Off the Shelf: Great gifts for Hanukkah: books for tweens/teens

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It should come as no surprise that I think books make great gifts. In my mind, the perfect Hanukkah gift for a Jewish tween/teen is a book featuring – drum role here – a Jewish tween/teen! I’m just saying that if you do eight nights of gifts, at least one night should feature books. Of course, adults should feel free to read these books, too. There are a lot of good ones. Oh, and if your tween/teen is unhappy with the gift, feel free to blame me! Most likely, I’d just suggest another book they might like. 

“The Do More Club”

Attending a new school is never easy. However, it’s even more difficult for Josh Kline in “The Do More Club” by Dana Kramaroff (Rocky Pond Books) because he doesn’t feel comfortable revealing he’s Jewish – that’s even before swastikas were spray painted on the school building. Josh couldn’t help but notice there are very few Jews or people of color in the school, and that makes him very nervous. But the school takes the matter of the swastikas seriously and brings in specialists to work with the students. That doesn’t go over well with everyone, but Josh begins to feel more at home. When he organizes a school club called the Do More Club to help bring kindness into the world, he learns not only how small actions can matter, but how prejudice works against everyone.

“The Do More Club” is written in prose poetry, with short lines and chapters, which makes it easy to read. Readers hear Josh’s thoughts, something that works well because the core of the story is his learning to feel comfortable with himself. Josh also comes to realize how lucky he is to have the support of the local Jewish and non-Jewish community. 

“The Gray” 

Middle school can be difficult for anyone, but it’s even worse if you’re being bullied. In “The Gray” by Chris Baron (Feiwel and Friends), Sasha’s problems are complicated by mental health issues: he’s been diagnosed as having heightened sensitivity combined with social anxiety and a panic disorder. For Sasha, the words that describe his feelings are “the gray,” because the world suddenly becomes drained of color. That makes his emotional responses hard to control. After an incident at school, Josh is sent to spend the summer with his Aunt Ruthie, who lives in the country: that’s not a punishment, but rather gives him a chance to regain some control over his feelings. Even in a small town, there are potential friends and bullies, and lessons to be learned about friendship and regrets.

Baron notes that this well-done novel is partly based on his own experience, which explains why parts are so moving. Adult readers may understand a plot detail that is deliberately left vague due to the subject matter; however, that only makes this work more powerful.

“Two Tribes”

In the graphic novel “Two Tribes” by Emily Bowen Cohen (Heartdrum/HarperAlley), Mia is torn between two heritages: she’s Jewish on her mother’s side and Native American (Muscogee/Creek) on her father’s. Her parents’ marriage ended on a bad note and they do not communicate. Mia currently lives with her mother in California and attends a Jewish day school, where some students think she’s adopted because of her skin color. Missing her father, Mia pretends to be on a school trip and travels to Oklahoma to visit him and learn more about her Native American heritage. When both parents learn what she’s done, there are repercussions, but each comes to realize that their daughter needs to learn about, and feel at home in, both cultures.

“Two Tribes” is well done and easy to read. Parts are relevant not only to tween/teens, but to adults who will also appreciate the lessons it teaches. 

“The Jake Show”

Even when a child’s divorced parents are both Jewish, life is not always easy. This is true for Jake Lightman, the narrator of “The Jake Show” by Joshua S. Levy (Katherine Tegen Books). After their divorce, his mother became more observant, even marrying an Orthodox rabbi. Jake’s father, on the other hand, not only doesn’t practice Judaism, but married someone who is not Jewish. Jake so wants to please his parents that he becomes a different person in each household: Yaakov, who dresses in Orthodox style clothes at his mother’s house, and Jacob, who dresses in jeans and t-shirts, at his father’s home. His parents’ frequent disagreements have led him to change schools almost every year since the divorce. He likes his new school, a Modern Orthodox one that doesn’t completely satisfy either parent. Jake doesn’t care: he’s finally made some friends and is happy. When those friends suggest Jake attend their Jewish camp, he knows that neither parent will agree. That means hatching a scheme to fool both. 

Levy has created characters with real depth and lessons that will challenge adults and children. However, the best part of the novel is its humor; the scene that takes place at the airport is comic genius. Since Jake loves TV and views his life through his favorite programs, it would be appropriate, and wonderful, if someone decided to turn “The Jake Show” into a mini-series. 

“Shira and Esther’s Double Dream Debut”

The plot device where two characters switch places is a staple of literary fiction. In the case of “Shira and Esther’s Double Dream Debut” by Anna E. Jordan (Chronicle Books), the two girls – Shira and Esther – are not only almost completely identical, but were born on the same day in the same hospital. The two have never met because, even in the small town Idylldale, not everyone Jewish runs in the same circles. Although the two girls look alike, they couldn’t be more different in other ways: Shira, the rabbi’s daughter, loves to tell jokes and wants to perform on the stage. Esther, the daughter of a Yiddish actress, wants to study Torah and read books. When the two girls finally meet, they decide to switch places so Esther can have the bat mitzvah she’s dreamed about and Shira can perform in a talent contest to be on a TV show. The question becomes whether their parents know their children as well as they think.

