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Best Canadian Books To Get Jewish Kids For Hanukkah

Family religious observance and the Holocaust among themes for 2022

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Carol Matas of Winnipeg has written over 45 books for children and young adults. Her latest is a story about the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel, A Struggle For Hope. (Image: Scholastic.ca)

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Just in time for Hanukkah – the best new Jewish books from Canadian publishers for children, pre-teens and teens.

A Struggle for Hope by Carol Matas (Scholastic Canada, for ages 9–12, available here): Seventeen-year-old Ruth Mendenberg fights because she must. The year is 1948, Israel has declared its independence and the armies of five surrounding Arab nations have invaded, seeking to kill the new state at its birth. So Ruth fights to defend her new country, her kibbutz, and the children she helped smuggle from Poland to Eretz Yisrael. 

Ruth has her internal struggles, too. She survived Auschwitz, where she helped the sonderkommando blow up the crematoriums. But she also lost her entire family, except her brother who by a miracle also survived and reunited with her in Israel. 

This is a novel that moved me to tears. Not so much from the horror the story evokes but from how Matas shows her characters finding hope, friendship, and love in the face of overwhelming loss. 

A Struggle for Hope should be in every Canadian grade school. It’s wonderfully written, and as a recent novel for young people that shows Israel’s struggle to survive in a positive light, it’s a rarity.

Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer (Puffin Canada, ages 10–14. Published in 2018, but I finally got a review copy just recently. Available here): Kacer is the author of two dozen books about the Holocaust for young people while Walters is one of Canada’s best known children’s authors, with more than 100 juvenile novels out. Together, they have pulled off a novel that’s both deep and a page-turner. 

Shirli Berman just wants a prized role in the school play, but rooting around in her zayde’s attic, she finds an old violin and a playbill with a photo of her zayde as a boy in a family klezmer band. What? She’s never seen a photo of any of these people before, and her zayde doesn’t play violin – he doesn’t even like music. 

Amid the ups-and-downs of Shirli’s school putting on Fiddler on the Roof and Shirli crushing on the boy playing the lead, her zayde’s story emerges. He last played violin as part of the orchestra at Auschwitz, playing for the condemned as they went to the gas chambers. It’s a moving novel – one that young readers won’t be able to put down. 

Kathy Kacer has another Holocaust-themed book out in 2022: Hidden on the High Wire (Second Story Press, ages 9–12, available here): Irene Lorch has grown up in the family circus, performing on the high wire. But when the Nazis close them down because it’s a Jewish circus, Irene and her mother hide from the Gestapo with the Althoff circus. This is a novel based on a true story. Yad Vashem has recognized the Althoff’s as Righteous among the Nations, and the novel includes photos of them and the real Irene at the back.    

Hidden on the High Wire is the latest in Second Story Press’s Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers (see here). For reviews of two more Kathy Kacer novels, see here.

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Second Story Press also has a nonfiction Holocaust-themed book out in 2022: Heroines, Rescuers, Rabbis, Spies: Unsung Women of the Holocaust by Sarah Silberstein Swartz (ages 13+, grades 8–12, available here): These are stories of nine remarkable women from Faye Schulman, a resistance fighter who photographed both Nazi atrocities and the Polish resistance, to Vera Rosenberg Atkins, who ran British spies in occupied France, to Regina Silberstien and Ruth Altman, the author’s mother and aunt who together survived the Holocaust and, after the war, committed themselves to the Jewish future. 

This year Orca Books gives us three books for Jewish kids: another Holocaust themed novel, plus two contemporary books. If not for these two, every Jewish book for young people from Canadian publishers this year would be Holocaust-themed. So hurray for Orca! Because while we must continue to write about the Holocaust, it’s even more important for us to write novels and nonfiction that gives voice to our people in today’s world.

Sitting Shiva by Erin Silver, illustrated by Michelle Theodore (Orca books, ages 3–5, available here): Full disclosure – Erin Silver was a student of mine and I saw this book when it was still a manuscript. Indeed, I’m lucky enough that Erin still comes to my classes, but now as a guest speaker.  However, I only review books by people I know when I can unreservedly praise them – as I can with Sitting Shiva. As you might expect, this picture book introduces the customs of sitting shiva, but does so in a tender story about a young girl grieving her mother. The illustrations are warm and wistful, the writing pitch perfect. 

