'Hanukkah Veronica,' the first in a new book series, creates diverse holiday stories for kids

"Hanukkah Veronica the Mitzvah Fairy" is part of a series called "The Bonta Friends," written by Wendy Brandt and Julie Anne Cooper, with illustrations by Giovanni Lombardi. (Photo Courtesy of Wendy Brant)

 ”The season had arrived, everything touched with snow. What would happen that winter? I just could not know. I felt a bit lonely. All my friends had an elf, but when I looked in my room, there was nothing on my shelf.” So begins the story of “Hanukkah Veronica the Mitzvah Fairy.” The book is part of a series called “The Bonta Friends,” written by Atlanta residents Wendy Brant and Julie Anne Cooper, with illustrations by Giovanni Lombardi. The authors joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the first installment in their book series.

Interview highlights:

On the real-life mitzvah that inspired “Hanukkah Veronica”:

“Years ago, my daughter Lucy came home upset from school because everyone in her class had an elf, and I guess that’s how they opened up the morning class. And she said, ‘Mommy, can I have an elf?’ And I said, ‘Well, darling, we’re Jewish. We don’t do elves,’ and she was pretty sad so I decided I would fix it,” said Cooper. “Being an artist, I went to my sewing room and pulled out a bunch of things and created Hanukkah Veronica the Mitzvah Fairy so that she would have a special holiday companion as well.”

“Unlike the [elf] that created mischief, I used the opportunity to teach her to do mitzvahs, which are kind deeds for other people. [It] became a holiday tradition in our family where Hanukkah Veronica performed mitzvahs and then the kids were encouraged to perform mitzvahs for others. Simple things like cookies being baked for them when they got home from school. My sons would… take in the elderly neighbors’ garbage cans for them,” Cooper recounted. “It was also a great way for Lucy to go to school that holiday season and share a little bit of her holiday with her classmates, who didn’t know anything about Hanukkah and the Jewish religion.”

A long-brewing idea that came to life during lockdown:

“Julie Anne and I had been friends at our real estate office where we worked, and one holiday party she gave me a watercolor print that she painted of a picture I took in Europe, and we became better friends because of that mitzvah. And she started to tell me this story about ‘Hanukkah Veronica,'” recalled Brant. “I grew up as a Jewish girl and just remembered how much I would’ve loved to have had a character like this. We really at the time had no named characters. There was nothing that was enchanting or magical or anything that we could really have. And when I heard the story, I said to Julianne I really think everyone would love a Hanukkah Veronica, and would she mind if we partnered and brought her to life?”

“It was the perfect time to launch a book,” said Brant. “I really felt that I wanted to see characters from every holiday. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring the world together and send our children a message of joy and love because with all the hysteria surrounding the pandemic and just all the social difficulties at that moment, our children were not getting that message that most people really appreciate other cultures. Most people love to travel. Most people just embrace different traditions and want to learn about them, and that was the message I really wanted to share with everybody.”

How the “Bonta Friends” illuminate different holiday traditions and teach kindness:

“Bonta is actually the Italian word for ‘kindness,’ and I loved the idea of calling the series ‘The Bonta Friends’ because our Italian artist is so fabulous and we are so grateful for him and he lives in a city in Italy, and we wanted to celebrate him,” Brandt explained. So I thought that the word ‘Bonta’ was a charming word, but it’s also a nod obviously to the concept of kindness, which the series promotes as well as a nod to his heritage.”

“I was born Jewish. However, even being born Jewish, the ‘Hanukkah Veronica’ series and all of the other future series, they have a history section in the back. So the story in the beginning is there, but in the end of the book you have the symbols, what they meant, how the holiday started,” said Brant. “So it’s extremely important to me that we’re very authentic and that we involve people that are of that culture in order to be sure that everything that we’re doing is accurate. So when we did ‘Hanukkah Veronica,’ Rabbi Levi Mentz from the Cabad in Forsyth County, he was the one who assisted us with that book… We are honored by working with a Halloween expert who’s written many, many Halloween books for the history section of ‘Halloween Hannah,’ which is the second book, which will come out next year.”

“Hanukkah Veronica,” the first book in the “Bonta Friends” series, is out now and available to purchase at www.bontafriends.com.