My Completely Unofficial 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Award Shortlist

Last year I did an unofficial shortlist and it seemed like people found it helpful, so I thought I'd do it again. As y'all know, I'm a former member and chair of the Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, and a cofounder of The Sydney Taylor Shmooze mock award blog, so I have a deep and abiding interest in seeking out the best Jewish kidlit of the year. I'm not actually making predictions about what will win; rather, I'm telling you that these are the books that I think deserve your attention (with the caveat that while I probably read the majority of Jewish children's or YA books published in 2022, I did not read ALL of them, so there may be other titles I'd consider worthy if I'd had the chance to 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 30, 2023 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.

PICTURE BOOKS

Brand-New Bubbe by Sarah Aronson, illustrated by Ariel Landy, Charlesbridge, 2022

Italian-Latinx gentile Jillian is pleased with her new Jewish step-dad but wary of her new Bubbe, feeling that accepting her might be disloyal to her existing grandmothers. This emotionally realistic story shows the reality of blended families and models healthy relationship growth. Like in Chicken Soup, Chicken Soup by Pamela Mayer, illustrated by Deborah Melmon (Kar-Ben, 2016), grandmotherly soup turns out to be the key to connection. I like that it includes recipes and resources for interfaith families. The cartoony illustrations are cheerful and the characters are expressive.

Lights in the Night: A Story for Shabbat by Chris Barash, illustrated by Maya Shleifer, Green Bean Books, 2022

This board book glows in the dark! Need I say more? OK, I will: it's a lyrical poem that helps readers notice the various sources of light all around them, and it's a cozy little adventure of celebrating Shabbat on a nighttime beach. It makes me wish I lived in the peaceful seaside town of this story.

A Persian Passover by Etan Basseri, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh, Kalaniot, 2022

When siblings Roza and Ezra drop the matzah in a puddle on the way home from the communal oven, a neighbor saves the day. A fascinating slice of life in 1950's Iran that showcases daily and holiday Jewish practices unfamiliar to many Ashkenazi North American readers. The rich, densely colored illustrations add to the Middle Eastern flavor. Recommended on AJL's Spring 2022 Holiday Highlights list.

Tía Fortuna's New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey by Ruth Behar, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth, Alfred A. Knopf, 2022

I live in Florida so I'm thrilled with this story's Miami setting. I also love the Sephardic representation and the intergenerational l'dor vador theme as Estrella learns from her Tía how to gracefully embrace change, even when it means moving to assisted living, "la Casa de los Viejitos." The light and airy illustrations enhance the lyrical, gentle storytelling and the sense of connection. 

Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, Levine Querido, 2022

Young Jewish immigrant Shirley helps her family's store succeed with her entrepreneurial spirit, teaching the neighbors to learn to love gefilte fish with free samples. A nostalgic yet authentic look back at the early 20th century Jewish immigrant experience. Author/illustrator Paula Cohen sadly died suddenly this spring, just before the release of her debut picture book, which makes the book extra poignant, but it's also just good solid storytelling about a spunky, likeable character.

Alone Together on Dan Street by Erica Lyons, illustrated by Jennifer Jamieson, Apples & Honey, 2022

This story is an intersection of two universal experiences: Passover being universal for Jews around the world and quarantine being universal for all during the early days of COVID-19. For some reason, the worldwide experience of quarantine that we all shared has not made it into many children's books, but this one is a lovely exception that shows a community connecting emotionally even while social distancing. It's beautiful and it gets me all choked up. Also, it takes place in Israel but is NOT a travelogue, so that's another welcome rarity. Recommended on AJL's Spring 2022 Holiday Highlights list.

The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda by Shoshana Nambi, illustrated by Moran Yogev, Kalaniot, 2022

What a treat to get an authentically-told story of the Abayudaya by an author from Uganda! Even better, it's NOT about Hanukkah or Passover, for a change! This is a delightful Sukkot story about the importance of community. The illustrations look like some kind of block print, and the style is a great match for the story. Recommended on AJL's Fall 2022 Holiday Highlights list. Shoshana was a great guest on The Book of Life Podcast in October 2022.

