Before you read any further, you should know: these aren’t exactly reviews. They’re BETTER.
(That’s also why I want you to read this even if you don’t celebrate Chanukah.)
What could be better than reviews?
As writers, we’re at work even when we read for fun (even when we read to our kids), and that’s a serious job. We have to examine each book not simply for whether or not we enjoyed it (like ordinary readers do), but analyzing it to figure out IF it works and HOW it works.
That’s the only way we can make our own writing better.
Working while we read (for pleasure)
When I took a children’s picture-book writing course earlier this year, I had to research “comps” – comparable books on a similar topic. Since I was working on one of my Chanukah books, I decided to research what else was out there in the world of Chanukah books. I chose these books almost at random, but I think it’s a good assortment of what’s out there.
Have fun reading through them, and hopefully discovering a few new favourites.
- How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague
- Mrs. Greenberg's Messy Hanukkah, by Linda Glasser, illustrated by Nancy Cote
- Esther’s Hanukkah Disaster, by Jane Sutton, illustrated by Andy Rowland
- Chanukah Lights, by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Robert Sabuda
- Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat: A Chanukah Story, written and illustrated by Naomi Howland
- The Story of Hanukkah, by David A. Adler, illustrated by Jill Weber
- Sammy Spider's First Hanukkah, by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn
- Biscuit's Hanukkah, by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Pat Schories
- Elmo’s Little Dreidel, by Naomi Kleinberg, illustrated by Christopher Moroney
- Light The Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah And Christmas, by Margaret Moorman
- Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap, by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Shahar Kober
- Battle for Torah: The Message of Hanukkah, by Kay Kindall, illustrated by Neil Kindall
While you’re reading through these short blurbs, take a look at some of the different ways we – as writers –should be analyzing “comps.”
What to look for
First of all: for all twelve books, I identified what I thought was the theme of the story. This may or may not be the theme the author originally intended. You should definitely be aware of what themes other writers are using, and what’s popular with kids and parents.
Then, each book is handled a little differently. For the first three, the assignment was to identify key aspects of the plot: inciting incident, conflict, and resolution. With the next three, I dug up editorial reviews. The next three include just a plot summary. For the final three books, I included a “pitch sentence” for each book, along with my own analysis of whether or not I think the book “works.”
You should be able to identify at least a couple of these elements for every “comp” you read.
Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague
Blue Sky Press (2012)
1. INCITING INCIDENT = Dinosaurs are mischievous, naughty by nature
2. CONFLICT = Various scenes show various dinos getting into various types of holiday-related trouble
3. RESOLUTION = When the dinos join in properly, sharing the dreidel and singing songs, everyone has a better time on the holiday!
Theme: Silly antics are tons of fun, but good behaviour is the key to a good time on any warm family occasion.
Linda Glaser, illustrated by Nancy Cote
Albert Whitman & Company (2004)
1. INCITING INCIDENT = Rachel wants to celebrate Chanukah (her family isn’t celebrating until next week), so she goes to help her elderly neighbour make latkes.
2. CONFLICT = Rachel’s “help” is clumsy and awkward: eggs break, flour and oil spill everywhere.
3. RESOLUTION = Rachel realizes that sometimes a mess isn’t a big problem –Mrs. Greenberg just enjoys the companionship of having someone else around. “Her house hasn’t felt so lived-in in years.”
Theme: Friendship and holiday spirit are more important than tidiness.
Jane Sutton, illustrated by Andy Rowland
1. INCITING INCIDENT = Esther’s in too much of a hurry to shop properly.
2. CONFLICT = Her gift choices for her friends are all wrong! A jogging suit for her turtle friend, huge socks for the little monkey, etc.
3. RESOLUTION = She realizes that gift-giving must be more thoughtful, and also figures out how to fix the mix-ups she’s caused (she has her friends swap gifts).
Theme: Gift-giving is about sharing and understanding what our friends like and want – not just buying things to please ourselves.
Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Robert Sabuda
New York Times book review:
“Chanukah Lights,” by Michael J. Rosen and illustrated by Robert Sabuda, is a pop-up book with elaborate paper cutouts and an appealing premise: Throughout history, Jews over the world have lighted candles on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, celebrating the holiday of freedom. This gives Sabuda, a talented paper engineer, the chance to fabricate land- or cityscapes of historical interest and architectural charm, one for each night. There’s the Temple with its Hellenistic facade, where the oil lamp miraculously burned for eight days; a large tent in the desert where the Jews once wandered, complete with inquisitive camels; an enormous synagogue surrounded by palm trees and windmills, presumably meant to be one of the old synagogues built in the Dutch Indies; and so on. On the sixth night we get to the Jewish Lower East Side, a tour-de-force of pop-up artistry, featuring vendors’ carts and a dray horse and wash hanging out to dry between realistic tenements.
