Latkes, lore and love

Chanukah’s come a long way since I was a kid: Even Horrible Harry of Room 2B is learning about the Jewish holiday, and other ethnic celebrations, in elementary school.

“Horrible Harry and the Holidaze” is one of a slew of new children’s books released in advance of this year’s holiday season. Though it is not a Chanukah book per se, “Harry” is one of several excellent books that Jewish kids would probably enjoy.

The others are “Oh Chanukah!,” a board book by L.J. Goodman; “Eight Lights for Eight Nights,” a story and activity book from the Let’s Celebrate Series; and “Pearl’s Eight Days of Chanukah,” which offers a story and activity for eight nights.

Of the four, Suzy Kline’s Harry — from her Horrible Harry series — dwells the least on Chanukah, including it along with Kwanzaa, Three Kings’ Day and Korean New Year’s as topics the kids study in school. On the plus side, however, Chanukah is addressed with warmth and humor, presented as neither better nor worse than the other celebrations observed by children in Room 2B.

To learn about Chanukah, the class visits Shady Pines, a nearby convalescent home, where some of the elderly residents talk about the holiday, teach the children how to play dreidel and give them chocolate-wrapped gelt. One woman, described as “wearing a blonde wig that didn’t sit on her head quite right,” tells them quite simply that Chanukah “is when we celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in the temple.”

A man wearing a blue bow tie chimes in: “I’m Jewish, too,” and adds that his favorite part “is eating fried foods like potato pancakes to remind us of the oil miracle.”

Geared for ages 7 to 10, this is a story kids can read for themselves. Plus, there’s the Horrible Harry factor: This time, the endearing troublemaker is not his usual, no-good self — which has his best friend wondering just what’s wrong. But all ends happily enough, as Harry finally snaps back to his slime-loving self!

Pearl of “Pearl’s Eight Days of Chanukah” is another unusual character. The cute little lamb has just been told that her cousins, Harry and Sophie, will be joining her family for the holidays, and she’s not pleased one bit. “Pearl had overheard Grandpa call Harry a vilde chaya — a wild animal. And Sophie was no little angel. She once put a latke on Pearl’s seat for Pearl to sit on.”

But they all put their best feet forward and busily plunge into Chanukah activities: making chanukiot lighting the candles, exchanging gifts, etc.

There’s a chapter and an activity for every night. Projects include building a menorah out of empty spools; making potato latkes, applesauce and jelly doughnuts; creating decorated wrapping paper and puppets. Lyrics and music for “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Rock of Ages” are also included.

Written and adorably illustrated by Jane Breskin Zalben, this book is probably best read aloud to young ones ages 3 to 8.

Another story and activity book, “Eight Lights for Eight Nights,” is more of an educational workbook, part of Barron’s Educational Series.

The story, by Debbie Herman, lays out the saga of Judah Maccabee and his band of Judean fighters, who attempt to defeat invading Syrian soldiers. Using historical and religious sources such as the Talmud, Herman simplifies the story of Chanukah without stripping it of its Jewish significance. She throws in interesting “Fun Facts,” highlighted in stand-alone boxes, and noteworthy bits of information. (“Each year in Israel, on the first night of Hanukkah, people run with torches from Modin to Jerusalem, following the route of the Maccabees.” Or, “Judah captured Apollonius’ sword, and fought with it for the rest of his life.”)

Following the story is an activity section, which includes instructions for crafting chanukiot and play gelt, making shadow puppets and holiday cards and more.

“Oh Chanukah!” a 12-page board book with six lift-up flaps, gets down to the basics. This is a book for the very young, and though it has a little story, it pretty much touches on keywords: Chanukah is about latkes, lighting the menorah, playing dreidel, singing songs, exchanging gifts, being with family. The peekaboo flaps are cute but unnecessary: Made of paper, their shelf life may be very short!

“Eight Lights for Eight Nights” by Debbie Herman and Ann Koffsky (48 pages, Barron’s, $8.95).

“Horrible Harry and the Holidaze” by Suzy Kline (80 pages, Viking, $13.99).

“Oh Chanukah!” by L.J. Goodman (12 pages, Price Stern Sloan, $5.99).

“Pearl’s Eight Days of Chanukah” by Jane Breskin Zalben (48 pages, Aladdin Paperbacks, $6.99).

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.