Feast of kids books for the Festival of Lights

The latest batch of kids’ Chanukah books literally come in all sizes, shapes and innovative themes.

Here are eight, one for each night.

If you’re partial to puppies, for that reason alone you may want to pick up “Biscuit’s Hanukkah” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli.

Part of the “Biscuit” board series (“Biscuit Visits the Pumpkin Patch,” “Biscuit is Thankful,” etc.) this is a short and sweet Chanukah tale about how a little girl and her dog make a menorah to give to their friends. Geared for ages 2 to 6, it’s all about simple messages and appealing illustrations.

Details about the holiday are kept to a minimum (“On Hanukkah we share stories, songs, delicious food, games … and times with our friends!”), and of course there’s a little bit about the menorah, too. For the age group for which it’s geared, the book succeeds as a cute story effortlessly woven around a Jewish-holiday theme.

“My First Menorah,” in comparison, is a little more forced. A sturdy board book with a gimmick — cut-out flames that top the menorah as you turn the pages — it begins with the lighting of the shamash and ends with the ninth candle. The text provides lots of information about the Festival of Lights, and the writing is a little dry, but overall, it provides a decent explanation of the history and symbols of the holiday.

Another board book, “Celebrate with Blue!” has more bells and whistles. Based on the Nickelodeon TV series “Blues Clues,” it features characters Blue and Joe as they discover and join in the traditions of Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. They visit their friends Green Puppy, who celebrates Christmas, Purple Kangaroo, a Kwanzaa celebrant, and Orange Kitten, who apparently is Jewish.

It’s a busy book, in a good way. There are 45 flaps to open and close, cartoon characters, and brightly colored pictures with lots of “foil” accents highlighting such glitterati as the Chanukah gelt and Christmas tree decorations. The story attempts to engage the reader by asking questions like, “Will you help us find the candles and the menorah?” “Can you find four or more pieces of Chanukah gelt?” Definitely a page-turner for the toddler-to-preschool age group.

Chanukah is just one of nine holidays covered in “Celebrate: A Book of Jewish Holidays” by Judith Gross. Just out in paperback, this slim edition explains how each calendar event is observed, beginning with Shabbat. Lots of upbeat pictures augment the text.

What sets this book apart from some of the others is that it tells the story behind each tradition. With Chanukah, for example, it explains how thousands of years ago “a Syrian king led his army into Israel. He said the Jews could not follow their religion. His soldiers marched into the temple and put out the special lamp that always burned there.” You get the drift: boiled-down biblical tales.

“Hanukkah Lights,” a compilation of poetry selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, has a one-two punch: It introduces Chanukah concepts and serves as reading tool. Published by HarperCollins as an “I Can Read” book, “Hanukkah Lights” is pegged as having “high-interest stories for developing readers.”

The poetry ranges from the four-line “Taste of Hanukkah” by Phillip J. Tietbohl (“Latkes for my friends. Latkes for my aunts. Latkes for my uncles. Latke batter on my pants!”) to the subtle “Shadows,” by Peggy Robbins Janousky, about freedom.

And then there’s “Four Sides, Eight Nights: A New Spin on Hanukkah.” Recommended for second- to fourth-graders, it seems more like a teacher’s book — full of historical facts, biblical stories and odd bits of information — some kind of interesting (“One thousand pounds of wood went into the giant Dreidel House” at Rutgers University), some kind of not (“Maccabee means ‘hammer.’ … Lee Hays and Pete Seeger probably weren’t thinking about the Maccabees when they wrote ‘The Hammer Song,’ some 2,100 years later, but the song is curiously appropriate for Hanukkah …”).

Everything ties into the dreidel theme. But if you ask me, it all spins a little too far off base with scientific segments such as “The Sevivon of Sir Isaac Newton,” rotation speed, friction, the law of inertia … Well, it was almost enough to put me to sleep.

Two books have clear Christmas overtones.

“The Eight Nights of Chanukah,” by Leslea Newman, sounds all too much like “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

It begins:

“On the first night of Chanukah I clap my hands to see … A present waiting for me.”

Though the clap of her hands on subsequent nights brings such Jewish offering as two Maccabees, three challahs, four “matzo balls” and so forth, the book strikes somewhat as a little too Christmas-y.

To its credit, “Eight Nights” does include a page-long postscript on the origins and meaning of Chanukah, and a glossary of terms including challah, dreidel, maidel, even matzo ball (“a dumpling made of matzo meal, traditionally served in chicken soup”).

Definitely the most unusual among the lot is “Hanukkah, Schmanukkah” by Esme Raji Codell, with arresting illustrations by LeUyen Pham of San Francisco.

Here’s how it starts:

Old man Scroogemacher was as sour as a pickle and had a tongue like horseradish. He would lash out at all the workers in his waistcoat factory.

“Shvieg! No talking during work hours!”

“Shmendrick, pick up the pace or I’ll give you such a zetz!”

Can you guess where this is going? Yes, it’s the Jewish Scrooge.

There’s also the Rabbi of Hanukkah Past, the Rabbi of Hanukkah Future and other slightly familiar characters in this offbeat, Yiddishkeit version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Esme Raji Codell, a former schoolteacher and children’s librarian, anticipated the inevitable question: Why?

She answers in an author’s note. “Why would I take a classic holiday story and rewrite it? Because that’s what happens to stories: They change over time, as the people who tell them change. Storytellers add a pinch of salt here, a dash of pepper there.

“The iconic story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was one I wanted to flavor in my own way.”

“Biscuit’s Hanukkah” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli (16 pages, HarperCollins, $4.99). “Celebrate: A Book of Jewish Holidays” by Judith Gross (30 pages, Penguin Group, $3.99). “Celebrate with Blue!” by Sarah Albee (14 pages, Simon & Schuster, $8.99). “Four Sides, Eight Nights: A New Spin on Hanukkah” by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi (48 pages, Roaring Brook Press, $16.95). “Hanukkah Lights” by Lee Bennett Hopkins (32 pages, HarperCollins, $3.99). “Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!” by Esme Raji Codell (53 pages, Hyperion, $16.99). “My First Menorah” by Salina Yoon (16 pages, Simon & Schuster, $7.99). “The Eight Nights of Chanukah” by Leslea Newman (24 pages, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., $12.99).

Liz Harris

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