Take a non-traditional holiday story, add a noted illustrator, blend with a trio of enthusiastic magazine and children’s book editors, and what do you get? Back in the 1980s, the result was Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by the late Trina Schart Hyman. It was first published as a picture book by Holiday House in 1989, and went on to win a Caldecott Honor.
“It’s a patchwork quilt of things,” says Kimmel, looking back on his inspiration for Hershel’s tale. “For every Jewish kid growing up in the ’50s, like me, the Christmas stuff was magnificent, and the Jewish stuff was, frankly, pretty lame,” he notes. “You have the story of the Maccabees, which is kind of exciting when you’re 10, but once you’ve heard it a few times, you get sick of it. I thought ‘why not try to write a decent Hanukkah story?’ ”
From that jumping-off point, Kimmel looked to folklore, including a Ukrainian tale starring Ivanko the bear’s son and featuring a goblin. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol also played a role in influencing Hershel. “I wondered, ‘How does he take a holiday like Christmas, which is not creepy at all, and make it creepy?’ ” And for inspiration even closer to home, Kimmel adds, “I had an old country grandma, and she believed in evil spirits.”
Working with those disparate models, Kimmel crafted his Hanukkah story about clever Hershel, who outwits the eight goblins who have been haunting the local village synagogue and sends them packing. The trouble was, “None of the Jewish editors would touch it,” says Kimmel. “They thought it was just too far out and were worried about what the larger Jewish community might think. It’s interesting that in the end, the only Jewish person involved with this was me.”
Before long, an alternate route to publication reared its head. “Marianne Carus at Cricket magazine asked if I had a Hanukkah story for her December 1985 issue, and she needed it fast,” Kimmel recalls. Carus liked the tale, but asked that Kimmel trim it considerably. “When the magazine issue appeared, I was astonished that Marianne ran it with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman,” says Kimmel.
In fact, Hyman enjoyed Kimmel’s story – and her illustration work on the goblins – so much that she had independently approached one of her publishers, John Briggs of Holiday House, and suggested that he publish Hershel as a full-color picture book. Then-Holiday House editor-in-chief Margery Cuyler also came on board, and a new, expanded version of the magazine story was underway as soon as schedules could allow.
“She had such a great time working on it,” Kimmel says of Hyman’s illustrations. “She was so sick of painting princesses and damsels in distress. She actually sent me a letter afterwards – a long, handwritten letter in her tiny handwriting – about how much she loved being able to sink her teeth into something different, and how she appreciated the chance to ‘use my art to my full.’ She was a superstar, and for her to write to me, a nobody from nowhere, was amazing.”
Kimmel quotes from Hyman’s letter in a new afterword that he penned for Holiday House’s recently released 25th-anniversary edition of the book. The special volume includes notes from Briggs as well, reflecting on his experience working on the project. According to Mary Cash, v-p and editor-in-chief at Holiday House, it was important to mark the title’s milestone. “This book has certainly stood the test of time,” she says. “I have this really thick file of reviews here and Hershel is mentioned again and again, still, after all these years. It’s a story that is satisfying on so many different levels. We wanted to recognize and celebrate that.”
Cash praises both the author and illustrator for creating elements that have given the book its timeless appeal. “Eric is such a terrific storyteller; he knows what to put in and what to leave out,” she says. “And Trina famously liked to celebrate the devil in all of us. She loved mischief, but who thought she could do horror? Her ingenious art is terrifying and hilarious, too.”
Aside from the reminiscences from Kimmel and Briggs, and a small jacket banner, the anniversary edition did not undergo any significant alterations. “Because it was a Caldecott Honor Book and because Trina isn’t here, we didn’t want to change anything about the look of the book,” Cash notes. “We are traditionalists here and we thought it was perfect the way it was.”