My Completely Unofficial 2022 Sydney Taylor Shortlist

Many years ago, I was on the Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, and I even chaired the committee for a few years. Those days are long gone, and I am no longer a part of those decisions. However, I still have strong opinions about each year's crop of Jewish kidlit. 2021 offered an inspiring array of Jewish books, with very diverse representation and an encouraging thread of activism, making me want to advocate for more titles than I have time to podcast about. Here then, is my completely unofficial shortlist of titles that I personally feel are deserving of Sydney Taylor Book Award recognition, or at least deserving of your attention. I'll also add the caveat that I did not read every single Jewish children's or YA book that came out this year, so there may be other titles that I would have added to this list if I'd gotten around to reading them.

I'm not naming unofficial gold, silver, or notable books -- I'm just saying that I am excited about these books and I think you should read them. I've listed the titles within their age categories alphabetically by author's last name.

We'll find out whether the Real Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee agrees with me when the winners are announced on January 24, 2022 at 9am ET, at the American Library Association's Youth Media Awards event! Also, watch this space - after the announcement, I'll have a podcast interview with current Sydney Taylor Book Awards Chair Martha Seif Simpson.


Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co.

Churnin is a biography whiz, there's no question (hear my podcast interview with her from 2019 for proof!). Here she's fleshed out a little-known but important incident, wherein a Jewish reader schooled Charles Dickens about antisemitism and ultimately changed his mind and his writing. I love the relatable, richly colored illustrations, the strong female Jewish  representation, and the empowering role modeling of activism. I also loved Nancy's A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, Creston Books, another relatable depiction of a strong Jewish activist woman. If I had to choose, I'd say I prefer the Dickens book because it's about about a person who was not famous, and possibly because the style of art is more my jam, but both books are terrific.

Change Sings by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long, Viking

Is this a Jewish book? I don't know, and the Real Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee may decide that it's not eligible. But I love it for its tikkun olam message and its remarkable inclusion of a boy in a kippah among the diverse children pitching in to better their world.

The Christmas Mitzvah by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Michelle Laurentia Agatha, Creston Books

I loved this book so much that I interviewed the author about it on my Holiday Heroes podcast episode along with the author of Red and Green and Blue and White. It's a story of a Jew reaching out to Christian neighbors, helping them to celebrate Christmas without becoming absorbed or coopted by it. I particularly love the critique of neoliberalism in the line noting that Al Rosen helped "folks easy to dismiss in a world that mistakes wealth for worth." The charming illustrations are round and warm and cozy.

The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel, illustrated by Sean Rubin, Holiday House

My good friend Susan Kusel is on this list, not just because of our friendship, but because her debut picture book is a stunner. She did a great job retelling the I.L. Peretz story "The Magician" and even managed to turn it into a love letter to Washington DC. Sean Rubin's detailed illustrations take it above and beyond. Interviewing the pair of them about the book made me appreciate it even more. And AJL named it to the Spring 2021 Holiday Highlights list too.

Soosie, The Horse That Saved Shabbat by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Menachem Halberstadt, Kalaniot Books

This charming book was on the AJL Holiday Highlights list for Spring 2021 and deservedly so. It's got sweet illustrations that depict a diverse pre-state Jerusalem (an unusual setting for a picture book), a wonderfully folkloric storytelling style, and a warmly cozy atmosphere.

The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art written by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Evan Turk, Abrams

I wasn't familiar with Ben Shahn before reading this picture book biography, but now I'm super impressed with him. Cynthia Levinson does a great job of encapsulating his life of art and activism, and Evan Turk beautifully reinterprets Shahn's style in his own work. 

The Singer and the Scientist by Lisa Rose, illustrated by Isabel Muñoz, Kar-Ben

Smoothly stylized illustrations bring to life the true story of how white Jewish scientist Albert Einstein befriended Black non-Jewish singer Marian Anderson, offering her shelter when racist hotels excluded her after a successful concert for an all-white audience. It's an excellent depiction of allyship, Jewish values, and the historical connections between the Jewish and Black communities.

Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World's First Female Rabbi by Sigal Samuel, illustrated by Vali Mintzi, Levine Querido

Deep, richly colored illustrations and lyrical prose describe the life of Osnat Barzani, a female Kurdish Jewish leader who can be considered the first woman rabbi. Because little is known about her, it's historical fiction. Entirely compelling, with bonus points for excellent female and Sephardic representation.

My Hanukkah Book of Opposites by Tammar Stein, illustrated by Juliana Perdomo, PJ Publishing

This deceptively simple board book manages to create a storytelling arc in just six pairs of opposites, tying together the arrival of guests through the celebration of Hanukkah up until bedtime. I love the deeply colored, blocky illustrations and the natural inclusion of Jews of color. 

Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, Levine Querido

I loved this book so much that I interviewed the author about it on my Holiday Heroes podcast episode along with the author of The Christmas Mitzvah. Based on a true story, the spare, poetic text tells of a child who starts an upstander movement to fight antisemitic hate. The illustrations are dynamic, expressive, full of movement. It's a beautifully told and important message for our time, and was named to AJL's Fall 2021 Holiday Highlights list.


The Unfinished Corner by Dani Colman, illustrated by Rachel Petrovicz, Wonderbound

Like last year's The Book of Secrets by Mat Tonti, this graphic novel combines modern Jewish kids with folklore from ancient Jewish sources. A group of tweens from a Jewish school, diverse in background and level of observance, are sent on a quest to make a better world. I love the cooperation among the kids, the feminist reinterpretation of old tropes, and the exciting, dynamic artwork.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps, Nancy Paulsen Books

This engaging free verse novel has made it onto many "best of 2021" lists for its authentic portrayal of the dangers of fat phobia. It offers important messages of overcoming bullying (even internal or family-based bullying), the value of a good therapist, and the importance of body positivity. The Judaic content is minimal but positive in this casually Jewish story.

How to Find What You're Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani, Kokila

With unusual second person narration, this historical novel set in the 1960's sensitively portrays the struggle of a Jewish family to deal with a changing society, which includes their daughter's "mixed marriage" with an Indian man. It's yet another 2021 book that explores the importance of crafting a Jewish identity that works for the individual. The author is Indian and Jewish, and knows of what she speaks. 

The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family by Sarah Kapit, Dial Books

We get the perspectives of two neurodivergent sisters as Lara gets nosy while trying to solve family mysteries and Caroline struggles to gain some independence. This is a unique and authentic portrayal of the breadth of neurodiversity, set in a mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardic Jewish family, with an Israeli cousin thrown into the mix. The normalization of all the represented identities is very refreshing.

Linked by Gordon Korman, Scholastic

Multiple points of view build a compelling picture of a small town forced to deal with its racist past when swastikas start appearing at the local middle school. We see the strong differences between top-down versus student-led anti-bias education, and the importance of personal connection, all wrapped up in a whodunnit mystery. A timely and empowering tale that can serve as a continuation of the conversation started by last year's The Assignment by Liza Wiemer.

Sorry for Your Loss by Joanne Levy, Orca Book Publishers

This heartwarming first person narrative helps readers understand the Jewish rituals surrounding death and the life affirming power of friendship. Read with tissues handy, and watch for my upcoming podcast episode "Good Grief," a group interview about Sorry for Your Loss by Joanne Levy, Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder, and Aftermath by Emily Barth Isler.

Recipe for Disaster by Aimee Lucido, Versify

There's an ongoing conversation within the Jewish community about who counts as Jewish. Lucido faces this question head-on in this story of an interfaith family and a girl who chooses to define her Judaism for herself. It's a sensitive exploration of identity and an empowering model for readers who ask "am I Jewish enough?" Plus, baking.

The Good War by Todd Strasser, Delacorte Press

While this story has no Jewish characters, it's definitely a book significant to Jewish readers and one that readers of all backgrounds should take to heart. A school eSports club forms teams to play a WWII based game, and the Axis team gets caught up in Nazi culture. Meanwhile, one student is targeted for white supremist radicalization online. It's a thought-provoking, nuanced exploration of the dangers of groupthink. It may not be "Jewish enough" for a Sydney Taylor Book Award but I hope it will be widely read.

