Purim Books

I know it doesn’t feel like Purim is around the corner, but as I’m frequently late on these things, and I’m sending in book recommendations to the awesome www.ChallahCrumbs.com, I’m getting these picks in early.

There are some surprisingly excellent choices for stories that take place during Purim, and even some lovely retellings of the Purim story (which let’s be honest, isn’t really so appropriate for children when you think about it). Here are some of my favorites:

Cakes and Miracles is one of my favorite of the new crop of Purim books this year. It’s technically not new, but has been rereleased after a long stretch of being out of print, and with brand-new fantastic illustrations from Jaime Zollars. Goldin weaves the sweet, touching story of Hershel, a young boy living with him mother in a shtetl in the old country. But what makes this story different than the usual shtelt fare, is that Hershel is blind. His mother is poor and is trying to make hamentashen for Purim to sell in the market. Hershel wants to help but his mother refuses — she needs the dough to make as many hamentaschen as possible and how could Hershel help when he can’t see? And while it’s true that Hershel doesn’t wind up using the dough to make hamentaschen, what he ends up creating is a magical and beautiful Purim surprise. Great for children 5-9 years old.

Another wonderful new rerelease is Purim Play by Roni Schotter (with the fantastic “old” illustrations of Marylin Hafner). Purim Play is the story of Frannie and the Purim play that she is trying to create with her brother and cousins. When her cousins fall in and can’t come, Frannie all but gives up on the play. Until, reluctantly, she accepts the help of her neighbor Mrs. Teplitzky, who proves to be a formidable Haman and a wonderful teacher. In addition to be a being a great story, I love that this is Judaism celebrated in the home, and most of all that it comes with a great script for creating a Purim Play. Great for children 7-11 years old.

Raisel’s Riddle by Erica Silverman is not new, but it can’t be missed when you are looking for great Purim stories. A Jewish retelling of the Cinderella story, this story highlights Raisel’s kindness and intelligence over the good looks that typically win Cinderalla favor. A perfect Purim fairytale.


This year also marks the release of two new retellings of the Purim story. Eric Kimmel’s The Story of Esther: A Purim Tale is a faithful and attractive retelling of the Purim story. It’s not the preschool version of the story (where Haman just wants the Jews to leave) but it’s a great version for children 6 and up. Tilda Balsley’s The Queen Who Saved Her People also sticks pretty close to the “real story” but because it’s presented as a reader’s theatre play (much like her Exodus story, Let My People Go), it reads slightly more comically and irreverently. Also good for children 6 and up and lovely for creating theater at home, at school or anywhere.

There are unfortunately some lovely creative retellings of the Purim story that are still out of print. Three of my favorites include:

Mordicai Gerstein’s Queen Esther the Morning Star, complete with Gerstein’s incredible artwork and the addition of some interesting midrashim (rabbinic exegetical stories) to fill out the supernatural elements of the story.

Rita Golden Gelman’s Queen Esther Saves Her People is also a lovely retelling, with fairytale aspects that is sure to resonate for children who like those types of books (are there children who don’t?).

Finally, for children better suited for longer and denser picture books, Esther’s Story by Diane Wolkstein is incredible. This time the story is told entirely through the eyes of young Esther, a winner for kids who want to delve deeper.

Happy reading!

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The Baby Goes Beep

My five year old is one of the luckiest kids in the world I think. Every night since he was a tiny infant, he’s had stories before bed and then either Josh or I recite his two favorite stories: The Baby Goes Beep by Rebecca O’Connell and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Every night. Since he was a baby. He’s 5 and a half now. That’s a lot of “the baby goes beep; the baby goes beep beep; the baby goes beep beep beep beep/ The baby goes boom; the baby goes boom boom” etc. etc. I think you can probably do Goodnight Moon from memory too, so no need for me to write it out.

The Baby Goes BeepI was really sad when The Baby Goes Beep went out of print — it was the perfect baby present and it felt a little awkward to buy new moms a used copy. Luckily, Albert Whitman just brought it back into print as a board book (perfect!). Truly, it’s one of the best baby books and clearly a favorite in our house. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What are your favorite baby books?

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Why I love children’s books & Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder

I love children’s books. I really, really love them. Frequently, I find that I prefer young adult novels and middle-grade novels far more than adult novels. Very frequently.

