Not Your Traditional Hanukkah/Christmas Picture Book

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By Laurel Snyder

Written by Lee Wind
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

“Red and Green and Blue and White” is not a Hanukkah/Christmas book, exactly, and that matters. Because while it can be tempting to conflate Hanukkah and Christmas, to blend them into one candlelit season of joy, that effort can feel inauthentic to the communities that celebrate these festivals. Instead, Lee Wind makes the holidays a backdrop for a story that’s more painful, but also more honest, and more meaningful in the end.

The picture book opens subtly. “On a block dressed up in Red and Green, one house shone Blue and White.” This line doesn’t draw loud attention to the power imbalance on the street. It simply states a fact. Next we meet Isaac and Teresa, friends who celebrate different holidays. While Isaac turns on a menorah decoration in his window, Teresa trims a tree. In many ways, the kids are similar, as both play, create (Isaac writes poems while Teresa makes art) and eat treats. The Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky’s illustrations on these pages are cheerful and bright.

Then night falls, and our story shifts. All the boisterous primary colors disappear in favor of cold gray, white and brown. We see a hand hurling something at Isaac’s window. “SMASH! … A stone! Shards of glass falling.” When the glass breaks Isaac is still awake and watches the menorah “flicker out.”

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    The effect is startling. It is perhaps important to explain that Wind makes no attempt to describe Isaac’s terror in the moment. We see his pain in the illustrations of the aftermath, in his fearful posture and worried eyes. So much in this book is understated, left to thoughtful readers’ imaginations. But when Isaac’s mom asks whether they should light the menorah again, Isaac knows “it would be like hiding” if they didn’t. So he relights it the next night and the new window glows like the one before.

    Meanwhile, across the street, we see Teresa watch the blue and white lights come back on and “let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.” In her relief and concern, she draws a menorah on a piece of paper, writes “For Isaac” at the top and hangs it in her own window. In short order, other friends notice Teresa’s sign and draw menorahs to hang in their windows, too. Soon the whole community has joined in. On the penultimate spread we witness joyful solidarity: a sea of windows across town decorated with paper menorahs.

    There’s much to admire in “Red and Green and Blue and White,” but what’s most impressive is the economy, the restraint. This is an actual child’s story, so the concrete events feel more important than attempting to explain their meaning. In a sense, the story is simple: Two children experience something scary and respond with the tools at their disposal. Their actions are powerful enough to change the world around them. It’s beautiful.

    On the final page, we see Isaac and Teresa together, against swirling rainbow colors and text. “Christmas tree and menorah light / Red and green and blue and white / Stronger together / Shining bright!” read the words. In this image, Isaac is again writing a poem, and Teresa is drawing a picture. But while the tableau behind them blurs and blends, Isaac’s poem is still Isaac’s, and Teresa’s picture is still Teresa’s. As simple as the book has been, there’s an unexpected complexity here. We come together in strength, the story seems to say, but we retain our distinct selves. These kids aren’t celebrating each other’s holidays so much as supporting each other’s differences. It’s a message the world can use, throughout the year.

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