Eight books for eight nights

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Sooner or later, you’re going to have to break out the socks. White tube socks. Black dress socks. Maybe even awful rainbow socks with toes. Eight days, it seems, is a long time, and you can get your LEGOs and Transformers on the first or second night of Chanukah, but, by the end of this thing, you’re likely to receive a gift you’ll need to grow into.

Or read.

Granted, we are the people of the book, and several wonderful volumes have entered my collection via Chanukah. But eight books for eight nights? Parents beware: Giving your youngsters books and books alone will be a factor in the quality of elder care you receive.

But, if one, two or, OK, three books sounds appropriate, then we’ve amassed the list for you. These books, for the most part, are for readers who still need their training wheels; I read all eight during the second quarter of Monday Night Football.

A number of the Chanukah books are aimed at very, very young children who read about as well as the Ramones played their instruments.

The most creatively packaged is “Spin the Dreidel!,” a very short, colorful number crafted from thick, slick cardboard impervious to baby spittle. Most notable, however, is the large red dreidel mounted in the spine of the book, allowing young readers to literally play along (or push the book like a lawn mower). Even adults will find themselves compulsively spinning that dreidel.

Another book for the rugrat set is “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the book’s text is simply a recitation of the song “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” What makes this one special is Susan L. Roth’s heartwarming artwork: a series of “South Park”-like collage cutouts of mouse families dancing the hora, lighting the menorah and, of course, scarfing up latkes. The mice are, as my mother would say, “Cute with two ‘u’s.'”

“Hanukkah Lights” is another charmingly illustrated book for the young, with forgettable text — but this presents more of a problem, as this is a collection of poetry.

These poems are not nearly as entertaining or clever as the Passover show tunes some families (full disclosure: like mine) whip out at seders. But that’s OK. Not too many toddlers really know how to sing to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” anyway.

But the poems of “Hanukkah Lights” make one appreciate the late genius of Shel Silverstein all the more. Take, for example, “Taste of Hanukkah” by Philip J. Tietbohl: Latkes for my friends/Latkes for my aunts/ Latkes for my uncles/Latke batter on my pants!

There are no biographies given for the poets anthologized in this book, so, like you, I have no idea whether or not Mr. Tietbohl is 4 years old. With that in mind, maybe your young ones would be more interested in writing their own poems than reading these.

Moving along, “The Chanukah Activity Book” is fun and unconventional although, at times, it’s an unintentionally hilarious compendium of games, quizzes and puzzles.

The coloring book is actually surprisingly chock full o’ Chanukah information, and comes equipped with a few unconventional activities, such as the “Macabees race to Jerusalem” game (move a space for every trivia question answered, answer two questions to hurdle the centurion).

Other games, however, can’t help but draw a laugh. One, in essence, is “Match the Oppressor!” and requires young folks to determine whether various misdeeds against the Jewish people were committed by the Persians, Greeks, Egyptians or Babylonians. Also, for a certain segment of our readership, the liberal use of the term “time to light up” will also induce hilarity.

Still, break out the box of 64 crayons and any kid would lose himself or herself in this book. And maybe even learn something!

In “The Complete Jewish Songbook For Children, Volume II,” we have discovered the literary equivalent of the 12-gallon drum of Mazola you bring home from Costco. No one needs that much corn oil, and, similarly, no one needs 180 Jewish children’s songs.

Only a very musical child could appreciate this book; it is nothing but a huge collection of sheet music, and if you can’t read music, you’re out of luck. But for every camp counselor or synagogue youth leader with a guitar — look out! This book has every song from “Abraham” to “Zol Nokh Zayn Shabbes.”

Some of these songs evoke nostalgia for my own Jewish camp days (we also used to sing “The 59th Street Bridge Song” and that is definitely not in here). On the other hand, the notion of these songs being repeated, ad nauseam, in the back of my car is not a happy one. Suffice to say, instructions such as “Everyone say ‘Yeehaw!’ And kick out a leg!” or “with energy!” on a song called “Rabbi Ben-Bag-Bag” do not bode well. Parents, caveat emptor.

There are some acceptable books aimed at slightly older children. “A Confused Chanukkah” is another charmingly illustrated tale. In fact, S.D. Schindler’s village scenes in this “original” story of Chelm are almost Bruegel-like.

John Koons’ text is cute, too. In essence, Chelm’s rabbi wanders off right before Chanukah, and a likable idiot named Yossel is chosen to visit the next town and see how the holiday is celebrated. Of course, being a denizen of Chelm, Yossel goes to the wrong town — a Christian town. He is, naturally, surprised by the trees and gifts and the fat man in the velvet suit, but figures it must be a big-city variant of Judaism.

And, as a reader who knows the history of European Judaism, I was cringing the whole time, waiting for Yossel to mistakenly celebrate the festival of lights with a Chanukah pogrom. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen.

I also cringed a bit at “The Only One Club,” the story of a little girl who starts her own club because she’s the only Jew in her class. Of course, this creates friction, and she eventually lets everyone into the “Only One Club,” because everyone is the only one of something. Charming enough, but more than a little forced.

But, I’ve saved the best for last. Because “One Candle” has the best art I have ever seen in a children’s book since Michael Hague somehow saw into my dreams when he breathed life into “The Wind in the Willows” and “The Hobbit.”

K. Wendy Popp’s art literally had me at page one — with a drawing of sugar, flour, mixing bowls and baking implements. The dreamy, ethereal bodies of her protagonists make the hyper-realistic faces even more striking. Her brilliant and evocative work is reminiscent of that master comic artist Alex Ross (those were his fantastic panels you saw at the beginning of “Spider-Man 2”).

“One Candle” is a Holocaust tale, and since it deals with a survivor’s story for her toddler-age grandchildren, the nitty-gritty is no more detailed than “There was a war on at the time, and the Germans didn’t like the Jews.” Parents who haven’t broached this subject with their children may not want this moving tale to be the first time.

So, whether it’s hurdling a centurion, yodeling “Rabbi Ben-Bag-Bag” or marveling at the artwork of K. Wendy Popp, there are plenty of children’s books to choose from this Chanukah season. And, when you think about it, a book does make a better gift than socks. Even rainbow ones.

Book notes

“Spin the Dreidel!” by Alexandra Cooper, illustrated by Claudine Gévry (14 pages, Little Simon, $7.99).

“Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” by Susan L. Roth (24 pages, Dial Books, $10.99).

“Hanukkah Lights: Holiday Poetry” compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Melanie Hall (32 pages, HarperCollins, $15.99).

“The Chanukah Activity Book” by Judy Dick (32 pages, URJ press, $8.95).

“The Complete Jewish Songbook for Children, Volume II” edited by J. Mark Dunn, Joel N. Eglash and Cantor Alane S. Katzew (286 pages, URJ press, $39.95).

“A Confused Hanukkah” by Jon Koons, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (40 pages, Dutton Children’s Books, $16.99).

“The Only One Club” by Jane Naliboff, illustrated by Jeff Hopkins (32 pages, Flashlight Press, $15.95).

“One Candle” by Eve Bunting, illustrated by K. Wendy Popp (40 pages, HarperCollins, $5.99).

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.