All of this is done with plain white cardboard, but the absence of color in no way diminishes the magic, and children old enough not to wreck these delicate constructions will surely love them. Their parents will have to work a bit at explaining Rosen’s text, however. Those who don’t already know quite a lot about Jewish history will be mystified by the captions, which allude elliptically to different moments in the long Jewish quest for refuge from persecution. Why are Jews lighting Hanukkah candles in the holds of square-topsail schooners? What do towering, elegant onion-domed churches have to do with the Jewish search for safety? The mushy, overwrought writing doesn’t clarify much, referring vaguely to refugees longing for peace or families huddling in a shtetl. I would not expect the audience for this book to know that Jews crossed the Atlantic looking for religious freedom with the first settlers of the New World, which explains the old-fashioned ships, or that the Russian Orthodox church sometimes helped foment pogroms in Jewish villages. Though children may be too enchanted by the cutouts to care.
Theme: This is an “idea” book highlighting Chanukah throughout the ages.
This book is essentially a “Sorceror’s Apprentice” / “Strega Nona” type story about a magical pan that makes latkes for Chanukah. (Another of the author’s book is an adaptation of the Gingerbread Man story into the “Matzah Man” story for Passover.)
Publisher’s Weekly review:
Like most of this season's Hanukkah offerings, Howland's (ABCDrive!) uses the holiday as flavoring rather than the principal ingredient. Her agreeable outing combines a classic fairy tale plot with a shtetl setting and a touch of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. A girl does a kind deed for an old woman, who gives her a magic pan that will fry up latkes. Her brothers overhear the secret words that will start the pan cooking, but not those that will stop it (the words are ""A great miracle happened there,"" to which dreidels also refer). Howland serves up friendly, folk-ish art, containing the excesses of the plot with down-to-earth depictions of people and village. Ages 5-8. (Aug.)
The escalating drama of this story lies in the piling up of the latkes… and the resolution is when the young girl, Sadie, must stop the pan – and then decide what to do with the deluge. I’m assuming she shares them with other poor villagers, but haven’t read the book to confirm.
Theme: Generosity of spirit is the true “miracle” of Chanukah.
David A. Adler, illustrated by Jill Weber
Holiday House (2011)
New York Times book review:
David A. Adler’s “Story of Hanukkah” introduces the basic rudiments of the Hanukkah legend to, say, kindergartners, with illustrations that remind me of my Hebrew school Hanukkah pageants. Bearded Jewish men with blue cloth thingies on their heads, Jewish women with the same, Greek soldiers with horsehair crests on their helmets: I’ve worn those costumes in my life, or know someone who has. These figures sometimes walk and sometimes float through these pages with a Chagall-like indifference to the law of gravity. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see that Jill Weber, the illustrator, has enlivened the kitsch with some nice detail. Her soldiers wear convincing-looking greaves on their legs. There’s a pig hiding behind a column; perhaps he’s hiding so as not to become the pig sacrifice Antiochus IV made in the Temple (though that incident is not mentioned in the text). My daughter, a Jewish day-school student, was shocked by the vivid image of a Greek soldier slicing a Torah scroll in half with his sword, an unthinkably blasphemous act to most Jews.
Theme: History comes to life (sort of – the reviewer didn’t really like the book as much as another one he talked about later) through vivid, often surprising illustrations.
by Sylvia A. Rouss (Author), Katherine Janus Kahn (Illustrator)
This is a series book. In each Sammy Spider story, he sees the human family where he lives celebrating their holiday and becomes both curious and jealous. He never does join in the celebration, but learns a ton and ends up warmly embraced in his own family’s many arms. Along the way, kids learn about holiday customs, object, rituals, etc., in more or less the predictable way. They are kind of sticky-sweet. However, they’re aimed at a non-religious audience and the one we have (Rosh Hashanah) was kind of boring for my own kids – who knew it all at a very young age.
Theme: Jewish holidays are fun and sweet for everybody in the family – even spiders.
Alyssa Satin Capucilli (Author), Pat Schories (Illustrator)
This is another series book, this time a mainstream series from a non-Jewish publisher. I like this one very much, in fact. Nothing to do with religion is mentioned at all, and there are no “basics” introduced in the story. Instead, the girl makes a menorah, then gets together and celebrates with friends, period. Throughout the book, Biscuit is just the right mix of helpful and mischievous, as usual. My kids also liked this one very much – I think because it doesn’t belabour its point or try to teach them about the holiday.
(NOTE: THIS IS A BOARD BOOK.)
Theme: Spending time with friends is the true meaning of Chanukah.
