When she was in Kindergarten, Julie Anne Cooper said that her daughter came home from school in tears because all her friends had Christmas elves and she didn’t.
Cooper said that when she asked her husband if they could get their daughter, Lucy, an elf, he said no “because Lucy’s Jewish and [the elves] were a Christmas thing.”
Being crafty by nature, Cooper created a ragdoll fairy because, “at the time, [my daughter] was really into fairies]” and called her Hanukkah Veronica.
“Unlike the [elves] that made mischief, Hanukkah Veronica did good deeds for people like bake chocolate chip cookies for them, put the laundry away, [feed] the dog without being asked — little things like that,” Cooper said. “She became an important part of our Hanukkah tradition because she taught the kids to do mitzvahs for other people, which are kind deeds.”
Years later, Cooper met Wendy Brant at work, and shared her family’s Hanukkah tradition. Immediately, Brant said, “let’s make this into a book.”
“I grew up Jewish and honestly, there’s not a lot for Jewish kids in terms of characters, stories and cartoons,” Brant said. “So, you grow up as a Jewish [kid] and there just isn’t a lot out there.”
Last year, Cooper and Brant began to formulate the idea of ‘Hanukkah Veronica, The Mitzvah Fairy’ while watching the protests and riots during the summer.
Cooper said she would often see her children watching the news and consuming other media during that time.
“Children were really getting a message, particularly during the riots [in 2020], that everybody was kind of standing in their own corner screaming as loud as they could about whatever their particular issue was,” Brant said. “We really have to get back to a place of peace.”
“The children of the world were really getting the message in 2020 that everybody hates each other,” she said. “It was really, really hard on the kids of the world … more than people realize.”
In May of this year, Brant and Cooper launched a Kickstarter campaign to see if the public was interested in a children’s story and accompanying toy of Hanukkah Veronica.
Brant said the response from the Kickstarter backers “was so overwhelmingly positive” and that they were able to reach their goal of $10,000 easily.
At their company, Bonta Friends, LLC, Brant and Cooper said that they wanted to focus on creating products that highlighted culturally diverse celebrations of joy, rather than specific religious events. By doing so, children can find bits of familiarity in the festivities and celebrate together in a positive way.
“By focusing on the joyful celebrations of the world, we do a couple things,” Brant said. “We introduce children to a lot of different cultures in a way that’s not confusing to them and teaching them that everybody has something to offer and that everybody has something that can bring happiness.”
Cooper said she believed it was important for children to learn about different holidays, cultures and traditions in an educational way “that’s also fun and magical.”
‘Hanukkah Veronica, The Mitzvah Fairy’ focuses on Lucy, a young girl that is visited by a mitzvah-performing fairy. Through the fairy, Lucy learns about the importance of giving and enjoys doing good deeds for her family.
The book and doll are based on a true story, following the events of Cooper creating Hanukkah Veronica for her own little Lucy.
Through Bonta Friends, Cooper and Brant are looking forward to writing more children’s books about many different cultural celebrations including Diwali, Kwanzaa, Halloween and Lunar New Year.
Brant said that going forward, the two will be consulting with people that celebrate the different holidays so that the books are both accurate and share personal aspects of each festivity.
“We don’t want to put out a book about Kwanzaa and not involve or consult people who celebrate Kwanzaa,” Brant said. “All of our books are going to be written in conjunction with people who celebrate Diwali, Kwanzaa, Lunar New Year. You just wouldn’t have a couple of Jewish people write a book about Diwali. That doesn’t make any sense not to engage people that have lived these holidays.”
“Every year we hope to add more to the line with more stories, more characters and more kindness,” she said. “Let’s all get back to celebrating one another and remembering that the world is full of beauty, love and kindness.”
All the future characters will live in the world of Bonta, a world that values kindness and good deeds. Brant and Cooper chose the name ‘Bonta,’ which means ‘kindness’ in Italian, as a nod to both their Italian illustrator and overall message.
“It all comes back to the mitzvahs — those good deeds,” Brant said. “And we’re hoping that, through [‘Hanukkah Veronica, The Mitzvah Fairy’], we can inspire children and families to celebrate joy, peace and kindness.”