When I was growing up, my dad always gave me two books for Hanukkah, wrapped in pages from the previous year’s Jewish calendar. This was an important tradition at our house. I’d unfold the stiff glossy paper, adorned with a photo of a rusty spice box, and hold my breath, waiting to see what lay in store, because the books my dad chose were unpredictable.
Some years I’d get a cookbook. One year I received a copy of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust and was terrorized by nightmares for weeks. But the reason there were two books each year was that one was always Jewish, and the other was simply a good read. Because, my dad figured, all books were Jewish books. Us being the People of the Book.
The instinct to give books for Hanukkah feels important, inherently a part of the holiday. Winter is a dark season, and books provide as strong a light as candles. They shine and transform the nighttime. They put us to sleep, and teach us things. They give us a reason to cuddle up to our kids and share a few quiet moments. And in this strange new world, where text is changing rapidly, it feels important to hold on—as Jews do so well—to the memory of the BOOK.
So here, for your pleasure, is a list of eight wonderful picture books. I haven’t included books about Hanukkah or Judaism here, because finding those is simple enough–just plug the word latke into a search engine. Instead, I’ve compiled a list of books about books and reading, in honor of my father, and thousands of years of Jewish readers.
1. The Incredible Book Eating Boy (Oliver Jeffers)
Henry EATS books. Gobbles and swallows them up. And as he does so, he becomes smarter and smarter and smarter. But… he feels sick. This book about slowing down and enjoying a book fully feels more timely every year.
2. We Are in a Book (Mo Willems)
Perhaps the very best of the Elephant and Piggie books, this laugh-out-loud easy reader follows two friends who realize that they themselves are in a book. Elephant and Piggie worry about what will happen when the book ends, and in the end they reach a fine solution to their problem.
3. The Monster at the End of this Book (Jon Stone)
Not unlike the above title, this classic (in both Little Golden and board book formats) introduces a character trapped in a book. Our furry pal Grover, of Sesame Street fame, is in an absolute pickle. He has heard there’s a MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK and will stop at nothing to keep the reader from encountering the terrible beast.
4. It’s a Book (Lane Smith)
Though kids will love the art, and appreciate the humor, this book is as much for parents as it is for kids. An overly wired jackass is baffled when he finds his monkey friend reading a book. “Do you blog with it?” he asks. “Does it text?” The poor animal cannot fathom the object in question, but in the end, even the jackass falls for the story. Of course!
5. How Rocket Learned to Read (Tad Hills)
Rocket is a sweet puppy, taken under the wing (pun intended) of a bird in love with the alphabet. As days pass, the bird teaches Rocket his letters, and then flies away when the seasons change. This tale of how a dog falls in love with his world, via the written word, will melt your heart.
6. Dog Loves Books (Louise Yates)
Dog loves everything about books, from the feel of them to the stories themselves, so he opens a bookshop! When nobody comes to the shop, Dog finds comfort (and adventure) in the books themselves. Lovely and expressive.
7. I Will Not Read this Book (Cece Meng)
This is the perfect book for kids who aren’t easily drawn to reading, though it’s a riot for everyone in the house. “I will not read this book, even if you hang me upside down by one toe!” asserts a boy. With every page his situation becomes more dire, and young readers more engrossed in what it will take to get the kid reading.
8. Look! A Book! (Bob Staake)
This one is more about the infinite number of things a book can be and do as it is about text itself. But I’m including it here because it is highly interactive, and a great example of how a book can be as physical and as interactive as a video game. “A Box! A Cone! A Pumpkin Phone!” Kids will spend hours searching the book for vibrant images. Perfect for the road trip home from Bubbe’s.
You should also be sure to check out PJ Library, which offers free monthly Jewish books for kids 8 and under. If you live in the New York metro area, you can now sign up for PJ Library through Kveller here. If you live elsewhere, see if there is a PJ community in your neighborhood by visiting here.