I’ve always loved children’s books. I think my problem was that I never really figured out the transition to adult books. Back when I was the proper age to be reading kids’ books, I would sit at the bookstore, often for an hour or so (luckily I had a very understanding dad and a very similar sister) and I would go one by one through the children’s books on the three or four bookcases reserved for books for my age group. That’s how I’d find the books I wanted to read — by going one by one and reading the back and examining the cover. When I became that awful age when people tell you the adult section is more your speed, I was lost. I couldn’t go through all the adult books one by one to figure out what I wanted to read. And so I didn’t know how to find good books. I’d find an author or two that worked for me and read all I can, but then I was lost again. And honestly, I actually stopped reading for a while because I just couldn’t figure it out.

Eventually I got a little better. I started going to the Housing Works Bookstore in NYC where I could go through the 2 bookcases dedicated to review copies. It wasn’t that I wanted to read the newest releases, it was that I could finally go back to my childhood where I could just drop my stuff at the bottom of the bookcase and look through the books one by one.

Now though, I’m letting go of the embarrassment and I’m ready to admit that I just love children’s books and even though I’m much older than (some) authors intend to write for, I am happiest there.

Which brings me to Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder. Because while I readily admit my love for children’s books to some friends, some of the time, this is a book that reminds me that it’s OK to yell from the top of my very snowy roof how much I love children’s books. Because my friends, this book rocks. It is beautifully, so beautifully, written. I know there are many complicated books out there about miserable people who lead miserable lives in miserable third world countries and they get many, many prizes. But in my opinion, Any Which Wall is a perfect book, and far surpasses all those unhappy books. It’s sweet and kind and really lovely.

Officially, here’s the description:

Four kids, a mysterious wall, and a good helping of common magic!

If you had a magic wall that could take you to any place and any time, where would you go? Would you want to visit castles and desert islands? Would you want to meet famous wizards, terrible pirates, beautiful queens, and dastardly outlaws? If so, then you are just like Henry and Emma, and Roy and Susan—and you will probably like this story a lot. In fact, you might even wish something similar would happen to you!

But truthfully, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about a 12-year-old girl whose best friend moves away, and thinks she’s too cool and old for unicorns and kindness. It’s about interesting kids who wish interesting things. It’s about being brave and being scared and the possibility that magic does really exist. And in the absolutely magical chapter I just read to Jonah tonight, it’s about remembering that while just having fun is not usually the subject of children’s book chapters (because nobody was being chased and there was no danger), having fun is worth mentioning. Listen to this:

No, nothing bad happened at all. It was a fun afternoon and free of all disaster, and it didn’t affect anything that happened afterward, not even a little. In fact, I wouldn’t bother to include this particular adventure in the book since it doesn’t matter much to the story.

Except that it does. Because fun does matter. It matters a lot.

Laurel, thank you so much for writing this exquisite book. Not just because I got to read it (twice now) and recommend it to as many people as I can. But because for the last three weeks, Jonah and I have snuggled together and read it every night, and I’ve been able to share it with him.

My recommendation? Buy it in hardcover. Buy a couple of copies — enough to read it out loud to 6-9 year olds; and have 8-10 year olds read it on their own.

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Jews and Christmas

I’m thinking a lot about Christmas these days. There are beautiful lights everywhere, friends have their trees up and it has been a long, long time since Hanukkah for my kids. They haven’t said anything yet, but I’m waiting…

So my first thought is to turn to books. I’m looking for books for children that feature Jews being Jewish at Christmas time — and preferably not Jews doing Hanukkah while others do Christmas since that’s not the case this year. Here’s my top choices:

The Trees of the Dancing GoatsThe Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco. This kind of breaks the rule of not including books about Hanukkah, but I’d argue that the book really isn’t about Hanukkah at all. Here’s the book description:

Trisha loves the eight days of Hanukkah, when her mother stays home from work, her Babushka makes delicious potato latkes, and her Grampa carves wonderful animals out of wood as gifts for Trisha and her brother. In the middle of her family’s preparation for the festival of lights, Trisha visits her closest neighbors, expecting to find them decorating their house for Christmas. Instead they are all bedridden with scarlet fever. Trisha’s family is one of the few who has been spared from the epidemic. It is difficult for them to enjoy their Hanukkah feast when they know that their neighbors won’t be able to celebrate their holiday. Then Grampa has an inspiration: they will cut down trees, decorate them, and secretly deliver them to the neighbors, “But what can we decorate them with?” Babushka asks. Although it is a sacrifice, Trisha realizes that Grampa’s carved animals are the perfect answer. Soon her living room is filled with trees — but that is only the first miracle of many during an incredible holiday season.

