Welcome to Picture Books for All

Children of all abilities should see themselves in the books they read. That's what makes reading fun. There are many picture books that include characters with disabilities; some are excellent in terms of their portrayal of these characters, some are pretty good, and some miss the mark. This blog features these picture books and evaluates them based on standards for quality in children's books that portray characters with disabilities. For more information, see the first post entitled "Welcome to Picture Books for All." (Click here) Welcome to Picture Books For All

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book # 9 Nathan Blows out the Hanukkah Candles

This book falls short with regard to most of the standards for good literature that portrays characters with disabilities (see second table below). Nathan is portrayed as a boy with autism, but that is the extent of his character. He is not shown to have any positive or admirable characteristics, and his brother Jacob, the narrator and main character, is either frustrated with him or embarrassed by him throughout the story. The illustrations show Jacob to be about 10 or 11 years old, yet his understanding of his brother's disability and his behavior (pretending to be Judah Maccabee) are typical of a younger child. Nathan is not truly included by the other children in this story--instead he is ridiculed, barely tolerated, and even pushed away.  On the dedication page there is a note that reads in its last line: “Judaism teaches acceptance of every person as a reflection of God’s image, and the importance of both compassion and inclusion in the community.” Although this story aspires to these teachings, it falls short of reaching the true meaning of "acceptance, compassion, and inclusion."
Related Information
Name of Book:
Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles
Tami Lehman-Wilzig with Nicole Katzman
Jeremy Tugeau
Year of Pub:
ISBN:     (ISBN-13)
Age range
Type of Disability
Fiction or Nonfiction
Category:  B

A) books that provide factual information about a disability

B) books that provide information about a disability in a story format in which the character with a disability is integral to the plot

C) books that provide stories that have a character with a disability who may or may not be integral to the storyline and who has been added to the story to achieve diversity and reflect reality

D) books that include a main character with a disability, but the focus of the book is not necessarily the disability

Annotation:  Hanukkah is coming, and Jacob, the narrator, is embarrassed and annoyed by his brother Nathan, who has autism. Nathan keeps repeating phrases like, “Is is Hanukkah? Is it Hanukkah?” and “Hanukkah has eight days,” “Hanukkah has eight days.” Jacob is happy to see that the new neighbors have a son his age. The two play basketball and form a friendship, and at night the family celebrates the first night of Hanukkah. Nathan blows out the Hanukkah candles, and Jacob is embarrassed in front of his new friend. Over the next few days, the neighbor boy teases Jacob about his brother’s behaviors. Jacob finally goes over and tells the boy to stop teasing him because his brother is “autistic.” The neighbor continues to tease him, saying he is “artistic,” until his mother steps in. The two families celebrate the eighth night of Hanukkah together, Nathan style, by setting up candles in the jelly doughnuts (the parents’ idea) and then blowing them out together.
Link to publisher:
Links to professional reviews:


Standards for Quality Portrayal of Characters with a disability
1. Promotes empathy not pity
Nathan’s own brother is very fed up with Nathan’s behavior, specifically his repeating of phrases all the time. He shows little understanding of Nathan’s disability. For him it boils down to this: “Mom says Nathan’s mind is wired differently.”
2. Promotes acceptance, not ridicule
Yes and No
When neighbor boy Steve ridicules Jacob’s brother Nathan, this ridicule never leads to an apology or an understanding on the part of the neighbor boy. It is left hanging until the parents pick up the pieces. In the end, Nathan is portrayed as accepted.
3. Emphasizes success rather than, or in addition to failure
Not really
Nathan does not participate in the dreidel game because he can only stare at the spinning dreidel.
4. Promotes positive images of persons with disabilities or illness
Not really
Shows Nathan smiling but also clearly shows peers’ frustration and embarrassment at Nathan’s behavior. Does not portray any positive characteristics in Nathan.
5. Assists children in gaining accurate understanding of the disability or illness
Not really. The summary on the dedication page specifically states that this is not the goal: “Autism covers a broad spectrum, and Nathan is not meant to be representative of all autistic children. Rather, this book is designed to introduce young children and families to autism and other developmental disorders.”
The story provides concrete examples of  Nathan’s behavior (but not emotions) that are attributable to his autism: repeating phrases, blowing out the Hanukkah candles, and staring at a spinning dreidel.

