Response to Jewish Kidlit Article in Mosaic

Every few years, someone blogs about the terrible state of Jewish kidlit. It happened in The Forward in 2012, when Deborah Kolben saw the deaths of Simms Taback and Russell Hoban as signaling the end of the genre ("Who Will Light Up Jewish Kids Lit?"). At that time, I wrote this blog post to provide the context that was missing from her article.  Now it's happened again in Mosaic with commentator Michael Weingrad's article "Why Are Jewish Children's Books So Bad?" and again I feel compelled to respond.

If you take a superficial look at the genre of Jewish kidlit you may come away sharing Weingrad's impression: "cartoon animals teaching holiday basics in stilted rhymes, an overrepresentation of sentimental grandparents (to the frequent exclusion of parents), and shtetl-and-steerage depictions of New York’s Lower East Side as the Sinai of American Judaism" and a "Bible that stops with Noah’s ark". It's true that these are well-used tropes, executed with varying levels of success. But take the time to dig a little deeper and you will find the riches he decries as missing. Weingrad says "The global span of Jewish culture, the treasures of the textual tradition, the variety of Jewish sensibilities: these remain largely untouched." Untouched? Untrue. I hope readers will explore the titles listed here that not only touch but embrace these themes. (Note: Books listed range from classic to recent; as a librarian I advocate picking up out-of-print titles from your local library.)

"the global span of Jewish culture"

Around the World in One Shabbat by Durga Yael Bernhard (worldwide)
The Secret Shofar of Barcelona by Jacqueline Dembar Greene (Inquisition Spain)
Shanghai Sukkah by Heidi Smith Hyde (China)
Never Say a Mean Word Again by Jacqueline Jules (medieval Spain)
Everybody Says Shalom by Leslie Kimmelman (Israel)
Much, Much Better by Chaim Kosofsky (Iraq)
How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz (Turkestan, modern-day Kazakhstan)
Yuvi's Candy Tree by Lesley Simpson (Ethiopia)
The Wooden Sword by Ann Redisch Stampler (Afghanistan)
Golemito by Ilan Stavans (Mexico)
Rebecca's Journey Home by Brynn Olenberg Sugarman (Vietnamese adoption)
The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber (Southern United States)

Mira in the Present Tense by Sita Brahmachari (Indian British)
Tropical Secrets by Margarita Engle (Cuba)
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (Indian American)
Incantation by Alice Hoffman (Inquisition Spain)
Freefall by Anna Levine (Israel)
Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman (Argentina)
Tucson Jo by Carol Matas (The American West)
Cry of the Giraffe by Judie Oren (Ethiopia)
Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa by Micol Ostow (Puerto Rico)
Prince William, Maximilian Minsky and Me by Holly Jane Rahlens (Germany)
Chloe Leiberman (Sometimes Wong) by Carrie Rosten (Chinese American)
The Bat-Chen Diaries by Bat-Chen Shahak (Israel)
Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin (Soviet Union)

"the treasures of the textual tradition"

Oh No, Jonah by Tilda Balsley
Nachshon Who Was Afraid to Swim by Deborah Bodin Cohen
Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis
To Everything There is a Season by Leo & Diane Dillon
Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Golden Gelman
The Bedtime Sh'ma by Sarah Gershman
The White Ram: A Story of Abraham and Isaac by Mordicai Gerstein
On One Foot by Linda Glaser
Sarah Laughs by Jacqueline Jules
The Moses Basket by Jenny Koralek
Babel by Marc Lumer
Creation by Gerald McDermott
Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden by Jane Ray
I Say Shehechiyanu by Joanne Rocklin
The Littlest Mountain by Barb Rosenstock
Cain & Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
Gathering Sparks by Howard Schwartz
The Longest Night by Laurel Snyder
The Rooster Prince of Breslov by Anne Redisch Stampler
Joseph by Brian Wildsmith

The Garden by Elsie V. Aidinoff
Angels Sweep the Desert Floor by Miriam Chaikin
Tales for the Seventh Day by Nina Jaffe
Be Not Far From Me by Eric Kimmel
Pharoah's Daughter by Julius Lester
When the Beginning Began by Julius Lester
Queen of Secrets by Jenny Meyerhoff
A Time to Love by Walter Dean Myers
Storm by Donna Jo Napoli
In the Days of Sand and Stars by Marlee Pinsker

"the variety of Jewish sensibilities"

Love Me Later by Julie Baer
Alef Bet Yoga by Ruth Goldeen
The Flower Girl Wore Celery by Meryl G. Gordon
Speak Up, Tommy! by Jacqueline Dembar Greene
The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner
As Good As Anybody by Richard Michelson
Beautiful Yetta the Yiddish Chicken by Daniel Pinkwater
The Schmutzy Family by Madelyn Rosenberg
The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner
In God's Name by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket
Baxter the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher by Laurel Snyder
Jalapeno Bagels by Natasha Wing

Hereville series by Barry Deutsch
Ethan, Suspended by Pamela Ehrenberg
Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart 
Real Time by Pnina Moed Kass
Like No Other by Una LaMarche
Wide Awake by David Levithan
Strange Relations by Sonia Levitin
Gravity by Leanne Lieberman
Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman
The Bras & Broomsticks series by Sarah Mlynowski
So Punk Rock: And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother by Micol Ostow
Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen
Never Mind the Goldbergs by Matthue Roth
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti

"the possibilities of illustration"

Weingrad also complains "The possibilities of illustration, too, crucial for so many children’s classics, remain barely explored." Lest you come away with the impression that Jewish children's books are ugly, let me mention some beautiful and creative examples within the genre.

