A recognizable middle school antihero confides in readers in an empathetic, funny, and heartwarming story that cuts across the expected grain. Set during Hanukkah, this wonderful novel is full of universal dilemmas and realistic pre-teen situations at home and at school.
Despite its lighthearted delivery, including many laugh-out-loud scenarios and asides, the book offers serious consideration about being Jewish in a non-Jewish world, poor in a well-to-do one, and sharing a family that runs from difficult to odd when the narrator only wants to be normal, hang with his friends, and succeed as a young magician. The book runs chronologically through the eight nights of Hanukkah, each chapter a candle, with a bonus finale from the shamash when Joel, who only wishes to live unseen, is on display at the winter holiday assembly with his parents and older brothers. How and why he gets here is the trajectory of the book. With each succeeding chapter, the reader loves Joel more, cheering for him to star in his magic show, get the best of the dreidel spins, and find his miracles in dreidels, candles, or other signs.
Joel finds talking to God easier than his bar mitzvah lessons from the cantor or receiving help from a popular girl to perform his magic. He worries about himself, but moreso about his father, riddled with arthritis and facing a crazy cure that was popular in 1971 when this faux memoir is set. The beautiful lesson comes not from glowing candles or Joel, but from an orange, which an old man offers as a symbol of hope on the bus Joel is forced to ride in car-crazy California. Joel instigates chuckles as he pokes gentle fun at much of the Jewish culture around him, including an incredible array of the different ways to spell Hanukkah.
Dreidels on the Brain adheres honestly to the voice of the 12-year-old narrator, who begins to understand the world through his chatty, breezy, and humorous dissection of events. This book is a miracle of Jewish identity for Hanukkah and throughout the year.
Recommended for ages 9 – 13.
Ellen G. Cole, a retired librarian of the Levine Library of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is a past judge of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards and a past chairperson of that committee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excellence in Jewish Children’s Literature. Ellen is the recipient of two major awards for contribution to Judaic Librarianship, the Fanny Goldstein Merit Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroeder Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries of Southern California. She is on the board of AJLSC.