I Hate Borsch written and illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, Eerdmans, 2022

This is kind of an insider Jewish book. If you didn't know it was Jewish, you wouldn't know it was Jewish. But Nayburg's Ukranian Jewish longing for connection to her heritage is so relatable, and with Ukraine in the news, so heart rending. The narrator explains how, as a child, she hated the thick red soup but as an adult its familiarity made it lovable and meaningful. Nayberg also illustrated this year's A Visit to Moscow by Anna Olswanger (West Margin Press, 2022), a YA graphic novel inspired by the true experience of an American rabbi visiting the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

A Perfect Fit: How Lena "Lane" Bryant Changed the Shape of Fashion by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, Clarion, 2022

Cleverly using the repeated metaphor of a "perfect fit" and sensory language related to fabrics, Rockliff brings to life Jewish immigrant Lena "Lane" Bryant, who found joy in helping people by creating clothing that didn't squeeze or pinch. Her rabbi grandfather is given credit for giving her a mitzvah-oriented attitude. Soft and lacy illustrations by Juana Martinez-Neal are a great match. A similar pattern of repetition works well in A Place to Belong: Debbie Friedman Sings Her Way Home by Deborah Lakritz, illustrated by Julia Gastano (Apples & Honey, 2022), with the repeated theme of finding your place in the world. Debbie Friedman was, of course, the singer-songwriter who created beloved, joyful Jewish songs sung in synagogues throughout the world, and who died tragically young at the age of 59. Though more casually Jewish, another picture book biography worth noting is Fighting for Yes! The Story of Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger (Abrams, 2022). A nice additional note of Jewish disability representation this year was board book Hi, Hello, Welcome by Chris Barash, illustrated by Rosie Butcher (PJ Publishing, 2022), which features a child in a wheelchair performing the mitzvah of welcoming guests.

Shoham's Bangle by Sarah Sassoon, illustrated by Noa Kelner, Kar-Ben, 2022

The common experience of Jewish exodus and the specific experience of the Jews of Arab lands are detailed in the story of a little girl whose family emigrates from Iraq to Israel via Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Her Nana Aziza bakes her beloved bangle into pita bread to smuggle it out of the country, allowing Shoham to retain a connection to her past. Mizrahi Jews are rarely represented in kidlit, so this is very welcome. Watch this space for a podcast interview with Sarah Sassoon in 2023.

Sitting Shiva by Erin Silver, illustrated by Michelle Theodore, Orca, 2022

As we learned in my February 2022 "Good Grief" episode of The Book of Life, the Jewish mourning practice of sitting shiva is a beautiful custom that helps the grieving feel cared for in their time of need. This moving picture book is less about the ritual and more about the emotional benefits of shiva. The young narrator discovers that friendship makes her feel safe and stories about her late mother keep her warm like a blanket. An endnote talks about the universality of grief and the importance of community in healing. Read with tissues handy.

The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs by Chana Stiefel, illustrated by Susan Gal, Scholastic Press, 2022

A Holocaust book that is positive and uplifting, that centers the Jewish experience, and that dwells on life instead of death? Yes, please! This is the story of Yaffa Eliach, who celebrated her vanished hometown of Eishyshok by collecting photos from expats and Holocaust survivors to create the inspiring "Tower of Life" at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The fairy tale flavor of the story lends distance to the tragedy while the incorporated photos give it immediacy, and Susan Gal (Here is the World, Welcoming Elijah) hits it out of the park once again with her painterly mixed media illustrations.

Raquela's Seder by Joel Edward Stein, illustrated by Sara Ugolotti, Kar-Ben 2022

We can definitely use more Sephardic representation, and as Sarah Aroeste and Bridget Hodder explained in my December 2022 episode of The Book of Life Podcast, the Inquisition is still a formative part of that identity, so this story of hidden Jews cleverly finding a way to celebrate Passover in 15th century Spain is very welcome. The smoothly stylized illustrations feature gorgeous ocean scenes as the family observes the holiday on the privacy of their fishing boat. Recommended on AJL's Spring 2022 Holiday Highlights list.

Shoshi's Shabbat by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, Candlewick 2022

OK, so oxen are very rarely female, but that aside, this is a lovely midrash in which Shoshi the ox, habituated to a weekly break by her former Jewish owner, shows her new non-Jewish owner the power of resting on Shabbat. The gentle storytelling has a faint Ferdinand vibe. Recommended on AJL's Fall 2022 Holiday Highlights list.