However, I would argue that this is not a good book to “introduce young children and families to autism and other developmental disorders” because the boy in this story is not tolerated well or understood by his own brother and is teased by the neighbor boy. Neither of these “typically developing” boys work through their negative feelings toward Nathan and grow emotionally from the experience. Nathan is not portrayed to have any attributes other than those associated with autism.
6. Demonstrates respect for persons with disabilities or illness
Not during the story, but yes, in the end.
 In the end, the parents construct an edible Hanukkah menorah, and then everyone blows out the candles together. This action respects Nathan’s earlier behavior of blowing out the candles.
7. Promotes attitude of “one of us” not “one of them.”
Yes and No
Nathan is not really “included” in this story in the sense that he is not integrated into play with his peers. In fact, when the three boys are spinning the dreidel, Jacob, his brother, asks him to move away. When he doesn’t, Jacob and Steve purposely move away from Nathan, clearly conveying to the reader that they do not want to be near him.
8. Uses people-first language
Not on the dedication page. “This story is based on a real “Nathan,” a high functioning autistic child who did blow out his family’s Hanukkah candles.”

Also later, Jacob says to his friend about Nathan, “He’s autistic.”

People-first language would be: Nathan is a child who has autism, and he functions at a high level.

And later: My brother has autism.
9. Describes the disability or person with disabilities or illness as realistic (not subhuman or superhuman)
10. Depicts people with disabilities as more similar to than different from other people
11. Shows peoples’ strengths and abilities along with their disabilities
The story does not highlight any strengths or abilities in Nathan, at least not in a positive way (he knows the 50 states in alphabetical order, but this is not portrayed as positive).
12. Represents characters as strong, independent people who others can admire or learn from
There are no examples in this book of how other children admire or learn from Nathan.
13. Represents people with disabilities from different racial and cultural backgrounds, religions, age groups, and sexual orientations
Nathan’s family is Jewish.
14. Shows people with disabilities in integrated settings and activities
Nathan celebrates with his family and with the neighbors in his own home.
15. Shows people with disabilities in valued occupations and diverse roles.

16. Shows people with disabilities in reciprocal relationships
Unfortunately, Nathan is not shown in any reciprocal relationship in this story.
17. Main character develops and grows emotionally as a result of what happens in the story
The main character in this story is Nathan’s brother--the narrator. He shows no affection or love for Nathan, only annoyance. He does not grow emotionally or come to see Nathan as a positive influence in his life, although he does say to the neighbor boy, completely out of context and with no examples, “and he helps me see the world differently.” The neighbor boy, who is actually quite mean to the narrator and teases him about Nathan’s behavior, never apologizes or comes to see that his teasing is wrong or hurtful.

Three other details that detract from the story are 1) Steve, the new neighbor boy is pictured in the illustration at the first-night-of-Hanukkah celebration with Jacob and Nathan's family, after just having met Jacob earlier that day. It seems strange that the invitation was not part of the narrative; and 2) The neighbors play a big role in this story, yet we are never sure whether or not they are Jewish. This is confusing when their son Steve, who has been a bully throughout much of the story and has not realized or apologized for his negative behavior, says as the last line of the book, “This is the best Hanukkah ever!” and 3) Only the adults in this story do the problem-solving, smoothing-over, and explaining; the children don't grow emotionally or come to understand their negative feelings toward Nathan.

Please comment on this story and on the evaluation here of its portrayal of a character with a disability. Different people have different opinions, and I'd like to know yours!

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