Gail Lerner originally shared her Jewish Book Month reading recommendations with JBC’s email list this past week. Below is the letter.
Hanukkah is early this year! No need to squint in disbelief at your calendar. I’m breaking it to you now: prepare to light your first candle on December 7. Those of us lucky to have kids, nieces, nephews, and youngsters of all varieties in our lives are going to be hitting the streets in search of gifts and gelt before we’ve even finished Thanksgiving leftovers.
Lest you find yourself in a pickle (or a pickle jar, a fate which befalls a greedy goblin in one of the stories I’m about to recommend) about what to buy for the littles you love, I’m excited to share a Hanukkah childrens’ book wrap up (we’re talking picture books, middle grade, and YA) with some of my old and new favorites.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words so let’s start with picture books, which are worth thousands upon thousands. A new favorite of mine is Osnat and her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi by Sigal Samuel with vibrant illustrations by Vali Mintzi. Based on a true story, Osnat takes place in sixteenth century Mosul (modern day Iraq) and tells the story of a girl who defied every convention and expectation of a young Jewish woman of her time. Her journey to becoming a Torah scholar and rabbi will inspire not just the children that the book is primarily written for, but the adults lucky enough to be collaboratively reading this beautifully told tale.
One of my childrens’ favorite Hanukkah stories was Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel and whimsically illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. When goblins take over a town on Hanukkah, legendary prankster Herschel of Ostropol out-tricks the tricksters and saves the town. And if you guessed that one of these greedy grinches falls victim to a pickle jar — well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
No Hanukkah book list would be complete without a story about Chelm, the world’s most famous town of schlemiels and schlimazels. My favorite has always been Isaac Bashevis Singer’s iconic story about a carp that dares to slap a rabbi with its tail and is summarily sentenced to death by drowning. Check out The Wise Men of Chelm and the Foolish Carp, puckishly illustrated by Viktoria Efremova. It’ll delight children and adults alike.
I could recommend picture books for days, but I can’t leave my beloved middle grade readers empty-handed. For lovers of book series, check out Sarah Mlynowski’s trio of Best Wishes stories, in which a wish-granting bracelet makes its way across America, jumping from owner to owner and granting wishes that don’t turn out quite as hoped. The first novel in the series has an emphatically Jewish heroine but the plot doesn’t turn on religion, which is one of my favorite kinds of ways to show Judaism in literature. We’re not just about holidays and persecution. We’ve got room for magic-infused jewelry, too. And my own recent middle grade novel, The Big Dreams of Small Creatures, weaves together friendship, activism, and tikkun olam as we follow Eden, a Black and Jewish ten-year-old, on her quest to help insects and people live together joyfully.
For graphic novel lovers, look no further than Barry Deutsch’s delightful Hereville: How Mika Got Her Sword. The cover promises a story about “yet another troll-fighting eleven-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.” If that doesn’t send you running to your local bookstore, nothing will.
And what to get the teenager who’s too cool for everything? Emily Barth Isler’s devastating novel Aftermath is so gripping and timely that it will make even the most jaded high-schooler put down their phone.
Finally, I have to give a shout-out to the ultimate classic of Jewish childrens’ literature: Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family series, which chronicles the everyday exploits of five sisters navigating life in the tenements of the Lower East Side in 1912. Our modern world is a case study in materialism run amok. Whether you’re a first-time reader or eternal fan, you’ll adore this iconic trip back in time to a lost world that celebrates finding joy and beauty in everyday delights, like eating candy in bed, rummaging in junk shops, and getting into scrapes with your sisters.
Gail Lerner is a television and film writer/director for beloved shows such as black-ish, Grace and Frankie, and Will & Grace. She has garnered multiple award wins and nominations, including a Peabody, six NAACP Awards, multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and an Academy Award nomination. She holds an MFA in Theater Directing from Columbia University. This is her first novel.