Hanukkah: The Fes­ti­val of Lights

  • Review
By – November 25, 2020

The instant­ly rec­og­niz­able Gold­en Book brand has exist­ed for more than sev­en­ty-five years; the hol­i­day of Hanukkah has been around for much longer. These two clas­sics meet in Bon­nie Bad­er and Joanie Stone’s love­ly pic­ture book about the Jew­ish hol­i­day. With a sim­ple text alter­nat­ing between con­tem­po­rary cel­e­bra­tion and his­tor­i­cal back­ground, with vibrant­ly col­ored pic­tures, Hanukkah: The Fes­ti­val of Lights, teach­es young chil­dren about the festival’s sig­nif­i­cance and also cap­tures the warmth and excite­ment of one family’s observance.

The book begins with the most famil­iar of facts. Hanukkah is called the Fes­ti­val of Lights and involves light­ing the eight-branched meno­rah. This Gold­en Book sticks with the most typ­i­cal Amer­i­can, and Ashke­naz­ic, cus­toms, includ­ing eat­ing pota­to latkes and giv­ing gifts, although these appear only as wrapped pack­ages, with no scene of open­ing them. The fam­i­ly includes a moth­er, father, grand­moth­er, and two grand­chil­dren. The absence of a grand­fa­ther would seem to be a delib­er­ate choice; extend­ed fam­i­lies may have dif­fer­ent num­bers of grand­par­ents, or none at all. Although read­ers learn noth­ing more spe­cif­ic about this par­tic­u­lar group, the pic­tures con­vey quite a bit with sur­pris­ing sub­tle­ty. When we meet them in the open­ing pages, the kip­pah-wear­ing dad is light­ing the first can­dle, his hand affec­tion­ate­ly rest­ing on his daughter’s shoul­der. The grand­moth­er holds the tod­dler in her arms while the mom rests her hand on her mother’s back. On the con­clud­ing pages, the moth­er and grand­moth­er are both hold­ing the shammes (helper can­dle) togeth­er, while the rest of the fam­i­ly looks on. These scenes effec­tive­ly express the chain of tra­di­tion rep­re­sent­ed by this fam­i­ly-cen­tered holiday.

The mid­dle sec­tion of the book explains Hanukkah’s his­tor­i­cal ori­gins with all the excite­ment of a movie. Dig­ni­fied Jews per­sist in learn­ing Torah and observ­ing Tem­ple rit­u­als, while King Anti­ochus and his sol­diers threat­en their Jew­ish sub­jects’ way of life, even bru­tal­ly destroy­ing the holi­est of places. The pic­ture of their des­e­cra­tion of the Tem­ple is pow­er­ful, with an over­turned and bro­ken meno­rah and ves­sels of holy oil smashed into shards. The Hel­lenis­tic rulers replace these sacred objects with idols; Stone rep­re­sents the worth­less­ness of these mas­sive stat­ues by show­ing the sol­diers strug­gling to drag them into the sanc­tu­ary. At first the Jews appear fright­ened and weak — study­ing Torah in secret — but the series of pic­tures empha­sizes change as they join the Mac­cabees and fight to restore the Temple.

Col­or plays an impor­tant role in the book, adding a rich dimen­sion to the sim­ple nar­ra­tive. The scenes of ancient Judea fea­ture a red palette in the back­ground and cos­tumes, allud­ing to the blood­shed of the events. In con­trast, in the book’s open­ing scene bright blue, typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with this com­mem­o­ra­tion of Jew­ish nation­hood, is present every­where. The sky out­side the win­dow is dark blue, as is the father’s polo shirt, the gift wrap on presents, and both the lit­tle girl and her grandmother’s cardi­gans. The moth­er wears blue drop ear­rings and a blue skirt, but a deep-green cable knit sweater that match­es her lit­tle son’s paja­mas. The com­po­si­tion of the pic­ture is play­ful and dynam­ic, mix­ing expect­ed and unex­pect­ed col­ors. The moth­er and grand­moth­er share strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar fea­tures, with the grand­moth­er real­is­ti­cal­ly aged. On the final night of the hol­i­day, fam­i­ly mem­bers have exchanged col­ors, with the father in light green, and the moth­er and baby in blue. The grand­moth­er and grand­daugh­ter have switched to cran­ber­ry red, the same shade on the book’s cov­er. Is Stone wry­ly appro­pri­at­ing col­ors usu­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Christ­mas in this whol­ly Jew­ish-themed pic­ture book? If so, she has suc­ceed­ed in remind­ing read­ers of the festival’s core mean­ing, while enrich­ing her images with a range of visu­al tones. Hanukkah: The Fes­ti­val of Lights will make an indeli­ble impres­sion on both chil­dren and adults.

Hanukkah: The Fes­ti­val of Lights is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for fam­i­ly shar­ing as well as for Gold­en Book series col­lec­tors and completists.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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