The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca books, ages 8–12, geared to a grade 3 reading level. Available here): In 2022, Joanne Levy had a banner year, with two novels for middle grade readers (reviewed here), one of which, Sorry for Your Loss was a Sydney Taylor Notable Book, a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award and The Red Maple Award, and won the Canadian Jewish Literature Award – all most deservedly. 

The Book of Elsie is a spunkier novel, featuring Elsie Rose Miller who’s courageous and fierce and smart like her hero Queen Esther – who would totally be played by Gal Gadot if they ever made a movie about Purim. Elsie learns from one of her two dads that her temple is going broke and decides to channel her inner Esther and save both her synagogue and their annual Purim party. 

Two contemporary young adult books, Sitting Shiva and The Book of Elsie, provide outstanding stories about Jewish life and our religion. (Images: Amazon.ca)

What World is Left by Monique Polak (Orca Books, ages 14-up. Republished in 2022, originally published by Orca in 2008. Available here): This is a sophisticated and engrossing novel that parents might find themselves borrowing from their teenagers. Based in part on the experience of the author’s mother, What World is Left tells the story of Anneke Van Raalte, a Dutch teen who together with her family is shipped to Theresienstadt, a “model” concentration camp used by the Nazis to show the world their supposedly humane treatment of the Jews. 

Though made to work as slaves and often dying from malnutrition, disease and arbitrary execution, the inmates were conscious they were the lucky ones – as long as they could avoid being shipped farther east for execution in the death camps. As the story progresses, this is the fate of the vast majority, including Anneke’s best friend and the boy she falls in love with. Anneke’s whole family survives, though, at the price of her father helping the Nazis with their propaganda. It’s an agonizing tale of a teen coming of age amidst a life of impossible choices. 

Caveat: The opening couple of pages of What World is Left are so dull they seemed designed to stop readers from discovering what a gripping novel this is. Persevere – it’s worth it.

Special mentions:

The Way Back by Gavriel Savit (Ember, a Random House Children’s Books imprint, for teens and young adults, though adults will enjoy it, too. Available here) Not Canadian, but The Way Back is my  candidate for best Jewish novel for young people published this year. Written by a master story-teller with a brilliant literary voice, it’s original, fun and gripping, yet deals with loss grief, and anger. The Way Back is fantasy novel, set in the shtetls of eastern Europe in the early 1800s, where we follow Yehuda Leib, who’s pursuing his father’s soul, and Bluma, who’s accidently come into possession of the Angel of Death’s spoon.

Afikomen by Tziporah Cohen, illustrated by Yaara Eshet (Groundwood Books, ages 3–6, to be released March 8, 2023, in time for Pesach. Available for pre-order here.) Told without text, entirely through pictures, Afikomen shows the story of three children whose dog has grabbed the Afikomen. He leads them under the table and they end up in ancient Egypt, where baby Moses in his reed basket needs their help.  

Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrations by Shahar Kober (Kar-Ben, ages 5–9. Available here.) There are a lot of books about Jewish holidays, but the Engineer Ari series, set in Eretz Yisrael, is one of the best. They’ve been around for a while, and besides Hanukkah, there are also Engineer Ari books for Rosh Hashana, Sukkah, Passover, and Independence Day. Beyond their wonderful charm, as books that place Jewish holidays in the land they originated, these would be ideal for school libraries across Canada.

Also be sure to check out Israel: A Simple Guide to the most misunderstood country on Earth by Noa Tishby, reviewed here, and see last year’s round-ups of best Canadian books for Jewish kids here and here.

Brian Henry is a writer, editor, creative writing instructor, and publisher of the Quick Brown Fox blog. He’s written opinion pieces for the National Post and the Toronto Star. He was also a regular contributor to the (now defunct) Jewish Tribune and the Engage and Harry’s Place websites in the UK.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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