A New Spin on the Dreidel Song

I Have a Little Dreidel – written by Maxie Baum, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Scholastic, 2006

The book is not new, but the interpretation of the beloved, if repetitive, Chanukah song is.  If you thought it was a folk song, it is not. Even though the song is relatively recent, dating from the 20th century, its ubiquitous presence makes it seem ancient.  In I Have a Little Dreidel, gorgeous folk art-inspired pictures by Julie Paschkis, which accompany the original lyrics, and additional words by Maxie Baum, make this one of the most distinctive Chanukah children’s books I have seen. 

Yes, I know that some parents might find the song irritating, especially when repeated by children, either spontaneously or in an official school production, but there is a reason these lyrics are so popular!  They celebrate an entertaining tradition whose roots have been debated, but which has evolved into a symbol of joy and purpose-free play.  Baum makes the song into one about family, retaining the same lilting rhyme scheme. Some of her choices break the rhythm slightly: “We’re going to make some latkes/Because it’s so much fun,” or “Because we celebrate/the victory of the Maccabees.” Since children naturally do that when repeating nursery rhymes or songs, it works in this child-centered book.

The real innovation here is the artwork.  Paschkis is inspired by folk art and fabric design.  A blue and white background frames the lyrics, with motifs, such as the hamsa hand, the chanukiya (Chanukah menorah), and elements from nature. These images also recall traditional Jewish paper cutting.  Pictures of family members are both realistic and stylized: Mom with her dark curly hair, aged grandparents, children dancing and spinning the dreidel.  The composition of the pictures draws the reader’s eye to multiple activities without being visually overwhelming.  In the same scene, some people are presented in profile, others facing the reader, and still others only partially visible (the grandparents’ feet in their cozy slippers).  In the center of the book, a two-page spread reveals a glorious gold chanukiya, as one white-sleeved hand lights the eighth candle.

If you’ve forgotten how to make potato latkes, or the rules for playing dreidel, both are included at the end of the book.  Latkes, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), are a nice accompaniment but are not necessary for enjoyment of this artistically sophisticated love poem to the holiday of Chanukah. 

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