 

MIDDLE GRADE

The Lost Ryū by Emi Watanabe Cohen, Levine Querido, 2022

Jewish/Japanese author Cohen's debut novel is a fascinating mix of history and fantasy. Twenty years after WWII, the Japanese are still recovering from the war and mourning the loss of the large ryū or Japanese dragons. As I explained in my review for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze, "small ryū, reminiscent of the daemons in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, are companions and confidants to humans. When a Japanese-American Jewish girl, Isolde, moves into the building along with her small Western dragon, she and Kohei set out on a quest to help Ojiisan [grandfather] reconnect with life." So unique, so well written, so emotionally real!

Detour Ahead by Pamela Ehrenberg and Tracy Lópe, PJ Publishing, 2022

A contemporary middle grade novel by two authors. Pamela Ehrenberg wrote the part of Gila, a neurodivergent white Jewish girl who loves breakdancing, and Tracy Lopez wrote Guillermo, a boy from a Salvadoran immigrant family who writes poetry. The two voices are as beautifully woven together as the friendship the kids build when the H4 bus in Washington DC brings them together. I loved this quiet book so much that I podcasted about it in August 2022.

The Button Box by Fawzia Gilani-Williams and Bridget Hodder, Kar-Ben, 2022

An unusual and successful blend of Sephardic Jewish and Muslim history, co-authored by authors of those identities. Granny Buena magically sends cousins Ava (Jewish) and Nadeem (Muslim) back to the beginning of Spain's Golden Age where they join the Jewish community in helping Prince Abdur Rahman escape his enemies. Time travel and magic for the win! Author Bridget Hodder appeared in the December 2022 episode of The Book of Life Podcast.

My Name Is Hamburger by Jacqueline Jules, Kar-Ben, 2022

It's 1962 and Trudie Hamburger is the only kid in her small Virginia town who has a dad with a German accent, and the only one who misses music class while the rest of the children sing Christian songs. This novel in verse gives beautiful voice to a Jewish girl struggling with her identity against the backdrop of anti-immigrant sentiment, microaggressions, and matter-of-fact antisemitism. 

Attack of the Black Rectangles by Amy Sarig King, Scholastic, 2022 

Is this a Jewish book? It's certainly a Jewish-adjacent one, and is relevant to readers of all backgrounds. Mac's school censors the Holocaust classic The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, and he and his friends fight back with the help of Jane Yolen herself. It's a pleasure to read such emotionally intelligent storytelling about such well rounded characters. As I said in my review for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze, this story is highly engaging, timely, and an important story that will inspire readers.

The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy, Orca Currents, 2022

When Elsie's two dads tell her that the synagogue Purim party may be cancelled due to a financial crisis, she and her non-Jewish Black friend Grace start raising money in the neighborhood, encountering antisemitism and racism along the way but finding community as well. I am thrilled that my friend Susan Kusel's remark about the lack of Purim-related middle grade books inspired my other friend Joanne Levy to write this unique and heart-warming novel!

Wayward Creatures by Dayna Lorentz, Clarion, 2022

Gabe accidentally starts a forest fire, and goes through a restorative justice program to make amends. Rill, a young coyote injured in the fire, has a parallel story about learning to trust others and understand your place within a community. The explicit Jewish representation is minimal but the tikkun olam theme is so strong that I interviewed Dayna for The Book of Life Podcast in May 2022.

Aviva vs the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe, Levine Querido 2022

Positive authentic Orthodox representation from a major secular publisher? Yes, please! Like last year's YA book The Last Words We Said by Leah Scheier (Simon & Schuster, 2021), this story has an unreliable protagonist whose grief distorts her perceptions and gives the story a supernatural twist. This has been a banner year for Orthodox books from major publishers, as we also got Honey and Me by Meira Drazin (Scholastic, 2022), a sweet contemporary story showcasing joyful everyday Jewish life, that won a Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award before it was published.

The Prince of Steel Pier by Stacy Nockowitz, Kar-Ben, 2022

In a declining 1970's Atlantic City, Joey Goodman spends the summer helping out at his family's hotel... but he also gets involved with the mob. This story has a great combination of quiet introspection and dangerous action. To me there's something very Jewish about Atlantic City (my father spent his childhood summers there) and this was an interesting peek into that world.

Ellen Outside the Lines by A. J. Sass, Little Brown, 2022

Ellen's intersectional identity includes Judaism, autism, and queerness, all woven together in a very natural way against the interesting backdrop of a school trip to Spain. Her father is Israeli, and her new friend Isa is nonbinary, adding forms of representation rarely seen in children's literature. The characters are well-rounded and the growth arc is satisfying.

