(Sometimes-Not-So) All-of-a-Kind-Families

With the Jewish High Holidays behind us, and Jewish Book Month looming, it feels natural to talk about Jewish books.  Of course, being the Mixed Up Files, we’re discussing (duh) the Jewish middle grade, specifically.   To that end, we’ve invited our wonderful friend Heidi Estrin to join us, for an illuminating chat about Jewish books for kids!

Heidi hosts The Book of Life, a monthly podcast on Jewish books, music, film, and web. She is Vice-President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and past chair of AJL’s Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She’s also  the Library Director & Computer Specialist at Feldman Children’s Library, Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida.  But most of all, she’s a friend to kids (of all ages)who love books!

Thanks so much for joining us today at the MIXED UP FILES blog, Heidi.  We’re glad to have you here.

Thanks, Laurel, I am thrilled to be here!

A lot of people, when they think about Jewish middle grade, really fall back on All of a Kind family and Anne Frank, and then get stuck. So we were hoping you could share your thoughts with us  on Jewish characters or themes in other books, books we maybe haven’t read, or haven’t thought of as Jewish.

Let me first give All-of-a-Kind Family its due, since the series was actually pretty important in the history of Jewish kidlit as a genre. It was the first (non-Biblical) story with Jewish characters that became popular with readers from all different backgrounds. It kind of set the tone for our current embrace of multicultural literature! That’s why the Association of Jewish Libraries calls its annual Jewish children’s literature award the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, in memory of the author of All-of-a-Kind Family.

All-of-a-Kind Family and Anne Frank represent two very common themes in Jewish literature: the immigration story and the persecution story. In the twentieth century, these were two major facets of the Jewish experience, and there are many, many excellent books that reflect these themes. However, the literature is finally catching up with our modern reality; now we have books like Prince William, Maximilian Minsky, and Me by Holly-Jane Rahlens (a growing-up story that takes place in modern Germany), Julia’s Kitchen by Brenda Ferber (a family tragedy causes a girl to explore her relationship with God), the Bras & Broomsticks series by Sarah Mlynowksi (modern magical fantasy in which the characters just happen to be Jewish). This last title is a great example of a whole new subgenre of “culturally neutral” books, in which Jewish characters are present, but their religious identity is not critical to the story. I love these books because I feel that they “normalize” Jewish characters instead of making them act as cultural symbols or role models.

I would guess that there are probably more culturally neutral Jewish books for middle graders than for picture book readers or YA’s. Jewish picture books “set the scene,” by familiarizing readers with Jewish customs. Jewish YA books explore serious topics like religious identity, the Holocaust, or the situation in the Middle East. The in-between readers don’t need an intro but aren’t ready for super-heavy subject matter. Writers are more likely to give them characters who just happen to be Jewish, like Lydia Goldblatt in The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow (we only know she’s Jewish because of her name), or the hero of Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg (a passing mention of Shabbat dinners), or How to Survive Middle School (without getting your head flushed) and Deal with an Ex-Best Friend,…um, Girls, and a Heartbreaking Hamster by Donna Gephart (a Jewish protagonist who models his comic YouTube videos after his Jewish hero Jon Stewart).

That said, there are certainly middle grade books that do face Jewish issues head-on. Some great examples would be Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (despite the title, it’s about a Jewish girl deciding out how observant she wants to be), Ethan, Suspended by Pamela Ehrenberg (Ethan’s is the only Jewish family left in his black/Latino DC neighborhood), and The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah by Nora Raleigh Baskin (a half-Jewish girl exploring her identity).

Wow! What a range… Are there Jewish authors you especially like, who maybe don’t write overtly Jewish books, but who feel decidedly “Jewish” to you, in theme or style?

Daniel Pinkwater is an author who lets his Jewish identity flow freely even when he’s not writing a Jewish book. It’s in the name choices, the settings, it’s in his style of humor (picture books by Arthur Yorinks have that same feeling). Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket is Jewish; in an interview with Moment Magazine he revealed that the Baudelaire children of A Series of Unfortunate Events are Jewish (see http://www.momentmag.com/Exclusive/2007/2007-02/200702-Handler.html), and that the “unending misery” they endure is influenced by Jewish history! And Laurel, I was so very pleased when you decided to use the family name “Levy” in Any Which Wall, so that your otherwise completely secular story can be thought of as including Jewish characters!

Aww.. thanks so much for adding me to that amazing list! I wonder…  we’ve discussed books that are “just Jewish.”  But if a reader wants to submerge a little more, are there good examples of Jewish historical fiction for middle grade readers, that would be a good starting place for understanding the history/culture?

Try Alexandra’s Scroll: The Story of the First Hanukkah by Miraim Chaikin for an exciting chapter book that takes place in Biblical times; My Guardian Angel by Sylvie Weil for Jewish life in medieval Europe, Bridge to America by Linda Glaser (based on a true story) for an immigration tale that shows life in the old country and in the new; Honey Cake by Joan Betty Stuchner for a gentle story of Holocaust resistance (many kids have already read Newbery winner Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, which takes place in the same WWII Denmark setting). The American Girl series finally got around to creating a Jewish character, so if you like your history with accessories you can get Meet Rebecca and its sequels, written by Jacqueline Dembar Greene. For a lesser-known angle on Jewish history (because not all Jews lived on the Lower East Side), try The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin.

