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18 February 2009 @ 01:04 pm
Article on Jewish children's books  
Just stumbled upon (via sarazarr) Laurel Snyder's article Where the Wild Things Aren't--on the lack of contemporary, relevant, even edgy and funny Jewish children's books. This is something several of us have been talking about online lately (looks around for rachelmanija), and it's come up before.

I still remember how troubled I was, at a Jewish book fair I'd signed at, to look at the selection of children's books there, and to see that they were 80 percent about the holocaust, 20 percent about immigrating from eastern Europe, and about pretty much nothing else at all.

This was especially troubling in light of a comment one of my (non-Jewish) Scouts had made when I brought my Menorah to a meeting so we could light it during Hanukah. "Looking at that makes me so sad," she said. "Because it reminds me of Anne Frank." I loved the diary of Anne Frank, and think there are things we all need to remember ... but I began to worry that we were teaching Jews and non-Jewish children alike that this was the total sum of Jewish experience--when my own Jewish experience isn't just or even mostly about death and our grim obligation to remember it, but about so much of joy and life and light. Most Jews I know, at least from my generation onwards, would say the same. Why aren't we showing all that more in our Jewish fiction?

Snyder found more of a range than I did at that book fair when she looked, but she noticed something else just as problematic:

Most books for young Jewish readers are instructional. They have titles like, Purim Goodies or It’s Israel’s Birthday! and they’re intended to educate kids about specific customs, traditions, events, and places.

The children's book writing community does struggle with the societal notion that every book for a child has to be overtly good for them, and with conveying that kids have the right to books that are just for fun, too. But I'm beginning to wonder if in the Jewish community and those of us who are Jewish writers have been less successful in making edutainment books just one part of what's out there.

Snyder says that after thinking about these issues for a while,

I began work on a picture book called Baxter the Kosher Pig, about how insecurity and misunderstanding once kept a little pig from finding his community. The book came out in a rush, and thrilled with the results, I quickly sent it off to an esteemed publisher of Jewish children’s books. Almost overnight I received a rejection, a kind note explaining that while the press liked my voice, and the story, and while they thought Baxter was cute and funny, the idea of a pig wanting to be kosher was too risky. They said they could not afford to “alienate their readers.” Could Baxter be something besides a pig, they wondered. No, he couldn’t. That was the point of the story.

I've met the "risky" problem, too--that book fair above told me not to come at first, because I "wrote supernatural books" and that "might offend the rabbis." My own rabbi at the time was indignant, fortunately ("Offend what rabbis?" he demanded), and I got a phone call inviting me after all the day after I told him about that.

But I suspect there's a whole community of folks like the organizer of that book fair, afraid of making waves, of moving beyond boundaries that don't even look like boundaries outside of the community. When I published a story in an anthology of ghost stories from a Jewish press, the reviews--and the book's marketing--made this out to be a radical and edgy sort of thing to do, publishing Jewish ghost stories. That confused me at the time--ghost stories are not exactly new. I think I understand what's going on a little more now.

Fortunately Snyder was able to publish Baxter the Kosher Pig, by going to a secular press instead. And what Jewish kid wouldn't want to read that? If I were six, that would beat out yet another "let's learn all about Hanukah!" book any time. And I'd learn just as much in the end.

Anyway, good things to think about in that article--including what those of us who are Jewish writers can do to convey the range of our contemporary experiences in our stories, outside of writing books designed to teach lessons about same.

(Also, I have to say. Baxter the Kosher Pig? One of the best titles for a picture book ever, at least as far as this Jewish once-kid is concerned.)
Troubleliteraticat on February 18th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
One of my clients wrote a terrific book called BEAUTIFUL YETTA (THE YIDDISH CHICKEN), about a chicken who is lost in the dangerous and magical world of Brooklyn, NY, and becomes mama to a flock of wild parrots.

It is told in Yiddish (for the chicken), Spanish (for the parrots), and English (for the rats).

Forthcoming! Keep your eyes peeled!
Janni Lee Simner: anime mejanni on February 18th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC)
That sounds lovely! I'll look for it.

Wasn't it you who sent me A Brief Chapter In My Impossible Life way back when, too? I remember liking that one a lot.
the most saint-obsessed Jew you'll ever meetrymenhild on February 18th, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC)
When I was growing up, the reward for finding the afikomen* at the Passover seder was usually some Jewish children's book.

*Oddly, whoever found the afikomen, every child seemed to get a reward for finding it.

I remember The Jewish Kids' Catalog as an entertaining and useful book, a less hippie and more Zionist offshoot of the Jewish Catalog series. But the rest of the books we got were nothing like The Jewish Kids Catalog. Often, they weren't even Holocaust books. They were Artscroll-branded YA novels, probably found at the neighborhood Judaica store. Sometimes they mimicked (usually unsuccessfully) the genre conventions of "mainstream" (read: realistic rather than fantastic) YA novels, except that every character in every book was modern Orthodox. (My family is more or less centrist Conservative.) I really had no idea what to do with these. I disliked realistic novels and I couldn't empathize with the well-behaved frum teenage girls who were perfectly delighted to go everywhere in their long skirts and sweatshirts.

Later I discovered Chaim Potok. His work was a definite improvement on my previous Jewish YA reading, especially when I found Davita's Harp.

I can think of one (relatively) recent children's/YA series I love in which almost every character is a secular Jew. It's easy to miss the Yiddishkeit in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, but it's there.

(It's possible that this entire reply is more or less peripheral to your post, but since I've written it I might as well post it here anyway.)
Karenklwilliams on February 18th, 2009 10:15 pm (UTC)
I've really learned a lot about Jewish life from reading Esther and Susan's groups online. I wish I'd learned more about things like Jewish holidays other than Hanukkah, and just daily life, when I was younger.
deborahjross on February 18th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
My children loved Eric Kimmel's books, especially HERSCHEL AND THE CHANUKAH GOBLINS and THE CHANUKAH GUEST. Kids are grown, but we still read HERSCHEL aloud every year, complete with funny voices. Also great are Patricia Pollaco's MRS. KATZ AND TUSH and THE TREES OF THE DANCING GOATS. But these are all for younger kids, not middle school or older (unless, as in my family, the read-aloud is part of a holiday celebration.)
E. Kristin Anderson (Emily)ekanderson on February 19th, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)
I really liked Cristina Garcia's I Wanna Be Your Shoebox, which centers around a multi-ethnic 13-year-old. She's part Jewish, part Japanese, part Cuban, and all awesome.
(Anonymous) on February 19th, 2009 04:11 am (UTC)
Janni, have you seen THE CARP IN THE BATHTUB? I remember reading it over and over as a kid and was just recently thrilled to see it at Bank Street Books.

A warning, though: The fish dies. Think Passover.

Rebecca Stead
Harvestar / Karenharvestar on February 19th, 2009 05:33 am (UTC)
Being a kid into history, I loved the "All of a Kind Family" books about a Jewish family in NYC growing up in the early 1900's. I learned about Jewish holidays and always was confused that everyone else around me didn't know what Purim was.

I was also required to read Anne Frank (8th grade) and Chaim Potok's The Chosen (9th grade) in Catholic school. I loved Potok's books and gobbled up all that I found. There's still a few waiting on my shelf.

As a senior in high school and an adult, I love Elie Wiesel's books. (though those are not children's books)