I Only Like What I Like written and illustrated by Julie Baer
On a Beam of Light written by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
Snow in Jerusalem by Deborah da Costa, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu
Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Sarah Goodreau
Hanukkah at Valley Forge by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Greg Harlin
I Dissent by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Ketzel the Cat Who Composed by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates
Here is the World by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Susan Gall 
Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses and Crescents written and illustrated by Mark Podwal
Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden written and illustrated by Jane Ray
Fox Walked Alone written and illustrated by Barbara Reid
Chanukah Lights by Michael Rosen , paper engineering by Robert Sabuda (pop-up book)
Turn! Turn! Turn! by Pete Seeger, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin 
When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel by Mirik Snir, illustrated by Eleyor Snir
Before You Were Born by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner
Kibbitzers and Fools written and illustrated by Simms Taback
Creation: A Pop-Up Book  written and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith
You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter, illustrated by André Carrilho
Golem written and illustrated by David Wisniewski
Hanukkah Haiku by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Karla Gudeon

From Foe to Friend by S.Y. Agnon, illustrated by Shay Charka
Hereville series written and illustrated by Barry Deutsch
The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly
The Golem by Barbara Rogasky, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
Rabbi Harvey series written and illustrated by Steve Sheinkin

"a calendar of never-ending Hanukahs"

Finally, Weingrad holds up Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf by Greg Wolfe as an example of how low things have sunk. I agree with his opinion of that particular title (see my Shmelf podcast episode), but once again Weingrad fails to notice the many excellent Hanukkah alternatives to Shmelf. In addition to a few Hanukkah titles mentioned in the lists above, the books below will delight readers seeking holiday entertainment, and many of them could easily have gone on the Illustration list above for their gorgeous artwork. These are the tip of the iceberg; Weingrad correctly points out "a calendar of never-ending Hanukahs," though he fails to acknowledge that this is due to market forces rather than a lack of imagination on the part of authors.

I Have a Little Dreidel written and illustrated by Maxie Baum
Hanukkah in Alaska by Barbara Brown
Hanukkah Moon by Deborah da Costa
Celebrate Hanukkah with Light, Latkes, and Dreidels by Deborah Heiligman
Menorah Under the Sea by Esther Susan Heller
Latkes Latkes Good to Eat by Naomi Howland
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel
Simon and the Bear by Eric Kimmel
How Mindy Saved Hanukkah by Eric Kimmel
A Letter on the Wind by Sarah Marwil Lamstein
Hanukkah Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig
Jodie's Hanukkah Dig by Anna Levine
The Miracle Jar by Audrey Penn
Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah by Susan L. Roth
Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Tanya Simon

Dreidels on the Brain by Joel Ben Izzy
Like a Maccabee by Barbara Bietz
Alexandra's Scroll by Miriam Chaikin
Hanukkah, Shmanukkah by Esme Raji Codell
Sam I Am by Ilene Cooper
The Golden Dreydl by Ellen Kushner
The Magic Menorah by Jane Breskin Zalben


Just a few years ago, the Skirball Cultural Center of Los Angeles and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA collaborated on an exhibit, Monsters and Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books," featuring over 130 original works of art, texts, and related objects from time-honored classics and popular favorites. Jewish comics, while primarily aimed at older children and adults, have reached the point of having a dedicated Jewish Comic Con. The annual Jewish Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' Seminar welcomes new creatives into the fold. Gentle readers, do not be dismayed by the nay-saying of the uninformed. Jewish kidlit is alive and well, and continuing to expand.

Want to see it grow even further? Support the market by borrowing Jewish books from your library, and buying Jewish books for yourself, your family, and your friends. Spread the word about great Jewish books by taking part in #Readukkah, a Jewish Reading Challenge co-sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Jewish Book Council. Maybe even attend the next conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries in New York City to learn more about the genre and how you can support it!

Happy Hanukkah and Happy Reading!
Heidi Rabinowitz

Why listen to me? I've been professionally immersed in Jewish kidlit for eighteen years. I've been a children's librarian for a synagogue since 1998. I was a member and chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee of the Association of Jewish Libraries, a founding member of the book selection committee for PJ Library, and I've been interviewing authors of Judaica for my podcast, The Book of Life, since 2005. I also review Jewish books for School Library Journal.


