Hanukkah food & gifts | Storied Goblins childrens book marks 25th anniversary

Back in 1984, when Eric Kimmel was an up-and-coming children’s book author, he tried his hand at a Hanukkah story, one featuring goblins. Overly cautious Jewish editors rejected the manuscript, not knowing what to make of it, Kimmel recalled.

“It was strange. It didn’t look like any other Hanukkah books and didn’t fit into any neat category. It wasn’t a folk tale and it was kind of creepy,” he said in his signature tell-it-like-it-is manner.

Kimmel tucked the story away in a drawer for a while.

Years later, some keen-eyed editors, first at Cricket magazine and later at Holiday House, took a chance on Kimmel’s offbeat tale, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” illustrated by the late acclaimed artist Trina Schart Hyman.

The book was recognized with a 1989 Caldecott honor and went on to win a place in the hearts and homes of Jewish and non-Jewish families, schoolteachers and librarians across the country. “Hershel” has been in print ever since.

Now, in time for Hanukkah, which begins this year on the evening of Dec. 16, Holiday House has issued its 25th anniversary edition of “Hershel and Hanukkah Goblins,” with a new afterword by Kimmel and Holiday House publisher John Briggs, who brought the book to light.

And Kimmel has a new Hanukkah tale out this year, “Simon and the Bear.”

As “Hershel and Hanukkah Goblins” opens, a poor wandering Jewish man named Hershel arrives in a Jewish village on a snowy day at the start of the holiday. For years, the townsfolk tell him, the goblins have played mayhem with their attempts to celebrate Hanukkah. The evildoers blew out the Hanukkah candles, broke the dreidels and threw the latkes on the floor, they bemoan.

But Hershel tells the rabbi he is not afraid.

“If I can’t outwit a few goblins, then my name isn’t Hershel of Ostropol,” he says.

Each of the eight Hanukkah nights, Hershel outwits the goblins, one more menacing than the next. In the end, with clever maneuvers and quick thinking, he breaks their evil spell and returns the Festival of Lights back to the townsfolk with a triumph to match the holiday’s own miracle.

Growing up, Kimmel enjoyed hearing stories of Hershel of Ostropol from his storytelling grandmother. He sees the folk character as a hero among the people, the opposite of the fools of Chelm.

Hershel has street smarts, is practical and takes on the mighty and powerful.

“He’s surviving day to day and using his wits,” Kimmel says.

The book was hailed as a perfect match between the master storyteller and Schart Hyman, whose vibrant paintings set the tone with darkened scenes illuminated by the golden glow of the Hanukkah candles and shiny gelt coins.

In addition to the strong pairing between art and story, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” is considered a classic because of Kimmel’s ability to tell a mesmerizing story, says Anita Silvey, the author of “100 Best Books for Children” and “Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book.”

“Readers from different backgrounds learn about Jewish culture, but what pulls them along is a story,” Silvey wrote in an email.

Kimmel, 68, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., has gone on to win two National Jewish Book Awards and the Sydney Taylor Award for Jewish children’s books.

He recalls a letter from a young reader with a Latino background who said Hershel was his favorite Halloween story. Kimmel says he receives many requests for permission to turn the story into theatrical productions.

“I am always flattered,” he says.

Kimmel says “Simon and the Bear” (Disney Hyperion, ages 3-6, $16.99) may be his best work. It’s a charming, witty, feel-good adventure based on a sad story that Kimmel read about the sinking of the Titanic. The book was illustrated by Matthew Trueman.