Celebrating Eric Kimmel’s Hershel, meeting new characters
By Penny Schwartz
BOSTON (JTA) — Back in 1984, when Eric Kimmel was an up-and-coming children’s book author, he tried his hand at a Chanukah story, one featuring goblins. Overly cautious Jewish editors rejected the manuscript, not knowing what to make of it, Kimmel recalled.
“It was strange. It didn’t look like any other Chanukah books and didn’t fit into any neat category. It wasn’t a folk tale and it was kind of creepy,” he told JTA with his signature sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is manner.
Kimmel tucked the story away in a drawer for a while.
Years later, some keen-eyed editors, first at Cricket magazine and later at Holiday House, took a chance on Kimmel’s offbeat tale, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, illustrated by the late acclaimed artist Trina Schart Hyman.
The book was recognized with a 1989 Caldecott Honor and went on to win a place in the hearts and homes of Jewish and non-Jewish families, schoolteachers and librarians across the country. Hershel has been in print ever since.
Now, in time for Chanukah, the eight-day Festival of Lights that begins this year on the evening of Dec. 16, Holiday House has issued its 25th anniversary edition of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, with a new afterword by the Kimmel and Holiday House publisher John Briggs, who brought the book to light.
And Kimmel has a new Chanukah tale out this year, Simon and the Bear.
As Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins opens, a wandering poor Jewish man named Hershel arrives in a Jewish village on a snowy day at the start of the holiday. For years, the townsfolk have been scared off by goblins from celebrating Chanukah, they tell him. The evil-doers blow out the Chanukah candles, break the dreidels and throw the latkes on the floor, they bemoan.
But Hershel tells the rabbi he is not afraid.
“If I can’t outwit a few goblins, then my name isn’t Hershel of Ostropol,” Hershel says.
Each of the eight Chanukah nights, Hershel outwits the goblins, one more menacing than the next. In the end, with clever maneuvers and quick thinking, he breaks their evil spell and returns the Festival of Lights back to the townsfolk with a triumph to match the holiday’s own miracle.
Growing up, Kimmel enjoyed hearing stories of Hershel of Ostropol from his storytelling grandmother. He sees the folk character as a hero among the people, the opposite of the fools of Chelm.
Hershel has street smarts, is practical and takes on the mighty and powerful.
“He’s surviving day to day and using his wits,” Kimmel says.
The book was hailed as a perfect match between the master storyteller and Schart Hyman, whose vibrant paintings set the tone with darkened scenes illuminated by the golden glow of the Chanukah candles and shiny gelt coins.
In addition to the strong pairing between art and story, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is considered a classic because of Kimmel’s ability to tell a mesmerizing story, says Anita Silvey, the author of 100 Best Books for Children and Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book.
“Readers from different backgrounds learn about Jewish culture, but what pulls them along is a story,” Silvey wrote in an email.
Kimmel, 68, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., has gone on to win two National Jewish Book Awards and the Sydney Taylor Award for Jewish children’s books.
He recalls a letter from a young reader with a Latino background who said Hershel was his favorite Halloween story. Kimmel says he receives many requests for permission to turn the story into theatrical productions.
“I am always flattered,” he says.
Kimmel says Simon and the Bear (Disney Hyperion; ages 3-6) may be his best work. It’s a charming, witty, feel-good adventure based on a sad story that Kimmel read about the sinking of the Titanic. The book was illustrated by Matthew Trueman.
Here are some other new Chanukah books for children:
A fun-filled collaboration between the Pinkwaters — the humorist Daniel and his artist wife, Jill — will enliven Chanukah in this new Yetta the Yiddish-speaking chicken tale. Yetta’s flown the coop from a Brooklyn poultry market and takes up with a cast of nest mates who jest in English and Yiddish translations. A lost kitten in need of care leads them to celebrate Chanukah with a warmhearted grandmother. The large-format pages sparkle with brilliant and entertaining color illustrations.
The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin
Martha Seif Simpson; illustrated by Durga Yael Benhard
Wisdom Tales ($16.95); ages 5 and up
In this beautifully illustrated tale set in the old world, the keeper of a toy shop offers a mysterious dreidel to a young boy from a poor family. The boy’s humility emits a small miracle from the special dreidel. An author’s note explains the holiday, dreidels and how to play the dreidel game.
A lavish and brightly illustrated book by the award-winning writer Leslea Newman lyrically rhymes its way through the Jewish holidays, including Chanukah. End pages explain Jewish customs and holidays and include recipes, including fried potato latkes for Chanukah.
A perfect Chanukah gift for young readers.
A newly adopted dog from a shelter is a family Chanukah gift that delights a young brother and sister. Latke, the dog, feels very lucky to be living with the loving family, but in innocence he gets into mischief and threatens to spoil the Chanukah celebrations. The story, told from Latke’s perspective, will delight dog-loving kids.
This rhyming Chanukah story for young kids is Natasha Wing’s newest entry in her best-selling series of “night-before” books. Rhymes and illustrations are lively as the story follows a family celebrating Chanukah and retelling a simple version of the holiday story.
This entry in a series by Galia Sabbag, a longtime Jewish educator, features the spunky and curious Shira searching for her new unusual dreidel sent by her aunt in Israel that is lost at school. Hebrew words, written also in English, are sprinkled throughout the text. Erin Taylor’s large format, animation-like illustrations enliven the story that’s a good read for kids in Jewish and religious schools.
Stratford author’s new children’s Chanukah tale imparts Jewish values
By Penny Schwartz
Growing up, Martha Seif Simpson was passionate about reading. Now, the veteran children’s librarian, a resident of Stratford, has begun a new chapter in her literary life, as a published children’s book author.
The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard, is her second book in less than two years. The beautifully illustrated story is a delightful, old-world, folk-style tale with a timeless message that will appeal to families of all faiths. It’s among this year’s crop of kids books for Chanukah.
Seif Simpson, head of children’s services at the Stratford public library, will read from her book on Sunday, Dec. 7, 11:30 am, at the Arts and Crafts Fair at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven. She will also sign copies of the book, available for sale at the event.
The JCC’s Chanukah mascot, “Dizzy the Dreidel,” will enliven the festivities. The event is free and open to the public.
Jewish children’s books, such as Seif Simpson’s Chanukah story, offer families an entertaining way to impart Jewish values, says Laura Ross, the JCC’s director of family engagement and outreach who also serves as the New Haven coordinator for the PJ Library Jewish children’s book program.
The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin
Martha Seif Simpson, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard
Wisdom Tales, $16.95;
ages 5 and up
Days before Chanukah, a peddler sells a one-of-a-kind hand-painted dreidel made of the finest wood to a toy shopkeeper who boasts that he will resell it for a handsome price.
“The miracle of Hanukkah cannot be bought,” cautions the peddler.
When the store owner sells the dreidel to a spoiled girl who demands that her father buy the dreidel, it gets angrily returned because it wouldn’t spin. The same thing happens a second time with another family. But when the bewildered shopkeeper offers the mysterious dreidel to a poor boy, his humble ways bring forth a small miracle from the special dreidel, enlightening the spirit of the holiday.
Young and old will delight in Bernhard’s lovely, detailed and colorful paintings of enchanting old-fashioned toys, including the colorful, elaborately carved dreidel. In an email, Bernhard tells the Ledger she used the city of Prague, known for its hand-carved toys, as an inspiration for the illustrations.
Backpages include an author’s note about Hanukkah and dreidels and instructions for how to play the dreidel game.