When Mindy Saved Hanukkah

by Eric A. Kimmel; ill. by Barbara McClintock

Scholastic Press, 1998

32 pages

Courage is a difficult, even counterintuitive, quality to cultivate in our children.

By definition, it requires direct exposure to danger or adversity–the very kinds of circumstances from which we try to protect our kids.

And when dealing with girls, there’s an added challenge.

In our culture, courage is usually depicted as a masculine trait–e.g., we tell people to “man up” or “buck up,” not “woman up” or “doe up.”

As if that didn’t make it hard enough to en-courage girls, we use feminine language to evoke cowardice and weakness (e.g., “You run/throw/scream like a girl”).

This is why I keep my radar up for books featuring courageous heroines–they’re a great way to counteract the courage-is-for-boys message that has a tendency to seep into our everyday language.

Eric Kimmel’s When Mindy Saved Hanukkah is that kind of book.

The title character is a miniature human who lives with her family behind the walls of New York City’s Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Like the Borrowers of classic kid lit, Mindy Klein’s family repurposes castoff, full-size items to serve their own needs.

For Hannukah, that means melting down one of the synagogue’s discarded candles to produce smaller versions for the Kleins and their friends.

At least, that’s the plan.

But when Papa Klein tries to acquire the candle, he discovers that the synagogue has a new resident: a fierce cat who thinks mini-humans are likely to be even tastier than mice.

Most of the family treats this setback as final–but Mindy insists that she can get the candle.

And get the candle she does, after a grueling and hair-raising foray into the larger world.

The story itself is incredibly engaging.  Kimmel is a master plotter, concocting a tale that shimmers with a magical blend of suspense, humor, and the warmth of a close-knit family and community.

As for the illustrations, McClintock’s paintings are the perfect foil for Kimmel’s text.  Her domestic scenes are full of creativity and humor, and her reveal of the synagogue is simply breathtaking.

The book is also a great introduction to the story of Hannukah, particularly for Gentile or secular Jewish families.  Kimmel layers the text with natural allusions to synagogue culture and the holiday’s origin, then provides an easy-to-understand glossary in the back.

But the best part of the book, of course, is Mindy’s inspiring courage, a blend of several traits that are themselves challenging to cultivate.

First, there’s her confidence.  When everyone else tries to convince Mindy to stay home, she lists all the reasons she’s the perfect person to fetch the candle–her speed, her strength, etc.

Then there’s her perseverance.  Mindy’s adventure pushes her right to the limits of her physical and mental endurance, but she refuses to quit.

And finally, there is her common sense: when Mindy ends up in a stalemate with the cat, she has the smarts to accept help and work as part of a team.

The end result is success and provision, not just for Mindy’s family but for all their friends who gather at the synagogue for Hanukkah.

So perhaps that’s what’s most inspiring about this book–the idea that one little girl’s courage can impact an entire community.

“Man up”?  Maybe I’ll start saying “Mindy up” instead.

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