Penina Levine Is a Potato Pancake

Penina Levine Is a Potato Pancake

by Rebecca O'Connell, Majella Lue Sue

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In this Hanukkah story, Penina finds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn't looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and

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In this Hanukkah story, Penina finds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn't looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and her best friend is deserting her to go on a dream vacation to Aruba. Then Penina discovers why Mrs. Brown must go away and hears that a snowstorm may ruin Zozo's trip, and Penina knows she's the one who must bring some holiday spirit to her friends. Readers of all backgrounds will relate to Penina as she turns a pile of problems into a Hanukkah to remember.
Penina Levine Is a Potato Pancake is a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Naomi Milliner
Poor Penina. It is the first night of Hanukkah, and her gifts for Mom, Dad, and Little Sister Mimsy are not ready yet. Instead of explaining or apologizing, she yells at Mimsy and ruins the celebration for everybody. Things do not go any better after she wears her snow boots to school and leaves her shoes at home. When Mimsy brings the forgotten shoes to Penina's class, everyone fawns all over sis, and Penina gets more upset. Things go from bad to worse when Penina learns that her favorite teacher is leaving to care for her own sick sister, and Penina's best friend, Zozo, is leaving for winter break. As the story continues, so does Penina's complaining; in fact, as Zozo points out, "It's been Whiny Wednesday with you all week." Penina's likeability—or lack thereof—is the biggest problem in this book. Another is the seemingly endless explanations of Hanukkah's origins. A third weakness is the offensive portrayals of Zozo and her mom as clueless about Hanukkah: Zozo has never heard of latkes, yet instantly becomes an expert at creating innovative flavors; her mom refers to dreidls as "doodles." Perhaps the worst mistake is the lost opportunity for Penina's teacher's relationship with her own sister to make Penina appreciate Mimsy more. As for the illustrations, the teacher looks so similar to Penina's grandmother, I did a double-take. There are just too many Hanukkah books out there to spend time or money on this one. Reviewer: Naomi Milliner
School Library Journal

Gr 4-6

How can Penina possibly enjoy Hanukkah when her best friend is going to Aruba, her favorite teacher is moving to Arizona, and everyone is fawning over her annoyingly adorable little sister? In this sequel to Penina Levine Is a Hard-boiled Egg (Roaring Brook, 2007), every chapter is almost like a short story, each filled with small, touching revelations: Penina's worries for her teary-eyed teacher turn into mood-lightening laughter when they both share a joke about a rubber chicken hall pass, she learns that adults can often misspeak when her grandmother mentions that she thinks of Penina as her "revenge" upon her daughter, and that paper snowflakes can sometimes make people feel better. Quick explanations about the holiday are interwoven into the story for those unfamiliar with it. This is a sweet and funny holiday tale, with quirky cartoons that add interest.-Kathleen Meulen, Blakely Elementary School, Bainbridge Island, WA

Kirkus Reviews
As the fall semester of her sixth grade year winds down, Penina's woes overshadow any Hanukkah celebration. Her beloved teacher, Mrs. Brown, is unexpectedly resigning, and her best friend, Zozo, is going on vacation, leaving Penina with nothing to do except dodge Mimsy, her annoyingly cute, pesky little sister. Behind in creating presents for her family, Penina wishes the eight nights of candle lighting would reflect more on the meaning of the holiday's remembrance of the Maccabees' struggle than gift-giving, at least until she is ready. And when Grandma tries to support Penina's cantankerous and moody behavior by claiming to her exasperated mother that Penina is "Grandma's revenge," the remark sparks a hurtful misunderstanding-fortunately followed by a quick reconciliation with hugs, kisses and potato pancakes. As she struggles to understand her immediate world, Penina draws strength from her close friendship and family support. In this prequel to 2007's Penina Levine Is a Hard-Boiled Egg, O'Connell's feisty, endearing tween character allows readers a glimpse into a typical Jewish-American modern household. (Fiction. 8-10)

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Product Details

Roaring Brook Press
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File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake

By Rebecca O'Connell, Majella Lue Sue

Roaring Brook Press

Copyright © 2008 Rebecca O'Connell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62672-516-4


1. Splat

"No," Penina said, "I think we should wait."