I’m kind of floored there are so many Jewish books I haven’t read.  Since you seem to know a ton, can you tell us–what trends do you see currently? Any good new books we should be watching for?

Watch for Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, a graphic novel whose tagline is “Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.” (at this point, the interviewer squeals because she’s so in love with this book!) This book succeeds on so many levels! It’s got drama, Jewish customs, humor, Jewish ways of thinking, magic, and super-expressive art! (interviewer nods insanely) It effortlessly draws any reader into the Orthodox setting without feeling educational or preachy. It creates its own rich Jewish world with no need for victimhood as a source of identity or as a dramatic device. In a way, this book is the culmination of several positive kidlit (and Jewishlit) trends: multiculturalism and normalizing of ethnic characters, respecting children’s intelligence, experimental formats, and strong female leads.

Since you have the attention of lots of authors here, we have to ask, are there gaps you’d like to see filled?  Topics you think should be addressed, or styles of books you think we need more of?

We need more FUN books and more FUNNY books. Jewish kidlit tends toward the serious, and we urgently need to balance that out with more light-hearted and adventurous fare. We need to help Jewish kids build an identity NOT based on victimization, and we need to portray Judaism to the rest of the world in a positive way. That’s what All-of-a-Kind Family did, after all! We also need to stop relying on Yiddish culture for our humor, because modern kids just don’t get it (sad as that may seem to adults).

And now that you’ve told us about so many good books, we have to ask– what’s your favorite Jewish middle grade title?

Viva la Paris by Esme Raji Codell is so amazing that as soon as I finished it, I went back and started reading it again. It’s not a conventional Jewish book at all, but it mixes Jewish and universal themes together really powerfully. A young black girl learns about the Holocaust, bullies, and her own power to rise above cruelty, all through her relationship with her Jewish piano teacher. When I interviewed the author for my podcast, she told me that she wrote it in response to her own young students, who were having trouble processing the harsh reality of Holocaust history. Vive la Paris introduces man’s inhumanity to man in an age-appropriate way that is ultimately empowering instead of depressing.  The Sydney Taylor Book Award committee honored this book with a silver medal, so I’m not alone in thinking this is one terrific book!

As a final note, I’d like to recommend that anyone seeking middle grade Jewish titles keep an eye on the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s “Older Readers Category.” Since the award began in 1968, it’s been recognizing the best Jewish chapter book annually (in later years they added a picture book category, and finally a YA category, but the middle grade books were the original format being honored). There are gold and silver medalists, plus an annual list of “notables,” so this gives you a good long list of Jewish middle grade titles to draw upon. Watch www.jewishlibraries.org for the annual January announcement of winners, and get a complete list of past winners right here.

Heidi, we really can’t thank you enough for sharing all this with us.  You’ve given us all an amazing wealth of information, and we only wish you could be our librarian!

  1. Debbie, you make an important point about the value of well-written Holocaust/persecution books. There is certainly a place for these (such as your own Year of Goodbyes, of course), and the best ones provide plenty of inspiration and humanity along with historical horror. However, when you look at the genre of Jewish kidlit as a whole, you’ll see that the topic of persecution is WAY over-represented. When a kid walks into my library looking for something fun to read, it can be a struggle for me to find them something persecution-free, quite honestly. I’m not saying we should do away with books on these topics, but we absolutely need more balance!

  2. What a thoughtful and informative interview. Thanks to you both. But something has been gnawing at me since I read the interview last week. Here goes:

    Heidi, twice in the interview you seem to be saying (in your intelligent and quiet way!): Enough! Enough books about Jewish “victimization,” enough with the “persecution story”!

    I know there are many thoughtful Jews and educators who want to move away from the 20th century “master narrative” that defined us—namely, the Holocaust. I don’t intend to tangle with that larger question here; I simply want to say that, in my view, well-told, freshly crafted stories for young readers of the era surrounding the Holocaust are as important today as ever. After all, a good story is never just “victim” story or a “persecution” story—it might be a story of courage, or adaptation, or forgiveness, or any one of a number of themes. In my view, there can never be too many stories that prompt young readers to think about what it feels like to be somebody else, especially somebody else experiencing a crisis. And I don’t think that reading about Jewish characters who deal with bigotry or persecution causes Jewish kids to “build an identity” based on victimization, as one part of the interview seems to suggest. To the contrary, I think such books have the capacity to help build an identity based on the important qualities of perseverance, strength, empathy—and even humor. . . .

    Okay. Enough. Please understand, I also absolutely celebrate the wide variety of books Heidi mentions in the interview!

  3. Though not completely Jewish and also not a complete story, I’d like to plug one of my favorite discoveries from New York Comicon – Stuck in the Middle.

    Stuck… is an anthology by different cartoonists and the only comix anthology I know of that is aimed at middle schoolers. In one story (by one of the Schrag sisters), there is only the suggestion of the author-narrator being Jewish (she has a Jewish-sounding name and a classmate makes fun of her big nose).

