Just in Time for Hanukkah: Picture Books for the Kinderlach
After long months of navigating Covid-19, many parents and grandparents are wondering, “Are the kids all right?” As we cope with ongoing precautions and stress, how are children handling the new normal? It’s reassuring to know that a powerful source of comfort—even in a pandemic—is a good story. And there is nothing like the joy of great picture books. Their colorful pages encourage children to share emotions and experiences. Their simple narratives explain complex issues, calm fears, offer guidance and, of course, bring magical worlds to life. Especially as we look to Hanukkah, it’s hard to worry too much with an alligator chef frying up latkes, a klezmer band grooving across the page and a beloved auntie filling borekas with “potatoes and cheese and hope.”
Among the newly published titles this year for children aged 8 and younger are some outstanding stories about Jewish music and traditions, culture and history—including a picture book on Henrietta Szold—that remind us to focus on courage and kindness during tough times.
Soosie, The Horse That Saved Shabbat
By Tami Lehman-Wilzig
Illustrated by Menahem Halberstadt (Kalaniot Books)
Inspired by the history of Israel’s famed Angel Bakery, this heartwarming story will make readers long for freshly baked challah. In a multicultural Jerusalem of the early 20th century, two elderly bakers braid dough before dawn every Friday. Their delivery boy travels the cobblestoned streets selling the bread, and their devoted horse, Soosie, pulls the cart. One week, when the Friday morning routine is disrupted, it is up to Soosie to make sure the families of Jerusalem get their Shabbat loaves on time. With the lyrical repetition of Lehman-Wilzig’s text and Halberstadt’s vivid, expressive artwork, this simple tale carries deeper messages about honoring everyday heroes, caring for the community and the Jewish value of kindness to animals.
Written and illustrated by Kyra Teis (Kar-Ben)
More abstract rhapsody than narrative, Klezmer! follows a child visiting her grandparents’ apartment on New York City’s Lower East Side. There, she finds an eclectic group of musicians, and the visit soon becomes a klezmer jam session with the child joining in on clarinet. Along the way, we learn about the evolution of klezmer from its immigrant roots to its modern revival. The rhythmic text is loosely poetic, but it contains some delightful rhymes, including: “Klezmer’s oldish, and newish, like jazz, but it’s Jewish.” Teis’s collage illustrations bring the music alive on the pages, blending vibrant paintings with historical photography. The result is a celebration of klezmer as inclusive and multicultural, connected with food and family and inspiring a new era of musicians.
By Tracy Brown
Illustrated by Paula Wegman (Kalaniot Books)
In Brown’s debut picture book, a dedicated young dancer must skip her ballet recital for her cousin’s wedding. “It’s so unfair!” according to the feisty Sarah, who ends up finding unexpected beauty and grace at the Jewish ceremony. While not quite ballet, the cantor’s song and the circles of the bride are as elegant as a dance. And then, of course, there is the hora. Drawn into the infectious rhythm of “Hava Nagila,” Sarah finds herself part of a dance performance after all, connecting with tradition and making it her own. Brown’s portrayal of Sarah will ring true for many young children, and Wegman’s joyful illustrations express the movements of the hora with lively energy. Wegman also depicts a diverse wedding with guests of different ages, ethnicities and physical abilities.
Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey
By Ruth Behar
Illustrated by Devon Holzwarth (Knopf)
Languages, cultures and generations meet in this poignant story about a Sephardi family from Cuba. Long ago, Tía Fortuna left her home in Havana with only a suitcase and a mezuzah. Now, she is saying goodbye again, this time to her house by the sea in Miami and taking the same treasured items to an assisted living community. Her young niece Estrella spends the day with her, playing on the beach, eating borekas and learning about the history of a people “who found hope wherever they went.” As Tía Fortuna welcomes a new chapter in her life, Estrella understands that home can be anywhere as long as it includes family, tradition and joy. Behar’s lyrical text is rich with Spanish phrases and Sephardi expressions that draw the reader into Estrella’s world. Holzwarth’s illustrations are beautifully immersive with warm tropical colors that give shape to the swirling memories.
By Jenna Waldman
Illustrated by Ben Whitehouse (Apples & Honey Press)
This funny story will inspire some tinkering with the family latke recipe. Alligator chef Big Larry serves up fried perfection at his latke truck every year. But for his 10th annual Hanukkah party, he decides to shake up Grandma Golda Gator’s tried-and-true recipe. Scouring the farmer’s market, he finds exciting new ingredients and whips up distinct culinary mixtures—all of which turn into a soggy mess. Luckily, he discovers the secret to gourmet latke success and, with the help of his animal friends, pulls off a delicious Hanukkah miracle. Waldman’s clever rhymes will have kids giggling as they convey a gentle message about reimagining cherished traditions while preserving their strengths. Whitehouse’s adorable neighborhood of animals—from moose to mice—complement the playful text. At the end, Big Larry’s unique recipe is revealed for young cooks to try at home.
A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah
By Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books)
The first picture book biography of Hadassah’s founder, A Queen to the Rescue presents Henrietta Szold’s extraordinary life of service. Beginning with her early years in Baltimore after the Civil War, we learn about Szold’s efforts to help educate immigrants, her work as the first editor of the Jewish Publication Society and her founding of Hadassah as a women’s Zionist organization. Inspired by the courage of Queen Esther, Szold defied the limited roles for women of her time. The book shows how she moved to Palestine to fight poverty and disease, and later in her life, rescued thousands of Jewish children during World War II. Her legacy of hope and compassion continue in Hadassah’s work today.
Churnin’s well-researched text is aimed at older children and features frank discussions of anti-immigrant attitudes and the violence of the Holocaust. Nayberg’s distinctive artwork hauntingly expresses the enormity of Szold’s mission and her determination to help all people in need.
Hanukkah at Valley Forge
By Stephen Krensky
Illustrated by Greg Harlin (Apples & Honey Press)
Prolific children’s author Stephen Krensky is out with a brand-new edition of Hanukkah at Valley Forge, which depicts a fictional encounter between George Washington and a Jewish soldier during the American Revolution. Fifteen years after its original publication, Krensky’s story still feels distinctly relevant. On a December night, General Washington walks through the freezing camp of his Continental Army and notices a soldier lighting a Hanukkah candle. He questions the young Polish immigrant and learns the story of the Maccabees’ struggle for freedom against the Greeks, drawing connections with the Americans’ fight against another powerful oppressor. The conversation leaves Washington with a renewed sense of faith in the cause of independence. Krensky’s text feels steeped in history, and Harlin’s beautiful watercolor paintings bring the scenes to life with warm colors and vivid detail. An author’s note discusses the factual basis for the story. This interesting perspective on the Hanukkah story is best for older children.
Looking for more inspiration? Several other picture books about remarkable Jewish women have been published this year, including Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe (Albert Whitman), about the woman who confronted the famed author over antisemitism in his books, and Hannah G. Solomon Dared to Make a Difference by Bonnie Lindauer, illustrated by Sofia Moore (KarBen), about the social reformer and founder of the National Council of Jewish Women. Another notable title is the highly anticipated Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long (Viking), which includes Jewish representation in its uplifting call for children to “be the change they want to see.”
Sarah Yahr Tucker is a freelance writer and journalist based in Los Angeles.