The mountain of Hanukkah gifts was higher than the clock on top of the bookshelves. The presents were shiny and glittery and colorful, and it looked like there were dozens of them, scores, hundreds.

There were presents from Mom and Dad to Penina or Mimsy, presents from Mom to Dad or from Dad to Mom, presents from Mom's students or Dad's principal to the whole Levine family, presents mailed to them from faraway aunts and uncles and cousins, and a little mound of presents for the pet cat, Daisy.

But the presents from Penina weren't in the pile. They weren't ready yet. That was one of the great things about Hanukkah. It lasted eight nights. If you didn't have everything wrapped and ready by the first night, you still had a week to catch up. That's what she'd been hoping, anyway.

"Let's not open them tonight. Let's wait till Grandma and Grandpa get here. That way, we can do it all together," Penina said. Grandma and Grandpa wouldn't be here for five more days, plenty of time to finish her gifts for Mom and Dad. She was making them coupon books, twelve coupons apiece. "Redeem this coupon for a thorough vacuuming of the den" and "This coupon good for 30 minutes of peace and quiet on the morning of your choice." The coupons were going to be hand-painted in watercolor and bound in poster-board covers with colorful lacing. She thought about running upstairs and finishing them quickly, but that wouldn't work. She was using glitter glue to decorate the covers, and that took a while to dry.

"No, now!" said Mimsy. She shrugged one shoulder and tilted her head, her Cuteness Routine. "Please? Pretty please?"

The Cuteness Routine was a powerful weapon. Penina had nothing to match it.

"I don't see why we can't each open one," Mom said.

"There will still be plenty left to open when your grandparents get here," said Dad. "Let's light the candles first, then we'll open presents."

"Yay!" yelled Mimsy. "Hooray!" She ran around the living room and twirled like a ballerina — a short, clumsy ballerina — in front of all the gifts. "Open mine. Open mine. Open mine," she chanted.

"Take it easy, Mimsykin," said Dad. He held Mimsy's shoulder to keep her from spinning, which Penina thought was like putting his hands between the blades of a rotating fan, but it worked anyway.

"Okay, girls, who will help me light the menorah?" said Mom.

"Me!" yelled Mimsy, and she shot across the room to the front window. That's where Mom had set up the menorah. It was a tall brass candleholder with room for nine candles: one for each night of Hanukkah, plus one helper candle, the shamash. The wrapped packages were shiny, but the polished menorah was radiant, luminous, brilliant.

"I get to pick the candles!" screamed Mimsy. She was already digging through the box. "I want pink and purple!"

Why did Mimsy get to pick the candles? Shouldn't Penina get first pick? She was older, so it was only fair that she should go first. But if Mimsy picked two candles tonight (one for the first night, plus the shamash), then tomorrow Penina could pick three. They'd take turns night to night, and on the last night, Penina would get to fill the whole menorah, nine candles, all by herself.

"Okay, Mimsy," Penina said, "you pick tonight. I'll pick tomorrow."

"That's fair," said Mom. She took the candles from Mimsy and placed them in the menorah.

"No! The purple one is the shamash!" Mimsy screamed.

Mom reversed the candles. "Okay, ready?" she asked. Mom sang the first note of the blessing herself, then everyone joined in.

Baruch ata Adonai

As they sang the blessing, Mom lit a match and held it to the purple shamash candle. She shook out the match and took the shamash out of the menorah. She used the shamash to light the pink candle, the candle for the first night.

le-hadlik ner

Shel Hanukkah.

When Penina sang "shel Hanukkah," she always thought of a smooth pink seashell, but that's not what the blessing meant. It was really a way of giving thanks for the candle-lighting tradition.

"Hanukkah sameach," said Dad, which was Hebrew for happy Hanukkah. He gave Penina and Mimsy a squeeze, but Penina had to shrug out of it because Mimsy was jumping up and down, and it was jolting her.

"You said we could open presents!" Mimsy yelled.

Penina didn't have anything to give Mom and Dad.

Well, she did, but her gifts weren't finished. She wished she'd gotten the coupon books done earlier. She wished she'd just bought her parents something at the mall. "I don't think we should open presents tonight," she said.

"Sure we should," said Mom.

"Just one apiece," said Dad.