    In “Horse Camp”, Lauren Weinstein’s protagonist deals with feeling like an outsider (the only Jew at a Christian camp), having a crush on a boy, and getting her period. Talk about a stressful summer.

  4. Some great favorites here, and lots of fun new books to check out – thanks! May I put a shameless plug in for another Jewish middle grade book coming soon? WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU O.J. will be published by Knopf in June, 2011. In it, 10-year-old Zelda “Zelly” Fried’s eccentric grandfather, “Ace”, puts her up to a plan involving an old orange juice jug that will either result in her getting a dog or becoming the laughing stock of her new hometown.

    Up until now, I have been a proud Jewish author who doesn’t happen to write “Jewish” books. But once I started writing O.J., so much of my experience growing up Jewish in a non-Jewish place (Northern VT) came back to me. While I hope O.J. finds a Jewish audience, I also hope it finds wide readership, since – as with so many of the books mentioned here – the central themes (conflicting loyalties to family and friends, feeling like a fish out of water) are universal.

  5. One thing that was difficult while answering these questions was I kept thinking of books I love and then realizing they were too YA for Mixed Up Files. For example, anything by David Levithan. He has a lot of culturally neutral Jewish stuff going on, and sometimes even significant Jewish content, like in Wide Awake when there’s a Jewish gay president!

    Another historical novel I meant to work into the article but forgot was A Pickpocket’s Tale by Karen Schwabach: Colonial America, a Jewish pickpocketing girl from England is sent to the colonies as punishment and is taken in by a Jewish family. It won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award before it was published (a separate award for unpublished works).

  6. @Madelyn, I didn’t know Zoot was Jewish! That is so cool!
    @Laurie, thanks for pointing out Are You There God, it’s a classic example that I forgot to include.
    @Deniz, interesting premise, I’ll be curious to see how that works out!
    @Tami, thanks for the heads-up on Beyond Lucky, I will watch for it.
    @Esme, I’ve heard Brenda say that Jemma is really Jewish, even though it’s not explicit in the books, so you’re right. And as always, Vive la Esme!

  7. I am so happy to discover this excellent blog, and so honored to have my book mentioned in the context of such an amazing interview, thank you! So many wonderful suggestions here, given by such a reliable source. One of my personal favorite middle grader picks is Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy, I think it is one of the most readable and insightful books about the Holocaust written for middle graders. I am also a big fan of all of the work of Brenda Ferber, including Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire—not a Jewish book per se, but I couldn’t help feeling like Jemma was a Jewish girl! Vive la Sidney Taylor and Vive la Heidi Estrin!!!

  8. What a fantastic interview!

    It’s a bit out on the horizon, but Mixed-Up member Sarah Aronson’s Beyond Lucky will be published next year, with hilarious, sweet Jewish protagonist, Ari Fish. It’s a real winner!

  9. Thank you Laurel and Heidi for an awesome informative post.

    My own work in progress is a YA set in the year 1492. The protagonist is a Jewish girl exiled from Spain with her family; on the way, she is separated from her parents and finds out from a friend of the family, ‘uncle’ Santiago, that he is really her father – and that she’s Catholic. Meanwhile, they’re journeying to Constantinople, and on the way she falls in love with a Muslim man…

    Needless to say, it’s complicated 🙂 I hope I’ve kept it lighter, though, and not been too heavy handed with any of the religious elements; the story’s about identity and family, but there’s romance too.

    I’m trying to think of other books featuring Jewish characters – Becky’s Horse was one (sadly, don’t remember the author) about a girl living in the States in the 30s, who wants nothing more in life than a horse. She wins money in a contest and (spoiler!) rather than buy a horse, gives it to her family who are trying to get relatives out of Europe and need the money to pay for her cousin’s fare.

    There must be others… I’ll have to go look on my shelves!

  10. Great interview!

  11. Fabulous interview! Thanks so much. Now I have a few new titles to add to my reading list.

  12. I adored the ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY series when I was a girl. And Daniel Pinkwater is one of my favorite book on CD road trip authors: he’s very entertaining.

  13. Thanks Laurel and Heidi for a great discussion. Vive La Paris is such a wonderful book and deserves a wider audience. And now I have yet another book to order immediately: Hereville!

    One more classic MG that features a half-Jewish main character: Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. 🙂

  14. Oo!!! Great interview! Thanks to both of you. There are a lot of books on here I haven’t read that I will seek out. When I was a kid I feel like I went from All-of-a-Kind Family to Monday the Rabbi Took Off (not middle grade but what else was there?) Plus The Chosen and A Bag of Marbles. That might cover it. My own kids are currently deep into Pinkwater’s Snarkout Boys, and I will be rounding up these as a follow-up. I do think that just having a Jewish name or mentioning a holiday in passing helps A LOT. During a Muppets Christmas Special a few years ago, Zoot said “Happy Hanukkah,” and the kids both screamed: MOMMY, ZOOT’S JEWISH!!!!! He is still their favorite Muppet.