Before Kevin Hawkes began illustrating a new Hanukkah book for kids, the award-winning Southern Maine artist knew he had some homework to do.
Hawkes, who isn’t Jewish, wasn’t that familiar with the holiday, but he was drawn to the wide-open artistic possibilities of “The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol,” a mythical tale by Arthur A. Levine, one of the country’s most influential children’s book editors and the author of several Jewish children’s books.
The result is a dazzling blend of story and art.
“Nate Gadol” is among a crop of new, engaging kids’ books for Hanukkah, which begins this year on Thursday evening, Dec. 10.
The Journal caught up with Hawkes, whose art adorns scores of books, including “Library Lion,” “Weslandia” and “Marven of the Great North Woods,” by Cambridge author Kathryn Lasky, that garnered the National Jewish Book Award.
Learning about the Maccabees, the historical roots of Hanukkah and centuries-old menorahs was fascinating, Hawkes said in a phone conversation, but what he really wanted was a feel for the cultural aspects of holiday.
“I asked my friends to tell me about the colors and smells of Hanukkah.”
Fun fact: While the name of the superhero is Gadol, which means “large” in Hebrew, Hawkes at first drew him as a small “scrappy” figure who helps people in quiet ways. In the end, the Jewish superhero, who is invisible to the characters in the story, fills the pages. “His power comes from generosity, which is as large as the universe,” Hawkes said.
On Hawkes’ drawing table is another Jewish book, this one on Shabbat!
“The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol”
Arthur A. Levine; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Candlewick Press; ages 5-8
In this magical tale for the times, a dashing, kind-hearted Jewish superhero named Nate Gadol travels the globe and across time to answer the prayers of those in need by making things last as long as needed. He swoops in to ease the lives of the Glasers, as the poor immigrant family scrimps and saves to help their neighbors, the O’Malleys. In the harsh winter of 1881, when Hanukkah and Christmas coincide, Nate and Santa cross paths and share their magic to surprise both families with treats for the holidays.
Laura Gehl; illustrated by Lydia Nichols
Abrams Appleseed; ages 3-5
Get in on the Hanukkah fun when a friendly family of llamas lights the menorah, plays dreidel and builds a snow-llama. Bright illustrations pair perfectly with the rhyming verse.
“Kayla and Kugel’s Happy Hanukkah”
Ann D. Koffsky
Apples & Honey Press; ages 3 -8
Fans and newcomers to the delightful “Kayla and Kugel” books will welcome Ann Koffsky’s latest in the series. As the endearing young Kayla and her playful dog Kugel search the house for the family’s Hanukkah box, she retells the story of the holiday in simple verse. Kugel’s lively mischief will tickle young readers.
“The Littlest Candle: A Hanukkah Story”
Rabbis Kerry and Jesse Olitzky; illustrated by Jen Kostman
Kalaniot Books; ages 4-8
A colorful box of Hanukkah candles tucked away in a drawer comes to life in this sweet, touching story with bright, animated illustrations. The bickering among the jealous candles turns to Hanukkah unity with the guidance of the wise candle and the humility of the smallest.
“The Eight Knights of Hanukkah”
Leslie Kimmelman; illustrated by Galia Bernstein
Holiday House; ages 3-8
In this playful tale, eight young knights perform acts of kindness and bravery to save the kingdom’s Hanukkah celebration from a dragon who is causing trouble for the villagers. All ends well when they discover that the dragon is a youngster, who joins their festive Hanukkah gathering. The off-beat story will have kids laughing.
“There Was a Young Rabbi: A Hanukkah Tale”
Suzanne Wolf; illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
Kar-Ben; ages 4-8
The rhyming verse of this rollicking read-aloud follows the pattern of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” On the first night of Hanukkah, a rabbi lights the menorah. Each night she adds something new to her family’s celebration, from cooking applesauce to playing dreidel.
“The Ninth Night of Hanukkah”
Erica S. Perl; illustrated by Shahar Kober
Sterling Children’s Books; ages 3-8
On the first night of Hanukkah in their new apartment, Max and Rachel’s mom can’t find the family’s Hanukkah box. But the clever siblings have fun improvising with the help of their multicultural neighbors. On the last day of Hanukkah, they thank them with a celebration that reflects the Shamash, the ninth, helper candle on the menorah.
“D.I.J Do It Jewish: Use Your Jewish Creativity!”
Barbara Bietz; illustrated by Daria Grinevich
Intergalactic Afikoman; ages 8-adult
This perfect family Hanukkah gift will spark unique projects for kids and teens. Award winning Jewish book writer Barbara Bietz has compiled a fascinating array of Jewish creatives who share their behind-the-scenes stories about Jewish filmmaking, cooking, songwriting and more, along with suggestions for projects.
The talent-filled creative team includes Western Massachusetts resident Sarah Aroeste, a musician who creates and performs Ladino music. “D.I.J Do It Jewish: Use Your Jewish Creativity,” is a perfect family gift.