Believe it or not, I like bad reviews. The good ones, anyway. I appreciate criticism of my writing that helps me become better at what I do. The review of Mezuzah on the Door that I quote most often is that the dialogue is, at times, “stiffly didactic.” It’s true, and one of the things that bothered me most about that book, though I hadn’t been able to name it until I read that review.

I took those words to heart when working on the Shabbat Princess. I pass it on to other writers, too, when they show me their manuscripts and ask for advice.  I remind them, and myself, that putting information into quotation marks doesn’t really make it dialogue, or at least not dialogue that resonates as authentic.

I’m grateful that the response to The Shabbat Princess has been overwhelmingly positive. But, I’m no Kevin Henkes. My work is flawed and would absolutely benefit from some good bad reviews. So when I stumbled across a negative review in the Association of Jewish Libraries November/December newsletter (I had to stumble across it because apparently my publicist only sends me the nice ones) I was actually a  little excited. What advice could  I apply to the manuscript I’m currently struggling with?

Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure.

As Rosie watches her mother prepare for Shabbat, she asks why her mother takes such care in setting the table. Her mother replies that she is welcoming the Sabbath Queen. Since Rosie prefers princesses over queens, she decides to dress as the Sabbath Princess which makes the story feel a little far-fetched. As Rosie begs for a moat and Fairy Godmother, the text strays away from Shabbat. It gets back on track when Rosie encourages her parents to turn the Shabbat table into a royal banquet by using their best candlesticks and polishing the Kiddush cup. This story does a poor job of explaining the significance of Shabbat and why we welcome the Sabbath queen. it.

I get the far-fetched part, though I don’t think it would have been far-fetched for my own girls, who inspired the story. I was less sure what to make of the “back on track” part (whose track?) and the “poor job of explaining” part. Do all books that are about Shabbat have to explain about Shabbat? Should I be more didactic, stiffly or otherwise?

Interestingly, the newsletter also had a review (by a different reviewer) that panned one of my favorite books of the year, Kishka for Koppel, by Aubrey Davis. She actually chose my favorite line (the one that had me almost spit out my coffeee at a book fair in Newton) as “the death blow to this story. ”


Which leads me to conclude that librarians have a different set of criteria for books than other readers.  A valid set, but not the same as those of literary critics, parents, and perhaps, kids. What that means for my odds of any kind of nod from the soon-to-be-announced Sydney Taylor Book Awards, which is an arm of the Associaion of Jewish Libraries, I don’t know…..but if they pass me over, at least I have my own Sydney Taylor award, the stack of letters she wrote me as a child, to console myself.

In the meantime, I have a request. I’m doing some research for reasons I’ll explain soon. Here’s what I want to know: Do you read children’s book reviews? What do you look for in a book review? Do you have any favorite reviewers, or sources for reviews, and if so, why?

Shavua Tov, and thanks for your help, as always.

We definitely aren’t the first family to celebrate the eighth night of Hanukkah by making, lighting and then eating our menorah. Google “cupcake menorah” if you don’t believe me. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to blog about it. Who ever accused me of being original?

I used Martha Stewart’s yellow cupcake and frosting recipe, adding some cocoa powder to the batter after filling half the tins because the girls couldn’t agree on what  kind of cupcake they wanted.

Ella and Zoe were allowed to use food coloring to make as many colors of frosting as they wanted, so long as they only dirtied three bowls. This was their favorite part of the activity (other than consuming the cupcakes, obviously).

We arranged them on a shiny blue plate, stacking one cupcake on top of another for the shamash, and added the candles.

A few hours later, we lit the cupcakkiah (thanks, Marjorie…) Even though we sang the blessings, not Happy Birthday, it was very hard for the girls to remember not to blow out the candles and make a wish.

We let the candles burn through dinnner – the only downside being a bit of a waxy puddle in the middle of each cupcake when it came time for dessert.  We devoured half the menorah, and look forward to extended our holiday joy one extra night be eating the leftovers.

This is a new tradition for us, but definitely a keeper.

Last night, I had to exaplain to Zoe that our plans to make jelly dougnuts were put on hold because her sister was running a 101 fever. She was none too thrilled by this information.  “We don’t really do anything Jewish for Hanukkah,” she cried. “All we do is light some stupid candles.” Mind you, this is the same child who sat with her fingers plugging her ears at Bnai Jershurun this past Friday night because she was so mad that I had made her go to shul on our vacation in NYC. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to dismiss her criticism too quickly. Was lighting (stupid) candles in fact the only Jewish thing we did for Hanukkah? Have I been so busy teaching and blogging that I’ve neglected my responsibility as a Jewish parent?

