives us a persuasive reason to select her latest offering.

Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! begins with the adage: “Good things happen from a little remembering” and it turns out to be true. Gloriously illustrated by LeUyen Pham in rich old-world colors, Codell retells the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol in a way that's altogether fresh. You might wonder why Jewish families would have an interest in a Jewish version of the classic Christmas tale, but after you've read Codell's Authors Note, the answer becomes clear.

Codell says “What I always liked about Dicken's work was that his stories were often about people finding a home, a place where they belonged, a stature in a social system that was not always welcoming. [T]hese same themes reverberated in the lives of Jewish people during the… turn of the twentieth century.” Her point is well taken, but there's an even better reason to enjoy Codell's book. Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! is a terrific read-aloud that the whole family can enjoy.

With its mixture of English and Yiddish, humorous characterizations and evocative descriptions (“The moon hung thin and emaciated, yellow like a fingernail cutting.”), you can just imagine settling down one Hanukkah evening and reading Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! aloud to the family. All of the characters, from Old Scroogemacher to Gerstein, are Jewish, entirely transforming the old Christmas classic. For an interfaith family, it provides a bridge between a familiar Christmas favorite and the Hanukkah story, with a mouthful of Yiddish phrases to top it off. (Codell helpfully includes a glossary of Yiddish at the end, to help all of us understand the meaning of the words.) I recommend this one for the whole family as a read-aloud, especially if you have children ages three to ten.

As a Hanukkah choice, The Winter Witch is less successful. It's a seemingly realistic story about Stephen, a boy who dreads Christmas not only because his parents are now divorced, but also because he and his sister and father now live with his Jewish stepmother and stepbrother in a new house in the woods. The Winter Witch crams so many different ideas into one story that it's difficult to figure out where the author is headed. Is this a story about celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas? About adjusting to a new stepparent and getting along with a new stepbrother? About an elderly neighbor, Mattie, who appears to be a witch? Or about how there really isn't much difference between Christmas and Hanukkah because, according to the author, both are holidays about light at a dark time of the year?

Most likely, you won't choose The Winter Witch as a Hanukkah tale; there just isn't really enough about Hanukkah in it to justify the selection. But for an interfaith family that wants to stress the similarities rather than the differences between the two holidays, the winter darkness explanation may be comfortable.

“You see,” Mattie said, “it's a dark cold time for all God's creatures. And no matter what you call it--Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, or just plain winter--it's a time to comfort others and shed light on darkness, whether from lights on a tree, menorah candles, or a glowing Yule log. For wild creatures, there's just starlight. But, Stephen, it's all one light.”

The Winter Witch is best suited for children ages four to seven.

As we head towards the darkest time of the year and the warmth of Hanukkah lights, you'll find much to celebrate in Codell's Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! and an interesting perspective to add to your holiday books in Evans' The Winter Witch.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.
Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.

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