Book Reviews: Gently priced books deliver Chanukah message to kids

While the text is a bit flat, there's no story to speak of and the drawings are not the more imaginative, the book by Alan Benjamin and illustrator Ellen Appleby offers a simple introduction to the Festival of Lights. Designed to appeal to the more observant, the illustrations show a traditional family in conservative attire: women in long sleeves and dresses, men and boys in kippot.

Grandpa sits in an armchair telling the story of Chanukah to four young children, a dog and a cat. Then one of the small boys lights the first candle on the menorah, the children play spin the dreidel and the family gathers for Grandma's latkes.

Afterward, the children sing Chanukah songs, unwrap their gifts and rejoice in the festivities. On the last night, they light all eight candles. The book ends with a glossary, helping young kids learn the words associated with the holiday. I will probably send my copy to a favorite 2-year-old, who attends a Jewish day school where she is learning the blessings.

While the Chubby Board Book shows children with round Campbell Kids-type faces and a family at the height of decorum, the Rugrats book shows kids and adults as they really are — mischievous, selfish, temperamental, endearing and rather unattractive.

Based on a television Chanukah special, the book — written by Sarah Willson and illustrated by Barry Goldberg — is packed with a hearty dose of humor seasoned with Yiddishkeit. Priced at a modest $5.99, it's designed for kids ages 4 to 8.

On the opening pages, "Phil tossed a dreidel to Lil, who immediately put the toy in her mouth. Tommy chased Chuckie with a wrapping-paper tube." Tommy is barefoot and clad in a diaper he's in danger of losing, and Chuckie's shoes are untied.

Phil and Lil, who are listening to Grandma read the Chanukah story, are told to hush:

"Don't wake Grandpa Boris. He likes to sleep when he hears a good story."

Meanwhile Didi, the mom, is in the kitchen making latkes. Stu, the dad, is downstairs perfecting the electric menorah and little Angelica is rattled because the Chanukah celebration is making her miss a TV Christmas special.

Suddenly Grandpa Boris lets out a howl. His arch-enemy Shlomo, his co-star in the synagogue Chanukah play, gets his picture on the front page of the paper. Grandpa is not amused.

"Why does he get to be the big fancy-schmancy star?" says Grandpa. "This will be the end of me."

As the family arrives at the synagogue for the Chanukah show, the youngest Rugrats hatch a plot to get Shlomo, the "Meany of Chanukah," to take a nap so he won't upstage Grandpa. Meanwhile, Angelica hunts for a TV at the synagogue and Stu and Grandpa Lou, who are bringing the spectacular electric menorah for the finale, get stuck in the middle of a Christmas parade between an elf float and Santa's sled.

Everything that can go awry does. The babies run onstage and try to stop Shlomo, playing King Antiochus, from using his fake sword on Grandpa Boris, who is Judas Maccabee.

Yet despite a myriad of mishaps, everything comes to a delightful conclusion as the kids become the catalysts for getting Grandpa Boris and the Meany of Chanukah to end their feud.

"My dearest Chanukah wish," says Shlomo, "is that our kinderlach continue to carry the light of our people for generations to come."

The Rugrats book reveals the warmth of Chanukah and a modern miracle — the reconciliation of two enemies. Without preaching, it also celebrates the preservation of a minority culture amid the pervasiveness of Christmas.

While this is an unconventional treatment of the Jewish festival, it's a tale with definite kid appeal. And in case you're afraid the message of Chanukah will be lost in the brouhaha, the book concludes with a one-page retelling of the miracle of the oil.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].