What I really like about this book is that it is absent the longing of Christmas and really features two people living side by side, practicing their own religions, and helping each other when they need it.

Elijah's Angel

Elijah’s Angel by Michael Rosen. Again, this does have Hanukkah, probably more importantly placed than the Polacco suggestion, but I really like it. The Amazon review:

A child’s vision of religious tolerance is exquisitely played out in this story about an elderly Christian barber and a Jewish child who befriends him. As a hobby, the African American barber makes elaborate woodcarvings–many of which refer to events or characters in the Bible. Michael, a 9-year-old Jewish boy, often visits the barbershop just to admire old Elijah’s carvings, especially that of Noah’s Ark–a story that belongs to Jewish as well as Christian teachings. One day when Hanukkah and Christmas coincidentally overlap, Elijah gives Michael a special gift, a carved guardian angel. Immediately Michael is filled with a jumble of feelings–gratitude for such a beautiful gift, concern that his parents might disapprove, and an even greater fear that God may frown upon a Christmas angel, “a graven image,” in Michael’s home. The thick sweeps of paint, the heavy uses of wood-tones, and primitive images make the settings and characters look as though Elijah carved them himself. When Michael finally reveals the carved angel to his parents, they help the young boy understand how expressions of friendship, love, and protection can be carried into any home, regardless of the household’s religion.

Again, lovely story about friendship and people being happy with who they are.

A Chanukah Noel

Another new book out this season is the gorgeous A Chanukah Noel by Sharon Jennings. This one takes the very realistic plot of a Jewish child who wants to celebrate Christmas. The Booklist review:

Based on a true incident, this historical picture book is about Charlotte, who has moved to a small town in France. Charlotte feels left out, especially at Christmastime, not only because she’s American but also because she’s Jewish. At least Charlotte can participate in the school holiday activities, but during the grab-bag pull, she realizes that classmate Colette Levert is too poor to purchase a present for the exchange. This gives Charlotte an idea. Perhaps she can bring Christmas to Colette’s family. On Christmas Eve, Charlotte’s family carries a Christmas tree, decorations, food, and gifts to the Leverts. In return, the Leverts ask Charlotte’s family to stay and share their holiday feast and “the joy of Christmas and Chanukah.”The Christmas Menorahs

 And, since we have a good number of Jews help save Christmas stories, here’s a corollary. The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Janice Cohn. The Boolist review:

Based on a true incident 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. The boy, Isaac, is frightened and unsure whether he wants to put the menorah back. His parents call the police, and his mother goes on television and to a meeting to talk about hate crimes in the community. Inspired by stories of the Danish people helping their Jewish neighbors during World War II, the people of Billings put menorahs in their windows to take a stand against bigotry. When a schoolmate supports Isaac, he takes his own stand by returning the menorah to its place. Although the plot seems a little stilted at times, Cohn deals with the issues in a way children can readily understand.

Christmas Tapestry

Finally, a book that I’m not sure how to categorize, except to say that it’s a weeper. The Christmas Tapestry by Patricia Polacco is not about Hanukkah or being Jewish at all. It’s really just a Christmas story, but with a really interesting Jewish link. From Booklist:

Polacco is a master at intergenerational, interfaith stories that bring comfort and joy, and this one based on homilies she had heard widely separated in time and place is no exception. Jonathan must adjust when his preacher father moves the family to Detroit. After lots of work, the church is almost ready for Christmas, but then ice damage gouges a hole in a church wall. Father and son find a beautifully embroidered hanging and buy it with the last of their money; as they wait in the snow for the bus, an old woman offers them tea from her thermos. When they finally get to the parsonage, she is astonished to find the tapestry is one she had made as a chuppah for her wedding in Germany, before she was separated from her new husband who was lost in the war. The plasterer, who comes to fix the hole, also recognizes the hanging, and delighted audiences will soon figure out his identity. Christian and Jewish holiday celebrations intermingle with the message that nothing in the universe is random. The tender colors and gestures in the illustrations echo the text to make a satisfying whole.

The story is beautiful and touching and likely missed by many Jews because of the overt Christmas message of the description. It’s really quite incredible.

