The Hanukkah Mice – written by Steven Kroll, illustrated by Michelle Shapiro
Marshall Cavendish Children, 2008 (Two Lions, Amazon Publishing)
There are too many children’s books featuring mice to mention in one post. Within that category are quite a few in which mice inhabit their own parallel universe adjacent to a human one. Eventually, the two species interact. Some of these books feature dollhouses, perhaps most famously in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. This week Hanukkah begins, so it’s a good time to revisit one example of this popular theme, Hanukkah Mice, by the late Steven Kroll, illustrated by Michelle Shapiro. I like the playful pictures, the understated tone, (“I wonder where that tablecloth came from,” said Mama.”), and the nostalgic sense of a mid-twentieth century American Jewish celebration of the Festival of Lights.
The human family in this book is named Silman, a choice that definitely evokes a kind of identifiable Ashkenazic (Jews originally from Central and Eastern Europe) world. If you analyze the name, maybe it could be a combination of “still” and “sill”. They certainly are quiet and calm, but removing the letter “t” in the more common last name suggests the part of a window that will feature in the story. Their daughter, Rachel, receives a beautiful doll house on the first night of Hanukkah, represented by a chanukiya (Hanukkah menorah) with one candle and the shammes (helper candle) lit. The house is beautiful, but simple, not of the extremely expensive and elaborate variety. Rachel is both excited and grateful to receive it.
At the same time, a mouse family living in their typical home of a mousehole aspire for more. They see the house and they are really delighted. There is no suggestion here of arrogance or pride going before a fall; they just would like to live in this attractive new setting, and who could blame them? We see Rachel sleeping in her bed, the dollhouse on the floor close by, and the mouse family quietly approaching their new potential home. The scale of the objects in the room captures the story in one image: a human child in her bed, a small nightstand, a dollhouse bigger than the nightstand but smaller than the bed, and a diminutive mouse family.
As the eight-day holiday progresses, Rachel receives an article of furniture each night for her new dollhouse. Her parents’ choice to give her one “big” gift and then modest additions for it is nice in itself; today one might see it as a refreshing choice to avoid materialist excess, especially since gift-giving is not in itself the core of Hanukkah celebrations. There is a lovely wing chair with footrest, a comfy couch where Mindy Mouse bounces, but not enough to get hurt, and, the best part, small plates with miniature latkes (potato pancakes). Rachel observes the family setting up their new furniture, a proportionally huge face peering through the window of their house. On the eight night, Rachel receives a miniature dollhouse menorah; this is as good as it gets for the mouse family! In a cutaway scene of the dollhouse, each room appears still and quiet, with only a few pieces of unoccupied furniture, while the mouse family celebrates the holiday with a feast on their new dining set.
Papa Mouse recites the Hanukkah candle blessing, (not printed here), on their small electric menorah. This small detail raises both a minor an and a bigger issue. Electric menorahs are a modern convenience, not meant to replace one using candles or oil. One of the mitzvot (commandments) of Hanukkah is to publicize observance of the festival by placing the chanukiya/menorah in a place which is visible to all. While many families do place their chanukiya in the window, the obvious issue of safety has made the electric lamp, used as a symbol only, a substitute. One would not recite blessings over the electric bulbs. If this error bothers you, you might just explain the discrepancy when reading to children. Or, you could assume that the characters are mice, so there is not an expectation of the same realism as humans would evoke. It also reminds me that, if this choice is indeed a mistake based on lack of knowledge, any author or illustrator might be vulnerable to making one. None of us is perfectly informed about our own heritage, any more than an “outsider” writing about a different group. I prefer to think of the electric menorah blessing in The Hanukkah Mice as a charming quirk of apparently Jewish mice joyfully celebrating the holiday in their new home. Chag Chanukah Sameach/Happy Hanukkah.