"Pina!" yelled Mimsy, as if she knew Penina was joking about not opening presents.

Penina was not joking. She didn't have anything to give her parents — or Mimsy, come to think of it — and that was no joke.

"Hanukkah is not about presents," Penina declared. "It's not about malls and catalogs. It's about —"

Mom interrupted. "It's about guerilla warfare." She gave a flat little laugh. "But that doesn't mean we can't have presents."

Technically, Mom was right. Hanukkah was about guerilla warfare — sneak attacks and hand-to-hand fighting. It was about the Maccabees' victory for religious freedom. It was about —

"Open mine! Open mine!" Mimsy screamed, swinging two blue tubes like battle axes. "They're for you! I made them!"

"Okay," said Mom. She took a tube from Mimsy. "Daddy and I will open these. You girls each pick one to open tonight."

Penina couldn't believe the greed of these people. Hanukkah wasn't just about opening gifts. It was the celebration of the rededication of the Temple. Mrs. Greenbaum had been over it with them in religious school a thousand times. In ancient Judea, the evil King Antiochus had banned Judaism. He wrecked the Jewish Temple, and anyone caught being Jewish was killed.

Judah Maccabee and his brothers fought Antiochus, even though Antiochus had a huge army and all the Maccabees had were sticks and stones. Miraculously, the Maccabees won. They had a big celebration to rededicate the Temple. That's what Hanukkah was about, not presents.

"Hanukkah doesn't have anything to do with presents," Penina shouted. "Why can't you think about the true meaning of Hanukkah?"

"Don't you want your presents, Penina?" asked Mom. "Last week you had a long list of things you wanted for Hanukkah. What's gotten into you?

"Nothing," Penina answered.

"You know, Pen," Dad mentioned offhandedly, as if he weren't about to rev up into Lecture Mode, which Penina could tell he was, "exchanging gifts has been an important part of celebrating Hanukkah for hundreds of years."

Penina gave him a skeptical look.

"Really," said Dad. "Hanukkah was traditionally a time for European Jews to pay the teachers in the community. The students brought gelt — money — to school to give the teachers at Hanukkah. That's where we get the tradition of Hanukkah gifts."

"Especially for teachers," Mom said, grinning. She was a teacher. So was Dad.

But I don't have anything to give you. Penina was all set to admit it, to explain that their gifts would be done by the eighth night but weren't ready yet. Her parents would understand, and when they got the coupon books, they'd see it had been worth the wait. Penina was just opening her mouth to tell them, but Mimsy opened hers first.

"Here! Take this! Mine first! Mine first!"

"Okay, Mimsy," said Mom. She picked the tape off one end of the tube of wrapping paper and slid out another paper tube. She unrolled the inside tube and gasped. "Oh, Mimsy, thank you! A painting! It's just beautiful! Oh, look! This is just exquisite! Thank you!" She hugged Mimsy and gave her a big, loud kiss.

Dad tore the wrapping off his present and made a big huge fuss over the painting from Mimsy. "Thank you, Mimsy! This is fantastic! Look at your use of color and line! Wow! Some of my students don't produce work like that."

Dad's students were teenagers. Dad taught high school art. There was no way Mimsy's painting was as good as a high school student's. Dad didn't know what he was talking about.

"Pick out your gifts, girls — one each," said Mom.

Mimsy picked up a flat square box, but it wasn't from her pile of gifts. It was from Penina's. "Open this, Pina," she said.

Penina's gift for Mimsy was really nice. It was a stuffed toy cat with white and yellow patches, just like their pet cat, Daisy. It was life-sized and extra soft, and it was on a shelf in the bookstore at the mall. Penina had picked it out and put aside the money for it. She just hadn't gotten it yet.

"Open it. Open it. I made it at school," said Mimsy. She thought play group was school.

Penina took off the curly silver ribbon and the glossy blue wrapping and the top lid of the box. It was a paper plate. It was the outside of a paper plate, with the inside cut out and all kinds of junk glued to the rim.

"This is a button, and this is a flower, and this is a piece of yarn," Mimsy yelled. She took the plate from Penina and held it up to her own face. "It's a picture frame, see?"

"Thanks, Mimsy," said Penina. "It's really nice."