Actually? No.

For you, Zoe, a few highlights of our Jew-y Hanukkah:

We decorated our windows, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of pirumei nissa, aka publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah.

We made latkes, topped with applesauce and sour cream. (Though I didn’t photograph ours, so I borrowed this shot from the public domain.)

We baked Hanukkah shaped sugar cookies. (Yes, these misshapen goodies are ours.)

We read Hanukkah Books, including one of my favorite out-of-print classics, Grandma’s Latkes, by Malka Drucker, and tare currently working our way through the less-engaging but highly-informative Alexandra’s Scroll, by Miriam Chakin.

We took a family trip to NYC, which included the Jewiest of all activities (from a cultural perspective, that is) lunch on Christmas Day in Chinatown. (This was followed by a visit to the to eat pickles from The Pickle Guys on Essex St. on the Lower East Side.)

We also sang Hanukkah songs, attended a community Hanukkah celebration, and made a real, oil burning menorah:

Tonight we are making an edible, but kosher (as in halachic, or legal – at least I think it will be) menorah made out of cupcakes. Here they are pre-frosting and pre-candles. We’re going to cut the top off one cupcake to make the shamash a little lower than the others.

So, yeah, we did watch Miracle on 34th St and went to see the Eloise Tree at the Plaza hotel, and no, we didn’t play dreidl, but I’d still wager that our Hanukkah was Jew-ier than average. We certainly did more than just lighting some stupid candles.

But if it really matters to you, Zoe, next year I’ll really try to make those jelly dougnuts.


Now that I teach full time, a lot of my best “parenting'” work happens with other people’s children. I’m not sure what that might mean for the future of homeshuling (school-shuling just doesn’t have the same ring to it) but I thought I’d share a blog post from my Gan blog. I think this activity could be just as successful at home as it was in my classroom.

When I began teaching young children I made a vow that I wouldn’t do “cookie-cutter” art projects – those notorious items that kids tote home from pre-school and kindergarten that all look exactly the same. I’m not the least bit artistic. However, I had the good fortune of taking an art education class in graduate school with Cathy Topal, co-author of the amazing book Beautiful Stuff, and to take a two-day teacher workshop in the art studio at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, both of which helped me figure out how to set up a classroom and design activities that would support creative, open-ended art-making.

Sometimes, of course, cookie cutter projects are designed that way in order to reinforce a particular teaching point, and are a perfectly good use of student’s time and energy. One example is the pasta rendition of the life cycle of a butterfly. Yes, every child’s looked more or less exactly the same, but it was a fun way to assess their understanding and recall of the central idea of our monarch butterfly unit, and to send them home with an artifact of the unit. I just didn’t consider it art, really.

This Hanukkah, I wanted to create a lesson that was both open ended but also reinforced one of the learning goals for Kindergarten – understanding that the definition of a kosher hanukkiyah – that a Hanukkah candelabra has eight branches of equal height and one, the shamash, that is either higher or lower that the rest. (While children make and decorate their own salt dough hanukkiyyot, that activity isn’t really suitable for concretizing the “all the same height” idea, because it’s almost impossible for Gan children to acheive this result with salt dough. Which, of course, begs the question – should I rethink the medium for that activity?)

I decided to have the children make collage hanukkiyot, drawing from some of the wide range of materials that live on our art shelves. However, instead of making the collages completely open-ended, I draw pencil lines for each of the eight branches, in order to ensure that they would, in fact, be even. I also drew a tall shamash, but let children know that it was fine to make their shamash lower, instead of higher, if they preferred.

I was really delighted with how the project turned out. We started with these materials


Children visited the materials table, and chose items to explore. I set very few parameters – they had to use at least two materials, and no more than 9 pom poms (simply because I didn’t want to run out and suspected they would be very popular.) Also, they couldn’t have glue until they had tested out a few arrangements on their cardboard.

Children could choose between Elmer’s glue in a tube and our mini-tubs of glue with brushes. They worked independently to attach the materials. Some students finished in half an hour or so, and some worked for close to an hour. I think you can see how hard they are concentrating!


And I loved the end results – don’t you?





In an ideal world (or a world with 4-5 extra hours a day) the children would also discuss and perhaps write about or draw their own collages. Even without these follow up activities I think both the project and the display accomplished what I set out to do – teach a lesson using art without any cookie-cutting.