95 pages,
ISBN: 1896184448

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Children`s Books
by Sherie Posesorski

What's the 25th of Kislev-the first night of Chanukah in the Jewish lunar calendar-compared with Christmas on the 25th of December? According to Toronto teenager Anya Walman, Chanukah, the festival of lights, is a big bore, a second best, a poor cousin, in comparison with the gift blitz and clamour over Christmas. After all, what's a rinky-dink old menorah decorated with gargoyles and a crown lit by coloured candles next to a state-of-the-art Christmas tree? Anya can barely swallow her disappointment when that's the gift she gets for Chanukah from her grandmother.

For Anya, however, that menorah sheds light and insight into her family history, the wartime struggles of Jews in Germany and England during World War II, and into the nature of faith in Judaism in Toronto poet Lynn Kositsky's first children's novel, Candles-an unusual time travel fantasy.

On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, as Anya lights a candle in her grandmother's menorah, a mysterious miracle occurs. Anya is transported back into the past and becomes teenaged Estie Cohen. Night after night, she relives Estie's wartime experiences: her heart-wrenching separation from her family in Germany and her being smuggled out of Germany by a kindly Christian neighbour to London, England, where a Jewish relief agency placed her with a poor Jewish family, the Cohens.

Kositsky's imaginative, inventive conceit is rich in historical and religious significance. Chanukah is a commemoration and celebration of bravery and faith in the face of great obstacles, and honours the day 6,000 Jews under the leadership of Judas Maccabee triumphed over the 120,000 troops of Greek-Syrian King Antiochus and reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem. To sanctify the temple, heathen idols were thrown out and a menorah was lit. However, there was only enough pure oil to light it for one day. Yet the menorah remained lit for the eight days it took the Jews to make the rest of the pure oil needed. Chanukah, the Hebrew word for dedication, is a feast of dedication to God and the Jewish faith. The nightly journey of the assimilated, non-observant Anya through Estie's past, then, is an awakening to the meaning of her historical and religious heritage.

Sadly, the depth and resonance of the conceit have not been fully realized in Candles. The novel is narrated by Anya-a typical teenager, an eye-rolling naysayer, always bummed out over something. The problem is that she is too typical, she's almost a generic idea of a teenager, rather than a vividly created real one, and her voice and eye are indistinct. When Anya is transformed into Estie, Estie's voice and perspective aren't any different from Anya's, and the story, as a consequence, is leeched of its historical authenticity.

The novel is rushed and sketchy. Although middle readers can be impatient with excess of detail and description, still more here would have given readers the opportunity to become immersed in, rather than just splashed by, Anya's experiences. Especially with fantasy, the texture of the alternative world has to be built up through a careful describing of concretes so that the fantasy can become a real possibility.

Kositsky has relied too much on the power of her story to carry her novel, and despite its appeal and originality, it simply is not enough. 

Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto writer and editor.


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