March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Authors and Illustrators Share Their Holiday Memories with SLJ, Part I

Since 2006, authors and illustrators have been sharing their favorite stories of the season with SLJ in our annual Holiday Memories series. This week we hear from actress and author Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, along with author Liz Levy. Next Tuesday, look for stories from Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Rita Williams Garcia and Mac Barnett.

Author Liz Levy celebrates Chanukah with her family in Buffalo, NY, around 1950. Pictured in the center, Liz. Next to her is her cousin and fellow children’s book writer, Robie Harris, her brothers, Larry and Peter, and other family friends.

Liz Levy 

Liz Levy. Photo by Marshall Marcovitz

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, during the 1950s in a very tight-knit Jewish community, Chanukah was a big deal. Not because it’s such an important holiday, but because in the 1950s, Jewish families like ours— second-generation immigrants—wanted their children to feel that we really belonged in America. They didn’t want us to feel left out at Christmas time. Yet they wanted us to keep the Jewish traditions.

So note the tinsel hung across the fireplace with care, and I must have cut out the letters and glued on the blue and white tinsel. At our Chanukahs in the 1950s, my cousin Robie and I and our families all got dressed up in our finest. We didn’t get Christmas presents; we got CHANUKAH presents, a holiday not particularly connected with gifts until the 20th century.

In the picture above, I am obviously happy with my present, which says “First and Only Record of its Kind.” I wish I still had it. My nieces Erica and Dana have given me a magnet: “I may be old, but I got to see all the cool bands.” I did saw Elvis live in 1957 in Buffalo when he was still skinny. And yes, I screamed my head off.

Back to Chanukah. The festival of lights, it is still one of my favorite holidays. Those same nieces have given me a wonderful “feminist” menorah, and they now have children of their own. I still light the candles and make potato pancakes (okay, with help from my goyish friends who are better cooks than I am). My cousins and my family and I are still close. We all left Buffalo decades ago, yet I am as close to them now in the 21st century as if we never left our hometown. And that is a miracle worthy of Chanukah.

Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton. Photo by David Rodgers.

Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton

Our latest poetry anthology, Julie Andrews’ Treasury for All Seasons: Poems and Songs to Celebrate the Year (Little, Brown, 2012), highlights several family memories and traditions relating to the holiday season. One favorite that has been passed down through three generations is our tradition of the “Tree Gift.”

Though most of our gift-giving takes place on Christmas morning, we always save one small present for each member of the family, which gets hidden on the tree until Christmas night. At the very end of the day, long after all the other gifts have been opened, meals have been enjoyed, visits have been paid, walks have been taken, we enjoy a last cup of tea, cider, or spiced wine by the fire, and, as one, we each open that last tiny offering. We find it helps to balance the day—forestalling the inevitable letdown after the excitement of the morning and giving us one more thing to look forward to at the end of all the merry-making.

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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.



  1. I have wondered for years if Elizabeth Levy lived in the same house i did many years later, and judging by the picture above, I can now say, yes she did! An unexpected side benefit of this nice feature.

    • Sheilah,
      This feels like a Chanukah miracle of 2012. Was the house on Dana Road, in Buffalo? And if it was, by another Children’s book coincidence, my niece is named Dana, and she is now a children’s book writer too. That fireplace must have had magic.
      Please let’s get in touch. You can reach me through my website or a

  2. I also just want to thank SLJ and the power of the internet! Who would have thought that someone would see the article and recognize the fireplace, and we both lived in the same house!
    Holiday Cheers School Library Journal

  3. Liz, I love this photo (and this story) so much! It is true that Chanukah is jazzed up to compete with Christmas, a much more important holiday in the religious canon. And I still remember arguing with my friends that we “won” because we had eight days of presents instead of just one. Now I light the menorah with my Catholic husband and our kids in front of our beautifully lit Christmas tree, which I lovingly call the solstice bush. Any tradition that brings family together, lights candles against winter darkness, and involves good things to eat is a good one in my book!!

  4. Susan Levy says:

    Liz – lovely memories, beautifully told. The picture could have been me and my family, except, growing up in a NYC apartment, we had a crepe paper red brick chimney hung on the wall.