We are huge Natasha Wing fans around here. I've reviewed The Night Before my Birthday and The Night Before First Grade on this blog, and we own several other titles in the series too. As Hanukkah is approaching, we were delighted to receive The Night Before Hanukkah here at the Murray house to add to our collection.
We don't know much about Hanukkah, so I had to look up when Hanukkah begins this year. The first night of Hanukkah begins at sundown at December 17th, with the eighth and last night being on December 24th. Wing's story, naturally, starts with preparations for the holiday the night before Hanukkah begins.
It focuses on one family's experience of Hanukkah. The preparations that night include decorating and baking before the children fall into bed, dreaming of the festivities to come. On each night, the family completes another activity for Hanukkah. The first night, the mother lights the first candle on the menorah and the family sings together. Each of the family members opens a present on that first night as well. On subsequent nights, they play dreidel, share the story of Hanukkah together, eat latkes and jelly doughnuts, visit with other members of the extended family, volunteer to serve others, and finally, on the last night, come back to the menorah once more.
All of Wing's books in this series are based on the famous poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". The rhyming structure is simple and familiar and keeps the story bouncing through each of the nights. There is enough detail in the text to explain some of the traditions readers might not be familiar with, without giving too many extraneous details.
One of the things I like best about this particular title is the interplay between the text and illustrations. There is no glossary of vocabulary words here. Instead, couplets like "Dad put on his yarmulke, pinned it down on his hair" are accompanied by a spot illustration. It is very clearly shows the father pinning on his yarmulke. Children can see a yarmulke fairly close up in these watercolor illustrations. They can see its approximate size, its texture, and how it fits on the father's head. There are multiple illustrations of the family playing dreidel on the second night. Within the text, Wing includes instructions for spinning the dreidel, the Hebrew letters, the gelt used to participate in the game, and some of the rules are also included in the text. But Wummer also adds information through her illustrations. Both the young boy and girl take turns spinning the dreidel on separate pages. There are close ups of each side of the dreidel, with the name of the letter recorded beneath. This helps readers identify which word goes with each action for the game.
All of the Hanukkah activities are ones for the whole family. Every night this family is together. I like that there is an emphasis on simplicity in this text. The family doesn't go out for an expensive outing or give each other lots of presents. The first night is the only night presents are mentioned, and both the parents are given presents the children have made for them. It connects the holiday to mindfulness and meaning. The entire family makes a priority to celebrate together. It is joyous and heartfelt.
And, indeed, when on the last night, their mother realizes that there isn't a candle for the eighth space in the menorah, the family solves that problem together. The children find a birthday candle to use in its place, and they fall asleep together in front of the menorah.
I believe this book could be used both as an introduction to Hanukkah for readers who might not know much about the holiday and as a pre-Hanukkah story for families who do celebrate. It will be a great addition to our Natasha Wing collection, and we'll be reading it on the 16th of December. Hopefully many of you will be reading it along with us!
The Night Before Hanukkah. By Natasha Wing; illustrated by Amy Wummer. Grosset & Dunlap, 2014.
Thanks to Natasha Wing for appearing as part of The Night Before Hanukkah blog tour. For other stops on the tour, go here.