Nate the GreatAnd a bonus. If your kids really want the Christmas book, offer them Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas by Marjorie Wienman Shermat. Tuns out that everyone’s favorite mystery solving little boy doesn’t celebrate Christmas either. It’s a great surprise for kids, and a wonderful “aha” moment. Jewish characters aren’t just in Jewish books. Sometimes they turn up in the least likely place…

Last thought: Lisa Silverman, a fantastic Jewish librarian and connoisseur of Jewish children’s book writes about A Chanukkah Noel and a new book (that I haven’t seen so didn’t include in this round up because I haven’t read it) called Jackie’s Gift: A True Story of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Jackie Robinson, written by Jackie’s daughter, Sharon Robinson. While I disagree with her Hanukkah book suggestions, I think the article itself is great.

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Aliya Stories

So, the other day’s post about great immigration stories led me to think about some of my favorite stories about immigrating to Israel instead of America. There aren’t as many of them, but they are great.

First RainFirst Rain by Charlotte Herman is lovely. Abby and her parents have decided to move to Israel from North America, and they are really happy with their decision, it’s hard to leave behind Abby’s grandmother. First Rain tells the story of the correspondence between grandmother and grandchild as Abby learns more and more about her new home. What’s nice is that in addition to learning more, Abby teaches her grandmother all about Israel, including some Hebrew words. One of the things that Abby learns about Israel is how everyone waits for the first rain of the year after the long hot summer, much like she used to wait for the first snow. Guess who arrives for a visit on the same day that Abby hears the sounds of rain on the roof? I’ll admit, there’s something sad about this book — the grandmother sure does look unhappy to see Abby and her folks move away. But, it’s a lovely intergenerational story, and very applicable to many long distance grandparents, even if their grandchildren don’t live in Israel. (Great for 5-7 year olds.)

Yuvi's Candy TreeYuvi’s Candy Tree by Lesley Simpson is a fantastic new book. But it won’t be out until March 2011 (sorry!). The story of Yuvi’s trip from Ethiopia to Israel is captured in beautifully poetic language and simple artwork. The story is a little scary (appropriately), but does a great job of conveying the long, hard trip to Israel for many Ethiopian Jews. You can always pre-order… (I think it’ll work best for 7-10 year olds.)

Finally, All the Lights in the Night by Arthur Levine is a more typical “escape from Russia” story, except for instead of escaping to America, the two brothers are heading to Palestine. Israel doesn’t play heavily in the story, but it’s a nice Hanukkah story, and includes a slightly different destination than we usually see in these books. (Good for 8 & 9  year olds.)

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Encyclopedia Brown

Encyclopedia BrownRemember Encyclopedia Brown? I loved the series as a kid, and I have to say that I even love it now as an adult. I remember trying desperately to figure out the mysteries, and never being able to do it. One great thing about getting older is that finally as an adult, I can now figure them out! Now as I listen to them, I hear the out-of-place detail, I can figure out the type of clue that Encyclopedia looks for.

I don’t need to describe the series by Daniel J. Sobel because I’m sure you know them well. They’ve aged pretty well — I think I’m the only one who notices how many mysteries depend on not having had a cell phone or the fact that there’s no internet… There’s a little colorful ethnic stereotyping going on, so you just need to watch out for that.

My editionMy seven-year old has been reading my old copies, and then we’ve been listening to the stories in the car. Just good clean stories — the kind that still makes me smile. Do you remember any Encyclopedia Brown mysteries from when you were a kid?

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This Totally Bites

I can’t believe I hadn’t blogged about this before (OK, so it’s probably because it’s been a little while since I last blogged).

This Totally Bites

This Totally Bites by Ruth Ames ROCKS. Emma-Rose Paley is a fantastic heroine who looks a little more vampire-ish than the rest of her family. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that her great-Aunt Margo is coming for a visit from Romania and looks a lot like Emma-Rose. And for the fact that Great-Aunt Margo is clearly up to something other-worldly. Could it be that Emma-Rose’s aversion to garlic and sunshine are more than just a question of taste?

Clearly, This Totally Bites is playing off the current vampire craze, setting this story up for the 8-12 crowd who are a little young for Twilight. But it’s way more than that. The storytelling here is way beyond what you get in most young chapter books — it really moves and the plot builds and the characters are remarkably developed. I’ve given this to a few reluctant readers who plowed through it and demanded more! What I really like about the story though is the ending, which I won’t give away. I expected that she couldn’t be a vampire. Or maybe Ames would make her a vampire? But the ending is much more inventive than I could have predicted.

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