"It's beautiful, honey," said Mom.

"It's a really special gift," said Dad. "What a nice thing to make for your sister."

"And I glued on a pinecone right here, see?" said Mimsy.

"It's great, Mimsy. Thanks," Penina said. She put the paper-plate frame back in the box, but before she could put the lid back on, Mimsy grabbed the plate back.

"And these are beads. This one is orange, and this one is red."

"Okay, very nice. Thanks for the frame," said Penina. Mimsy should have just kept the thing if she liked it that much.

"And this one is blue, and this one is orange like that one —"

"Okay! I see it. It's wonderful. I said thank you. Do I have to say it again? Fine. Thank you!" Penina yelled. She shouted. She screamed so hard she thought she saw the Hanukkah lights flicker.

Mimsy started to cry.

Dad picked her up and rocked her. Mom plopped down on the couch and put her face in her hands. "You know what, Penina?" said Mom. "I am really tired of hearing you yell at your sister. She's seven years younger than you are. Why can't you just be nice to her?"

"Why can't she be nice to me?" Penina answered. The words were out before she had time to think about them.

"She was nice to you. She gave you a handcrafted present."

Mimsy lifted her head from Dad's soaking-wet shoulder. "I made it for her!" she wailed. She sniffed twice and put her head back down.

"And I said thank you. Come on. I said it a hundred times, but she just wouldn't quit bragging about it," Penina said. She hated that stupid frame. She hated Hanukkah presents. She hated Hanukkah.

"You know what I want for Hanukkah?" said Mom. She'd taken her face out of her hands but was still slumped in the corner of the couch. "Penina, I want you to be nice to your sister, for the full eight days."

"I am nice to her!" Penina shouted. This was so unfair. How could she be nice when Mimsy was such a brat?

Dad sat down next to Mom. Mimsy snuggled in his lap. "Your mother is asking you not to overreact. If you have a problem with your sister, talk to her."

Mom held out her hand, as if she wanted Penina to take it. Penina decided not to notice. She was not in a hand-holding mood. "I know you get frustrated," Mom said, "but you're the big sister. You have a responsibility to behave like one."

Mimsy turned to Penina and smiled. Mimsy had snot on her face, and her curly hair was frizzed out all over the place. How anyone could think she was cute was a mystery to Penina.

Mom cleared her throat and said, "My parents are coming in a few days, and I don't want them to see you fighting with your sister. Please, as my Hanukkah present, would you just cool it?"

Penina didn't answer. She didn't look at Mom and Dad and Mimsy. She looked at the menorah instead, and as she watched, pink and purple wax dropped off the candles, onto the base of the menorah.



What's So Funny?

Penina's toes were frozen solid. Everything else was drippy: her scarf, her boots, her nose. She found a tissue in her coat pocket and swiped at the drippiness.

She felt herself thawing out. The snow melted off her coat and went drip, drip, drip on the floor of her locker. She arranged it so the drops from her coat fell beside her boots, not in them.

"Ready?" Zozo asked. She had her coat off, books out, shoes on. No boots, no drips, no frozen nose or toes. Only a few snowflakes in her hair and the pink glow on her cheekbones showed she'd been out in the cold all morning.

"Almost. I have to put on my shoes," Penina said. She unzipped her backpack and got out ...

Nothing. Her shoes weren't there. She had her lunch, her take-home folder, her Language Arts book, strawberry-banana lip balm, pencils, pens, erasers, a green plastic comb, a Band-Aid, and $1.97 in change, but not her shoes.

"Oh, shoot!" said Penina. "I forgot my shoes."

"Call your mom and have her bring them," said Zozo.

"I don't know," Penina said. Which was worse: walking around in heavy, wet, bright green winter boots or getting the lecture about responsibility?

Penina put her feet back in her boots. They were cold and squishy on the inside and wet and snowy on the outside. The snow was stuck deep in the treads, and a little bit melted off with every step. She left a trail of drippy footprints from the hallway to her desk.

"It is so cold. I practically have frostbite!" said Ryan. He sat behind Penina and over one row, right behind Zozo. "See?" He put his fingers on Zozo's wrist. "Ice cold!"

