Besides Passover and matzah, there may not be a Jewish holiday and food more closely associated than Hanukkah and latkes. Unlike the bread of affliction, these traditional potato pancakes are a culinary joy. Yet they, too, have a lesson to teach us — at least that is the premise of Alan Silberberg’s Meet the Latkes.
In Meet the Latkes, Lucy Latke bonds with her grandpa as he recounts the holiday’s story; even her sullen teenage brother Lex comes out of his room to hear the inspiring tale. For kids who like silly puns and bright, cartoonish images, the book is a blast. Adults, too, can enjoy the ride as a Juda Mega-Bee and his band emerge from a Trojan-horse-like dreidel on wheels to fight alien potatoes from outer space.
Meet the Latkes is a not a book for skeptics, and it does contain inconsistencies: the Latke family and the bad guys oppressing the Jews are all potatoes, while the heroes are bees. The Latkes’ pet dog, Applesauce, looks like he may be a condiment, or maybe just a differently shaped spud. In the book’s version of the Hanukkah story, the miraculous vessel of oil has been replaced by a container of honey.
However, young children will be happy to accept Grandpa’s version of the holiday story as they follow the blocks of text and speech balloons containing other characters’ comments. The illustrations combine different styles: traditional imagery of glowing menorahs and spinning dreidels establish a warm, familiar home, but wild action and menacing villains provide plenty of excitement. “The Mega-Bees … sliced and whipped and mashed those tater tyrants into tatters,” Grandpa intones, and the accompanying pictures show the heroes — some with curly black beards, others wearing glasses, and all with kippot—bringing victory to the embattled Jews. The endpapers feature family photos rendered in blue and white of adorable baby Latkes, Latke family dinners, and, in a moment of cultural blending, Latkes trick-or-treating in pumpkin costumes. There is even a picture of Mama and Papa Latke getting married under the chuppah, or wedding canopy.
This book entertains and teaches children through a specific type of zany humor. An additional section, “The Story of Chanukah (or Hanukkah!),” offers historical background and vocabulary. One important correction is necessary, though: Antiochus was not a Syrian ruler, as the book says, but a Greek ruler of the Hellenistic kingdom which included parts of the Middle East. For those who prefer Sephardic customs, there is a definition of sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), which Mama and Papa Latke actually prepare for their family near the beginning of the book.
Meet the Latkes is recommended for children ages 4 to 7, and for adults who appreciate a childlike sense of humor.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.