Et said…
Thank you, dear Heidi, for your most thoughtful and proper response to this article. Obviously the author never consulted someone truly knowledgeable, someone immersed in the wonderful world of Jewish kidlit. Thank you also for your terrific recommendations.
KSP said…
Excellent points and examples, Heidi. I would add:

Joseph Who Loved the Sabbath by Eric Kimmel (textual tradition - Shabbat 119a)
A Dozen Daisies for Raizy by Rebecca Klempner; illustrated by Chava (variety of Jewish sensibilities - picture book)
My Guardian Angel by Sylvie Weil (span of Jewish culture - chapter book - France)

and these illustrated books:
Mysterious Guests by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Katya Krenina
The Waiting Wall by Leah Braunstein Levy and illustrated by Avi Katz
I Am Marc Chagall by Bimba Landmann
Unknown said…
What a wonderful list of books! It seems to me that Jewish Kidlit is becoming mature and diverse enough to reflect the same type of range one finds in the general Kidlit market. You can find quality books of award winning caliber as well as more commercial type books and everything in-between.
I would love to add to your Chanukah list some of my favorites: "Chanukah at Valley Forge" and "Northern Lights".
Menucha Publishers, a small Orthodox Press that I work for has put out some interesting titles for Young Adults. "Uncertain Tomorrows," a true story of a family dealing with a Jewish genetic illness; "My Name is Annie White (Fish)," a novel written in poetic stanzas; "Dancing in the Dark," teens coping with a mentally ill mother; and "Stand Your Ground" a teen who must decide whether to press charges against a drunken driver who is her best friend's brother.
Looking forward to all the new Jewish Kidlit books coming out!
Thank you, Heidi. For this thoughtful and forceful response recommending so many excellent titles I hope Jewish families will read.
Thanks so much for your dedication to Jewish Kidlit, our front lines advocate and protector! Also, thanks for the nudge to go read some more of these titles (esp So Punk Rock. If I'd founds something with that title as a kid I would have read it nightly.)
Barbara Bietz said…

You are the voice of reason in this wonderful response. Thank you for representing our community so beautifully.

Unknown said…
I would like to suggest a best illustrated picture book: SHMULIK PAINTS THE TOWN illustrated by Catalina Echeverri.
Susan Dubin said…
Heidi, you have once again crafted an intelligent and accurate response to a narrow look at Jewish literature for children. Those who have only a cursory knowledge of the field ,and many who only see what is commercially touted in the bookstores ,as well as the sometimes narrow selection of children'Judaica available in public and school libraries, are missing the wide range of excellent books you cite. Thanks to the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Sydney Taylor Award for their efforts to recognize the finest in literature for children, Jewish or not.
galia said…
Check out indi series :
The stories of Jewish children in today's world.
Anonymous said…
I'm intrigued by this list, because I tend towards the viewpoint in the Mosaic article, and I really dislike 99% of what we get through PJ Library. But do you have any links whatsoever to any of these books? If you want people to read them and you want to make the point about Jewish kid lit, actually provide the evidence. Otherwise, I'm sorry to say, you're shouting into the wind.
Another picture book (nonfiction) for "variety of Jewish sensibilities" would be Seder in the Desert by Jamie Korngold.
Marjorie Ingall said…
Anonymous, there's this wacky tool called "Google." (Also, a site called "Amazon" and people who work in certain buildings who are called "librarians.") It shouldn't be too hard to find the books Heidi recommends.

My response to the Mosaic article: Most Jewish children's literature is weak because most LITERATURE is weak. You've heard of Sturgeon's Law? "Ninety percent of everything is crap." It's true!

The Mosaic piece was tragically ill-informed; the fact that the last great Jewish children's book the author can cite was published in 1966 shows how little he knows of the genre. (As well as how little children's literature is respected, that such a clueless essay could be published -- imagine someone making the unsubstantiated statement in the NYTBR or NYRB that no brilliant literary fiction had been published since 1966!) And the author's clear cluelessness about the field is revealed in his hilarious tut-tutting that today we lack great Jewish authors like Stan Berenstain. Stan was utterly secular and never addressed Judaism in his work in any way; his co-creator Jan Berenstain was Episcopalian, and the Berenstain Bears empire includes a zillion right-wing Christian titles like HERE'S THE CHURCH, HERE'S THE STEEPLE; THE BERENSTAIN BEARS FOLLOW GOD'S WORD; and THE BERENSTAIN BEARS GO TO SUNDAY SCHOOL...all published with Zondervan, a Christian publisher.

The upshot: Look at the Sydney Taylor lists; look at my roundups for Tablet Magazine. There is wonderful Jewish kidlit out there, just as there is wonderful speculative fiction, romance, true crime, literary fiction, graphic novels, noir, YA, middle-grade lit and picture books...amid the piles and piles of dreck that MOST books, in most genres, are.

tl;dr: Using Shmelf as an example of how Jewish children's literature is lousy is like using 50 Shades of Grey as an example of how adult fiction is lousy.