Naomi Kleinberg (Author), Christopher Moroney (Illustrator)
Random House (2013)
This is the basic “sharing your religion” plot, as explored countless times on Sesame Street and elsewhere. Elmo always loves discovering his friends’ customs, and here, he is welcomed into their home for candle lighting and a round of dreidel play. It is a very non-threatening introduction to the holiday, but nonetheless, not one I would have shared with my kids. They enjoy Elmo’s bumbling in videos, but would get bored having the holiday explained in this amount of detail.
Theme: Another one that shows how Chanukah is all about spending time with friends – and that sharing traditions can be fun.
Every December, Emma and her family celebrate two special holidays. First comes Hanukkah, with dreidel games and lighting the menorah. Then comes Christmas, with carols, bright lights on the tree, and presents for everyone!
Generally, I can’t stand stories billed as “heartwarming,” and this book looks like it would be no exception. The pictures are nice and cheerful – in fact, there’s nothing offensive or particularly eventful in the book. I suspect if I saw it on the shelf, I’d put it back right away, but there is nonetheless a huge market for books like this. As one Amazon.com reviewer put it, “It is not religious, nor does it teach about the meanings of the holidays. It merely depicts a little girl who celebrates both holidays and how her family celebrates (lighting the menorah, lighting the tree, latkes and singing, cookies and singing and spending time with family).”
Theme: If you want a book that depicts the holidays but doesn’t preach, teach, or take any kind of stand “for or agin’”, this one’s okay. Blah.
Deborah Bodin Cohen (Author), Shahar Kober (Illustrator)
Hurrying home to celebrate Hanukkah, Engineer Ari screeches his train to a halt to avoid hitting a stubborn camel sitting on the tracks. The camel’s Bedouin owner invites Ari to his tent to await help, where the two have an impromptu Hanukkah celebration, and become friends.
After the initial “mishap” (a stubborn camel on the tracks), it seems like Engineer Ari isn’t going to be able to make it home to Jaffa to celebrate Chanukah in his usual way. Instead, he meets various new friends who explain different aspects of the holiday (a clever way of cramming in basic ideas without seeming overly didactic). Then, he ends up celebrating with a new friend, a Bedouin, who has never observed the holiday before.
Set in some fictitious golden peaceful era of Jerusalem’s modern past, this book is charming. I read it to my kids last year (we took it out of the library), making this one of the few Chanukah books here we’ve actually read aloud together.
Theme: Spending time with friends is the true meaning of Chanukah. Also (minor theme) the importance of the Land of Israel to the Chanukah story.
Kay Kindall (Author), Neil Kindall (Illustrator)
The Maccabees defied the enemies of God and led the battle against the conquering Syrians to defend their right to follow God and obey the Torah. The battle for Torah continues today. Just as they cleansed the Temple, we are reminded during the Hanukkah season to cleanse our lives and commit to following God.
I was very curious when this “message of Chanukah” book popped up in my search results, written and self-published by a Christian author (and illustrated by her husband). The rhymes are amateurish and the pictures even more so. Yet the story itself remains remarkably on-message. As Christians, they see the primary significance of this and other Jewish stories as “pointing” to the message of Jesus; therefore, he is the ultimate reason for the Chanukah season as well. As a Jew, I may disagree, but if I were a Christian interested in Jewish holidays, I might buy something like this if it had better art.
As a self-published book written in verse, this book highlights some of the clearer pitfalls of taking the self-publishing route.
Theme: In a season commemorating spiritual rededication, we should similarly rededicate ourselves to our spiritual “cleansing” – taking the moral high road even when it’s difficult.
Based on what I found out in the course, by the way, I ended up writing not one but TWO Chanukah picture books myself. Check them out!
One Chanukah night, not that long ago,
How can Sammy write about history when it’s his least favourite subject?
A Chanukah assignment from his teacher leaves Sammy scrambling to find something interesting in Jewish history – until he realizes that there’s more to all those stories than he ever realized before.
History is your story, too – find out all about it in One Chanukah Night.
"Chanukah monsters light the lights,
Chanukah is fun for everyone... until one monster gets a gift he just doesn't love.
Will his jealousy ruin their party, or will the monsters find a way to play happily (and safely) together?
Find out in Chanukah Monsters, a fun rhyming tale that's sure to bring out the Chanukah monster in everyone!
The truth about “comps”
Know why I usually put the word “comp” in quotation marks, by the way?
We’re not really in competition with each other. For another course, I researched “comps” for Shavuot – another Jewish holiday that takes place in the spring. And guess what? I actually SOLD the book I created as a result to the same publisher that had put out the three comps I researched.
We’re not really in competition. We’re all in this together. We’re here for the love of great books, and the love of sharing stories with children.
Whatever YOU celebrate, I’d love to hear about some of the books that you’ve found that do it best. Leave your comments down below and I’ll respond to each and every one.
[photo credit: Ron Almog via Flickr]