The Hanukkah story can be a difficult one to share with kids. It’s intense. And let’s face it, it’s bloody. So we’re inclined not to dig too deeply. Instead, we cover it over with dreidels and latkes. We keep it light.
But this year, as I was getting ready to make this list of books to get for your kids, I found myself thinking back over recent world events, which so many parents also struggle to discuss with their kids. And it seemed to me that maybe there’s an opportunity here.
What if Hanukkah could be a time to talk with our kids about justice, oppression, and identity? What if we used the story of the Maccabees to help our kids empathize with other historic struggles for freedom, control, or autonomy? And maybe to understand their own place in the conversation and the world they live in?
I think about the national conversations we’re having this year, about #blacklivesmatter and #weneeddiversebooks. There’ s a bridge, from our own story—when we struggled to maintain our identity as a people—to the story of so many others.
Below are brand new picture books that highlight the struggle for identity, in different ways. They showcase the strength it takes to stand up for yourself, and the power we all have to change the world when we do.
*Remember, this year Hanukkah starts on the evening of December 6*
1. Hiawatha the Peacemaker
Robbie Robertson, David Shannon
About: “Hiawatha the Peacemaker” was a Mohawk, but this story tells of his lasting impact on five different Iroquois nations. This is not only a book about struggle, peace, unity, and good government, it also serves to help educate kids about the complexity and variety of native cultural identities.
2. Drum Dream Girl
About: Set in Cuba in the 1930s, “Drum Dream Girl” tells the story of a girl with music inside her, who refused to be silenced, studied in secret, and changed the culture around her. This is a feminist narrative for the youngest reader, in language that almost seems to carry a drumbeat itself.
3. Red, a Crayon’s Story
About: Red is a crayon who doesn’t feel very red. In fact, he’s terrible at being red, though he keeps trying. Unfortunately, his insides never seem to match his outsides. Until one day he figures out why, and finds his purpose and his truth. A fresh, fun story that carries a serious message about identity, without ever feeling didactic.
About: George Moses Horton is a “Poet.” In his soul, there’s a river of words. But he’s also a slave in North Carolina, and he’s not supposed to read or write, much less publish. That he goes on to become the first published African American author in the south is a story of struggle and redemption that children can relate to.
5. Sitting Bull, Lakota Warrior
About: Along with Crazy Horse, “Sitting Bull” was the last Lakota/Sioux to surrender to the U.S. Government. The parallels to the Hanukkah story are strong here, and for older children, this will be a powerful book to compare to the story of the Maccabees. Told in the voice of Sitting Bull himself, this narrative introduces both the events of the age and the experience of growing up a warrior in a changing world.