Art, recipes, assimilation tale fill kids Chanukah books

Let's face it — there are only so many ways to tell the story of Chanukah. Two new ones in this year's batch of children's holiday books do a particularly good job. A third one calls itself a children's book, but really isn't.

"Beni's Family Treasury: Stories for the Jewish Holidays" by Jane Breskin Zalben is for families with young children. The stories are short. The lessons are simple. The watercolor illustrations are lovely.

The book is beautiful enough to pass on to younger siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews.

Since 1987, Zalben has been writing and illustrating Jewish children's stories with lovable animal characters (most of them bears) like Goldie, Blossom, Sara, Beni, Leo and Max.

"Beni's Family Treasury" includes five stories: "Happy New Year," "Beni," "Happy Passover," "Rosie" and, of course, "Beni's First Chanukah."

At the end of each story is a recipe for a holiday treat. At the back is a list of Jewish terms used in the book.

Mama's Latkes — the recipe is at the end of "Beni's First Chanukah" — looks particularly tasty. The recipe "serves about 6, depending on their appetites! Beni eats 4 pancakes. He loves Mama's Latkes."

For older readers, Amy Goldman Koss' "How I Saved Hanukkah" is a sure hit, especially for any pre-pubescent kids who have ever felt alienated.

It's the story of Marla Feinstein, the only Jewish kid in her fourth-grade class. Marla is pretty tired of getting blue and white paper for making decorations, and blue and white wax for making candles while all her friends get red and green.

She envies her best friend Lucy's Christmas tree, antique furniture and cool older sisters. Marla feels cheated by practical, often unwrapped Chanukah gifts, her modern all-white home and the responsibility for dragging around her creepy younger brother.

All of that changes when Marla decides to ask the deli owner and his wife (the only Jews she knows) what a dreidel is for anyway and which letter is gimmel. It seems Marla's parents are the quintessential assimilated Jews.

That leads to nights of dreidel playing, a latke dinner (otherwise known as "Hanukkah Performance Art" in the Feinstein home), wild hora dancing lines and even a Chanukah party.

Pretty quickly, Marla learns a lot about appreciating what she has and who she is. She decides being Jewish isn't so bad after all when she proclaims at the party: "None of my other teachers before ever singled me out as the only Jewish kid in class. But the story of Hanukkah makes me think Mrs. Guyer was sort of right — I shouldn't have to make red-and-green decorations all the time just because everyone else is. I am me — blue and white."

Marla's mom half-heartedly tests her daughter's newfound identity the day after the party, when she asks if Marla would like to buy on-sale Christmas lights.

"Nah, we're Jewish," she says.

The last book, "The Menorah Story," shouldn't be labeled a children's book. It's actually an inexpensive art book for adults at only $15.

It is written and illustrated by Mark Podwal, whose drawings have appeared in the New York Times for 25 years and whose work is represented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

His book takes on a spiritual tone in its explanation of the creation of the candelabra.

The story begins, "God tried many times to teach Moses how to make a menorah. But whenever Moses set about making one, he couldn't remember what it was supposed to look like. God even drew a picture of a menorah on Moses' palm and told him to copy it. Still, Moses could not do it. So God told Moses to throw a piece of gold into a fire. And the first menorah formed itself."

The story should stop there.

The ensuing text merely tells the Chanukah story anyone who attended Hebrew school already knows. Frankly, it's a bit of a disappointment considering the book's esoteric beginnings.

However, Podwal's illustrations are breathtaking. They are colorful, whimsical and alive.

"Beni's Family Treasury: Stories for the Jewish Holidays" by Jane Breskin Zalben(120 pages, Henry Holt, $18.95).

"How I Saved Hanukkah" by Amy Goldman Koss (87 pages, Dial Books for Young Readers,$15.99).

"The Menorah Story" by Mark Podwal (21 pages, Greenwillow Books, $15).