Oskar and the Eight Blessings

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
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Exquisite Hanukkah story has universal blessings theme.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The story's set in 1938 against the backdrop of Nazi aggression. That information is handled gently at the beginning, with a reference to "The Night of Broken Glass," but explained in greater detail in an author's note at the end. Hebrew/Yiddish words are sprinkled in: "shamash" and "nigundl." There's light information about Hanukkah, with mention of the lighting of the menorah. Eleanor Roosevelt and Count Basie make cameo appearances. The geography of New York City is prominent, and a map at the end charts Oskar's long walk up Manhattan island.

Positive Messages

Though the world can sometimes be scary, "even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Oskar's mother and father believe "in the power of blessings," as does Oskar. He maintains a positive, open attitude despite his circumstances, noticing the blessings that come his way. The people he encounters in New York are kind and compassionate. They reach out to help Oskar, and in one case, he reciprocates, giving a gift back.

Violence & Scariness

The opening mentions "The Night of Broken Glass," explained in the author's note at the end as "Kristalnacht," the Nazi pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria, in which synagogues and businesses were destroyed and 30,000 Jews thrown into concentration camps, "the first wide-scale step in what was called the Final Solution: the Nazi plan to murder all the Jews of Europe." Though this serves as the backdrop, the story itself is hopeful and gentle.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Oskar and the Eight Blessings is a lovely and moving Hanukkah story that also has tinges of Christmas (there are trees and holiday shop windows) and can work beautifully as an anytime story. Husband-wife authors Richard and Tanya Simon set the book during Hanukkah in 1938, when Oskar's sent to New York by his family to escape the Nazis. The disturbing history is handled gently in the text and art, in a prologue that shows Oskar and his parents basking in the glow of their holiday menorah in a time before "the Night of Broken Glass." And Simon's author's note at the end goes into more detail about that night, when the Nazi paramilitary forces and non-Jewish citizens smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops, buildings, and synagogues.  Historical figures from the time -- Count Basie, Eleanor Roosevelt, even Superman -- make appearances, and Mark Siegel's art is evocative of the time and place, as well as the empathy and compassion felt by the characters. The message is hopeful, as Oskar is helped on his journey by the strangers he encounters, and kindness and connection are shown to transcend religion, race, age, and class.

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What's the story?

In OSKAR AND THE EIGHT BLESSINGS, young Oskar arrives in New York City, sent by his parents to escape the Nazis, and it's the seventh night of Hanukkah when he has to walk by himself up the length of Manhattan to find his Aunt Esther. Though he's scared, he's buoyed by the words of his father: " .. even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings." Along his walk, Oskar's given bread by a woman feeding the birds, a comic book by a man at a newsstand, and mittens by a boy in Central Park. He stops to wonder at the beauty of holiday shop windows and, in a chance encounter, even whistles a tune with Count Basie. Eleanor Roosevelt also makes a cameo appearance in this magically kind New York, a city that has long embraced both the Hanukkah menorahs and Christmas trees depicted. The story ends with a teary embrace by Aunt Esther, made all the more poignant when she at first mistakes him for his father.

Is it any good?

This exquisitely told story is set in 1938 when young Oskar arrives in New York to escape the Nazis and meets people who help him in unexpected and moving ways. The story is Jewish, with references to lighting the menorah and humming a "nigundl," but it's also ecumenical: That year, Hanukkah coincided with Christmas, so the newsstand man wishes Oskar "Merry Christmas," and he's entranced by holiday shop windows. The artful writing and deft handling make the story and the blessings theme universal.

Illustrator Mark Siegel, well known for his work in graphic novels, uses panels to illustrate the legs of the journey, and his art is as moving as the text, as when a good fairy in a shop window is reflected in Oskar's eyes. A plus for New Yorkers is the detailed depiction of the city and its neighborhoods. This book is a history lesson, holiday story, and spiritual reminder rolled into one beautiful "blessing" -- a book to take to heart and treasure. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about blessings. What blessings came to you today? How does it make you feel when you think about and remember them?

  • In this story, Hanukkah and Christmas happen on the same night. Who celebrates these holidays? How do we celebrate them?

  • Oskar takes a long walk up the island of Manhattan, pictured on the map at the end. Can you find all the places he stopped and found blessings?

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