Cowboy Boots, Aliens, and Juggling Pickles: All in Eight Nights

It’s a Miracle! A Hanukkah Storybook – Stephanie Spinner and Jill McElmurry, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003

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When I began my blog, one year ago just this past Thanksgiving, I wrote about Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller, with pictures by Jill McElmurry. At the time, I learned that McElmurry, perhaps best known as the illustrator of Alice Schertle’s highly popular Little Blue Truck series, had recently died.  I went back to two of McElmurry’s earlier books, Mad About Plaid and It’s a Miracle! Both feature her signature use of caricature and humor, along with a joyous enthusiasm perfect for capturing the Festival of Lights.  This is a Hanukkah story with a grandma wearing cowboy boots, a dentist with a parrot named Dreidel who distracts fearful patients with his constant talking, and Owen Block, a little boy who is thrilled to earn the title of O.C.L. (Official Candle Lighter). Grandma’s stories of the past alternate with Owen’s celebration of the eight nights of Hanukkah in the present.

The book, written by Stephanie Spinner, has a significant amount of text for a read-aloud picture book, but it also could serve as an entertaining story for elementary school age readers.  Just like Owen, they will wait with excitement for each one of Grandma’s improbable tales. A World War II era account of Uncle Ralph’s miraculous project to save his wife’s life involves a search through the phone book: “…whenever he saw a Jewish name, he called the number. He told each person about his wife and asked them to pray for her…The very next day she started to get better.” We see a young soldier in uniform holding the hand of his post-partum wife as a twisted telephone wire links together portraits of the sympathetic Jews across two pages.  Then there were the aliens who come to earth and see menorahs in the windows. One alien is disoriented, but the holiday lights of the town restore his memory and lead him home. “’Did you make that story up,’ asked Owen.  ‘Maybe I did,’ said Grandma Karen. ‘And maybe I didn’t.’”  A child with gloomy parents is admonished by his teacher not to be the class clown. So he restricts his outlandish behavior to home, entertaining Mom and Dad by juggling “a sour tomato, three pickles, and a knish.”

Where’s the Hanukkah? Owen and his cousin Molly spin dreidels. Owen’s mother’s latkes, which usually “tasted like fried cardboard,” turn out delicious. Owen’s friend Buster, who is African American, visits him for Hanukkah and stands on a tall pile of books to reach the menorah, which Owen is lighting all by himself (looks dangerous!). Every zany tall tale, as well as the warmth and comfort of Owen’s home, are all “miracles.” An afterword explains the history of Hanukkah, and there is also a page of Hanukkah blessings in both Hebrew and English, as well as a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words.  I was touched by Jill McElmurry’s explanation on the inside back flap of the jacket:

“I’m not Jewish and I grew up in a nonreligious family, but as a child I remember being attracted to religious ritual and ceremony. Working on It’s a Miracle! gave me the chance to step for the moment into the warm light of Hanukkah in a fun way.”

Reading this quirky take on the fun of Hanukkah and the nature of miracles is a way to appreciate both Stephanie Spinner’s weaving of tales, and the lovely legacy of McElmurry’s work.

 

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