Kid One first fell in love with this book as an elementary school student, a Protestant child living in an Orthodox country enjoying a very Jewish story. And what’s not to like? Hershel of Ostropol wanders into an unnamed Central European village on the first night of Hanukkah expecting celebration and hospitality. Instead, he finds that the place is tyrannized by goblins, who forbid most anything enjoyable and who hate Hanukkah most of all. They have made the old synagogue their roost, and none dare challenge them.
There is a way out, of course. If someone can stay in the synagogue all eight nights of Hanukkah and light the candles each night, the village will nearly be free. The last condition is that on the eighth night the goblin king himself must light the Hanukkah candles. Then and only then will the spell be broken and proper celebrations return to the settlement. Hershel gathers a few things and makes his way up the hill; the villagers expect never to see him alive again.
Trina Schart Hyman’s illustration wonderfully capture a wintertime village in Central Europe, and they bring the goblins to life in a mix of menace and absurdity that depicts them as scary enough to keep a village in thrall but dim enough to fall for Hershel’s tricks. For defeat them Hershel does, armed with such things as boiled eggs and a jar of pickles, Hershel drives the goblins off one by one, lighting a candle each night and bringing the village closer to liberation. His wits and fearlessness are his true weapons, and kids reading the book enjoy Hershel’s unflappability in the face of increasingly horrid monsters.
In an afterword, Hyman praised Kimmel’s restraint in telling the story, saying he provided just enough direction for an illustrator to make the most of the tale’s possibilities. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins was a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal in 1990, and it has been in print ever since. I could read it again and again, enjoying Hershel’s cleverness, the illustrations’ perfection, and the goblins’ consternation each time they lose out. So satisfying!
Pictured at right: Hershel explains the game to a goblin. Guess who wins.