Zozo moved her wrist and covered it with her sleeve. "Yes, Ryan, your fingers are very cold," she said. She said it like she was the babysitter and Ryan was the pesky preschooler.

"I had to wait for the bus for half an hour," said Ryan.

So what? It took Penina and Zozo at least that long to walk to school. "But you got to warm up on the school bus," Penina called, past Zozo and back to Ryan. "We had to freeze the whole way to school."

Ryan looked at Penina like I was talking to Zozo, not to you. Penina got that look all the time.

Penina wiggled her toes and felt the water swish around inside her boots. At least it was warm water now. She could feel her feet getting pruney. She'd have to ask Mrs. Brown if she could call home. Cell phones were not allowed to be on at school. If Penina wanted to call her mom, she'd have to ask to go to the office, preferably before the homeroom bell. She got up and squelched in her boots to Mrs. Brown's desk at the front of the room.

"Mrs. Brown, I need to —" Penina stopped. Mrs. Brown didn't look right. Her nose was pink, but not out-in-the-cold pink; more like trying-not-to-cry pink. Her eyes were pink, too, and everything — her hair, her face, her shoulders — looked droopy.

"Yes, Penina? What do you need?" Mrs. Brown said. She smiled, but it was the worst smile Penina had ever seen. She looked like one of those sad clowns, but without the beard stubble and the smashed hat.

"Nothing. I just, um ..." Penina hated to bother Mrs. Brown if she was in the middle of trying not to cry. She knew how it felt. The more you tried, the worse it got, and someone was always right there, going, "What's wrong? Are you okay? Why are you crying?" That didn't help at all.

"It's okay, Penina," Mrs. Brown said. She gave another horrible sad-clown smile. "I got some bad news this morning, but I'll be all right." She smiled again. This one was better, with teeth and crinkly eyes. "I'm sorry if I scared you. Now, what were you going to ask?"

What's wrong? Are you okay? Why are you crying? That's all Penina could think about asking. "Can I help?" she whispered, and it surprised her, because she had been planning to ask about using the phone.

"Oh, no. But thank you. Thanks for asking," said Mrs. Brown. She straightened a stack of papers on her desk, leafed through her attendance notebook.

Penina rocked gently from foot to foot. Her boots made watery noises.

Mrs. Brown came around her big desk and looked at Penina's feet. "Did you forget your shoes?" she asked.

"Yes," Penina admitted.

"With me it's umbrellas. I've left umbrellas in restaurants and waiting rooms all over this town."

Penina nodded. Actually, she had a hard time with umbrellas, too.

"Would you like to call home and ask someone to bring your shoes to you?"

"Yes, please."

"Here you go." Mrs. Brown handed Penina the hall pass. They looked at the hall pass, looked at each other, and they both let out loud, snorky laughs.

It was a chicken, a yellowy-pink rubber chicken with hall pass written on the belly in permanent ink. It had always been a chicken, since the beginning of the year at least. Penina had used the chicken hall pass a hundred times before, but it had never seemed funny until that very moment. A chicken! The hall pass was a chicken! Other classes had laminated cards that said pass, but Mrs. Brown's class had poultry.

Mrs. Brown really was crying now, and Penina was too. It was the laughing kind of crying, with tears and sniffles and gasps. Penina looked back at Zozo, and Zozo gave Penina a look like, What's so funny?


Excerpted from Penina Levine is a Potato Pancake by Rebecca O'Connell, Majella Lue Sue. Copyright © 2008 Rebecca O'Connell. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

REBECCA O'CONNELL is the author of last year's PENINA LEVINE IS A HARD-BOILED EGG. which was selected as a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

MAJELLA LUE SUE illustrated the previous book about Penina Levine. She lives in Pasadena, California.

Rebecca O'Connell is the author of THE BABY GOES BEEP and, as Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, of FOUR SIDES, EIGHT NIGHTS: A NEW SPIN ON HANUKKAH. She is a children's librarian with 14 years of story-hour experience. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.
Majella Lue Sue, born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, received a BFA in Illustration, with honors, from the Art Center of Design in Pasadena, in 2005. Penina Levine Is a Hard-boiled Egg is Ms. Lue Sue's first book. She now lives in Pasadena, California where she loves to spend time with her golden retriever, Scotch.

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