WNDMG: Jewish-American Heritage Month – Jewish Stories in MG

Hello Mixed-Up Readers!

Hope you are all well!

If you haven’t been paying attention, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t have, but our own Heather Murphy Capps and Aixa Perez-Praido have brought a great new monthly feature to Mixed-Up Files, called WNDMG, which of course means, We Need Diverse Middle Grade. I know Heather, in particular, has been passionate about amplifying diverse voices, and hopefully, this year, she’ll have good news about her own book to share with everyone. She deserves it, especially since she has put in so much time to promote others.

Honestly, it’s an important item to feature, because every kid should be able to see themselves in books. Every child should be able to read about others just like them, and show those kids being the heroes of stories. Diversity is important, not just in real life, but also in books for kids. So, with all that being said, I was thrilled and honored when Heather asked me to write this month’s post for WNDMG, since May is Jewish-American Heritage Month.

I was even more thrilled, because, unfortunately, I haven’t always felt that warm and fuzzy feeling when it comes to including Jewish stories in kidlt. As a matter of fact, many years ago, when I first started trying to become a children’s book writer, I was told by a decision-maker in kidlit, to make a story less Jewish, so it would appeal to a broader audience. Oh, it happened to be a story based on Jewish mythology. From what I discovered later, I was not alone in that. Many other Jewish authors have told me of similar experiences, where agents or editors told them that their work wouldn’t sell because it was “Too Jewish”. While I do think that things are a little better now than then, I still see some pushback against including Jewish stories. And not just from decision-makers. Even see it from some who are dedicated to promoting diversity in kidlit. It’s not a great feeling when you’re told, we want to be inclusive, but just not to your group.

I’m not sure why that is, but it really needs to stop. Groups should all be trying to amplify each other instead of finding reasons why to exclude someone. Especially, if you’re a part of another group calling for more representation. And if you’re actively trying to exclude Jewish books, maybe ask yourself, why? On that topic, here are a few facts. You know, those pesky little things that get in the way of certain narratives. Jews make up only 2.4% of the population, yet account for an incredibly high percentage of hate crimes being perpetrated against them. Over the last ten years, antisemitism has steadily risen, and it’s not just coming from one political “side”. So, when you’re then told that you don’t qualify for inclusion in talk of books pushing diversity, that you’re not welcome in that club, it’s really mind-boggling, and incredibly hurtful. I’d use other words, but this is a site dedicated to kidlit, so will refrain.

With antisemitism being what it is, it is more important than ever for kids, all kids, not just Jewish ones, to see Jews represented in children’s books. We bridge gaps by not just letting Jewish kids see themselves, but also by letting other kids see Jews and realize that maybe the differences aren’t so great. And whatever differences there are, are to be embraced and learned from. It starts with children, and it’s also what any group would want for themselves.

To my shame, those many years ago, I changed my book to make it “Less Jewish”. Would never do that again. I’m older and wiser. Well, all right, just older. But, I now decided to put a Jewish character into anything that I write. Either the main character or at least, a supporting one. I think with things being the way they are around the world, it’s too important not to. Not going to lie, it’s gonna be tough when I write that sci/fi, alien race invading other dimensions story, but I’m sure going to try and figure out a way.

Maybe Klaatu Cohen? Hmmm, I’ll try and think of something better.

Anyway, with this being Jewish-American Heritage Month, I’m going to do my part to amplify Jewish voices. Jewish stories. Jewish authors. Not just Holocaust books, which are still important, but also books showing Jewish kids just being kids. So, if you’re a teacher, librarian, parent, caregiver, or anyone who helps make reading choices for kids, please seek out some Jewish-themed stories or even stories with Jewish characters to share with the children in your lives. It’d be a mitzvah!

If you need any recs, drop me a line. I’ll make time to answer anyone who writes. Honestly.

And next year, you can pick up a Bnai-Mitzvah-themed anthology that I helped put together called, Coming of Age. It has thirteen stories from twelve great Jewish authors and also one from me! Hey, I had to get some shameless self-promotion in here somewhere!

That’s all for now Mixed-Up Readers. Thank you all for reading, and until my next post, I bid each and every one of you, Shalom!

 

We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

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Jonathan Rosen is a transplanted New Yorker, who now lives with his family in sunny, South Florida. He spends his “free” time chauffeuring around his three kids. Some of Jonathan’s fondest childhood memories are of discovering a really good book to dive into, in particular the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Jonathan is proud to be of Mexican-American descent, although neither country has been really willing to accept responsibility. He is the author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, which is out now, and its sequel, From Sunset Till Sunrise. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, FromtheMixedUpFiles.Com, SpookyMiddleGrade.com, and his own website, WWW.HouseofRosen.com
2 Comments
  1. I am a little late to reading this, but really appreciated the candor in this post. I am still working toward publication and think about these topics a lot as I write. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight, as well as encouragement!

  2. Hi, Jonathan—Well-said, and important. No question that there is still “pushback”, not just from long ago. I went back and forth over ten years of writing REENI’S TURN, which came out last year, hearing “too much Jewish content”, then “not enough Jewish content”. One day I decided to take the book back into my own hands, and per wonderful feedback from the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award committee, integrate the Jewish content—moderate but significant to my character’s journey—back into the book. I worked all day, stopping only before Shabbat. The next morning I heard the news of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life killings. I vowed never to change the story again. Our Holocaust stories are essential, for sure. I’ve learned from a mentor that it is not unusual for any group’s stories to begin with the terrible times and events, and gradually grow to include contemporary stories. Last year was a bountiful year for wonderful Jewish MG, and this year looks to be the same. And because the echoes of the Charlottesville Neo-Nazis remind us that even Jews who have grown up with white privilege undercut by their Judaism are “Jews first”, I hope we welcome the inclusion of all Jewish stories—BIPOC, LGBTQ+, white Ashkenazi, Sephardi, fat, neurologist-diverse, and more (I’m sure I’ve left someone out)—into the diverse tent.