The Renegade Reporters by Elissa Brent Weissman, Dial Books

A compelling exploration of digital citizenship and the importance of journalism in the modern world, featuring a Jewish character comfortable with her religious identity (for a change!). While Judaism is not the central focus here, I appreciate the positive representation within a strong story of student activism.

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin, Candlewick

Set in the USSR during the Cold War, this graphic memoir combines the darkness of living under oppression with the humor of irrepressible human quirkiness. While Judaism is not the main theme, we do get a taste of the antisemitism of Russian culture at the time. Beautifully written and very human.


Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler, Wednesday Books

This very sweet queer rom-com features Lara, a Jewish girl of Russian background, and Jasmine, a Jewish girl of Syrian background. It's definitely a "casually Jewish" book, as the focus is squarely on the romance, but the representation is still appreciated, and it's a very fun fluffy read. There are a few other rom-coms with Jewish characters that I haven't yet had the chance to read, but I like the work of the authors so I'm guessing that they'd make my list too. These are Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli (best friends Kate, a Jewish white straight girl and Anderson, a Black non-Jewish gay boy, crush on the same guy), As If On Cue by Marisa Kanter (an enemies-to-lovers rom-com between a Jewish boy and girl) and We Can't Keep Meeting Like This by Rachel Lynn Solomon (a Jewish girl and a Muslim boy work together in their families' wedding businesses). I also want to mention an anti-rom-com that I adored this year, in which a casually Jewish girl breaks up with her boyfriend and finds herself instead, Zoe Rosenthal Is Not Lawful Good by Nancy Werlin (here's my podcast about it). I'm just happy to see Jewish representation in such light-hearted, fun stories.

What We're Scared Of by Keren David, Scholastic UK

I haven't read this book yet but I've gotten the impression that it's both compelling and important. It takes place in England and deals with modern antisemitism and how the experience of discrimination affects the Jewish identity of a pair of twins. I have a feeling this will go on my shelf next to Linked by Gordon Korman and The Assignment by Liza Wiemer.

Lessons in Fusion by Primrose Madayag Knazan, Yellow Dog

Playwright Knazan's first novel gives us an #ownvoices Jewish/Filipinx teen who learns to embrace both her cultures and to stand up for herself. I love that this story makes use of the COVID-19 pandemic as a premise, and I love that it leans into consciously diverse representation, with characters from a variety of backgrounds struggling to balance multiple heritages, avoid letting others define them, and learn to do better as they deal with issues of race. Plus, yummy recipes!

Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero by E. Lockhart, illustrated by Manuel Preitano, DC Comics

If you heard my podcast interview with E. Lockhart, you know I love Whistle. It's delightful to have a Jewish superhero defending a Jewish neighborhood in Gotham. I'm thrilled that she's depicted as a realistic physically fit young woman in a comfortable and practical superhero outfit. The moral complexity gives readers plenty to chew on. And who can resist the opinionated Great Dane sidekick Lebowitz?

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros, Inkyard Press

Honestly, I tried to read this mystery but it was too murdery for me and I put it down. However, it's getting incredible buzz, and the review on The Sydney Taylor Shmooze convinces me that it's a significant book. It's a queer supernatural fantasy that takes place at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and very Jewish.

The Last Words We Said by Leah Scheier, Simon & Schuster

This semi-magical-realist story about grief and responsibility takes place among a group of Modern Orthodox teens, and that in itself is remarkable. I've never before seen such a deep exploration of Jewish identity in a YA novel, and each character approaches Judaism in their own unique way. It's an amazing mirror and window book, as well as an important story about dealing with the loss of a loved one.


KSP said…
Some of the same books are on my list. I don't envy the STBAC this year. There are so many excellent books in every category.
Unknown said…
Greetings. My mind has spun round to Nicky and Vera by Peter Sis throughout the year. I've shared it with so many of my adult friends who are not engaged with children's literature and they are unanimously impressed. The artwork is so meshed to the text, it seems miraculous.
Rachel K. said…
Just put all of these in my shopping cart. Thanks for a great collection development tool, Heidi!