Jordan’s work is a light-hearted romp with some serious overtones. The owner of the town deli serves as the narrator and adds a Yiddish-style touch to the story and language. The time period in which the story takes place is not clear, although in her author’s note, Jordan explains her choices. But it really doesn’t matter: this delightful tale will charm readers. 

“The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman”

Writing a second book can be difficult, especially if the author’s first novel won a Sydney Taylor Book Award and was listed as a best book of the year by NPR and Kirkus Review. Mari Lowe’s “Aviva vs. the Dybbuk” had that kind of success, but fortunately the writer has managed to avoid a sophomore slump. Her excellent new work, “The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman” (Levine Querido), once again takes place in the Orthodox Jewish world. Shaindy is not socially adept and doesn’t seem to have any friends at the Orthodox girls’ school she attends. That’s why when Gayil, the most popular girl in her class, wants to befriend her, Shaindy quickly falls under her spell. She doesn’t mind that Gayil asks for her help in arranging pranks in their classroom, or that Shaindy is supposed to pretend they aren’t friends during the school day. However, as the pranks become more mean-spirited, Shaindy begins to wonder if there is more to the pranks than Gayil is revealing and just how that will impact Shaindy’s own life.

Although Lowe’s novel takes place in the Orthodox world with its specific demands and pressures, all readers will be able to appreciate what Shaindy learns not only about herself, but those around her. The book lends itself to discussion and would be great for teen and adult reading groups. (The Reporter review of Lowe’s first novel can be found at Off the Shelf: Romance, fantasy or a combination of the two: Part two.)

“Run and Hide”

Although the graphic nonfiction work “Run and Hide: How Jewish Youth Escaped the Holocaust” written and illustrated by Don Brown (Clarion Books) is aimed at children ages 13-17, it covers such an amazing amount of material that it could also serve as an introduction to the Holocaust for adults. Its opening history about the Nazi regime is excellent, as is its exploration of what happened to Jewish children across Europe. Included is information about the Kindertransport (where parents sent their unaccompanied Jewish children to England before World War II started) and the anti-Nazi groups that worked to save as many children as possible. But the graphic work doesn’t stint in the different ways the Nazis murdered Jews across the continent. Brown ends with a serious note mentioning how hate and violence have continued, even after the cries of “never again.”

Parents may want to read and discuss “Run and Hide” with their children, particularly the younger ones because much of the material is disturbing. There is a source list for the quotes of survivors that Brown shares, along with a bibliography for those interested in learning more. 

“Eight Dates and Nights”

For those seeking light reading, there’s “Eight Dates and Nights” by Betsy Aldredge (Underlined). Hannah Levin is not happy to be spending part of her school vacation with her grandmother in Texas, rather than remaining in New York City with her family and friends. Mucking out horse stalls is not her idea of fun, especially since she hasn’t seen her grandmother in years. At least, she’ll be returning in time for Hanukkah – well, that was the idea until a major snowstorm cancelled all flights East. The only consolation is her discovery of a Jewish deli in town, which is where she meets Noah, a way too cheerful, kind of annoying and attractive in a goofy way person her age who has decided that he is going to create a Hanukkah for her that she’ll never forget. That gives him eight nights to convince the grumpy Hannah that the holiday doesn’t only have to serious; it can also be fun. 

Fans of rom-com will find “Eight Dates and Nights” perfect holiday reading. It does include some insight into small-town Jewish Texas history, but it’s the love story and Hannah’s realization that there is more to life than New York that makes the story shine.

“The Blood Years”

Sometimes it’s easier to write about your family’s history as a novel, rather than a nonfiction work. That’s true for Elana K. Arnold’s “The Blood Years” (Balzer +Bray). In her forward, Arnold explains the novel is based on her grandmother’s experiences and notes that concentration camps didn’t feature in the destruction of the Jews of Czernowitz (which was part of Romania during World War II). It’s also the story of two sisters, the narrator Frederieke (Rieke) Teitler and her older sister Astra. The two girls and their mother have lived with their grandfather since their father deserted the family. The two girls vow never to sacrifice their lives for a man like their mother did, but that changes when Astra falls in love. Rieke is devastated, but that problem soon pales when the Romanians decide to side with the Nazis and start their own anti-Jewish laws. Nothing seems the same or safe as foreign troops – first Russian and then German – invade their town. Now the question becomes if they will survive their precarious existence. 

“The Blood Years” offers an interesting and different look at survival during the Holocaust. The novel is moving, sad and suspenseful. It also focuses on the moral dilemmas people faced during the war, something that makes it an excellent work for book clubs and discussion groups.