Jonah by Tammar Stein, illustrated by Sabina Hahn, PJ Library 2022

With simple language in ten short chapters, Stein provides characterization and motivation for the biblical Jonah, making us care about his mission to Nineveh and drawing out the theme of "second chances." The whimsical paintings keep it from getting heavy handed. I'm excited that this rarity, the Jewish easy reader, is also a well-told, meaningful story. 

 

YOUNG ADULT

How to Excavate a Heart by Jake Maia Arlow, HarperTeen, 2022

An unusual meet-cute occurs when Shani and her mom nearly run May over on their way to get Shani settled in DC for her paleoichthyology internship (studying prehistoric fish). The girls meet again when Shani ends up with a dog-walking gig for May's dad, which of course leads to their friendship and romance. Humorous, great characterization, and includes a very realistic discussion of the difficulties of being Jewish during the Christmas season. A simply adorable queer romcom, and a nice wintertime companion to last year's sapphic romance, Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler (Wednesday Books, 2021).

The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen by Isaac Blum, Philomel, 2022

Orthodox Jewish Hoodie (Yehuda) crushes on non-Jewish Anna-Marie Diaz-O’Leary, who happens to be the daughter of the mayor who's been blocking the Orthodox community's plans to build housing for their members. Hoodie is castigated for fraternizing with Anna-Marie, but a violent antisemitic attack brings them back together. Irreverent first-person narration makes the story highly relatable. This book has gotten a lot of attention and been praised by top notch Jewish authors, but I've also heard from some Orthodox readers that they feel the representation is not as authentic as it could be. In any case, I'm glad that secular publishers are starting to pay attention to the Orthodox community and that modern antisemitic violence is being addressed. I interviewed Isaac on the November 2022 episode of The Book of Life Podcast.

When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb, Levine Querido, 2022

A historical queer Jewish fairy tale, like Good Omens but with a Jewish angel and demon who are Torah study partners. They have amazing adventures as they immigrate to America through Ellis Island, getting involved in the labor movement, defeating dybbuks, and unexpectedly learning and evolving as they go. It has been described as the queer lovechild of Philip Roth and Sholom Aleichem. This book was a joy to read and I wanted to start over as soon as I finished it. My interview with Sacha Lamb will appear on The Book of Life Podcast in January 2023. For more queer Jewish YA fantasy, try From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos (Balzer & Bray, 2022).

Some Kind of Hate by Sarah Darer Littman, Scholastic Press, 2022

After a sports injury, Declan finds himself in a gloomy headspace. Despite his best friend being Jewish, his thirst for validation makes him vulnerable to recruitment by white nationalists and he starts down a path towards violence, misogyny, and hate. An alarming and important story about how a normal teen can become radicalized. I interviewed Sarah on The Book of Life Podcast in September 2022.

Eight Nights of Flirting by Hannah Reynolds, Razorbill, 2022

Returning to the Nantucket of Sydney Taylor Honor Book The Summer of Lost Letters (Razorbill 2021), we meet Shira, who is preparing to woo her crush during a Hanukkah visit with her extended family. Hilarity ensues when she asks her nemesis/former crush to teach her how to flirt, and obviously falls for him instead. Recommended on AJL's Fall 2022 Holiday Highlights list.

The Ghosts of Rose Hill by R.M. Romero, Peachtree 2022

Biracial Jewish Latinx Ilana Lopez's parents want her to give up music and get serious about her future. She is sent to spend the summer with her aunt in Prague, where she falls for the ghost of Benjamin, a teen boy buried in a forgotten cemetery behind her aunt's house. Benjamin and other ghostly children are victims of a vodník, a sort of water demon and a drinker of souls. Ilana finds herself in a dangerous quest to find her own strength, defeat the monster, and free the ghosts. An exciting and lush novel in verse based on the author's experiences tending Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon, Simon & Schuster, 2022

Take Groundhog Day, set it on the first day of college, and add two lovably nerdy Jewish protagonists. Sprinkle on some diverse representation to make it feel more lifelike: Barrett's mom is lesbian, Miles is half Japanese-American. The rom-com formula is satisfyingly followed as the pair goes from annoying each other to caring to loving, with a Shabbat dinner thrown in as a romantic element. A delightful example of casual Jewish representation, especially for sci-fi lovers. If you prefer realism, Those Summer Nights by Laura Silverman (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2022) is another fun rom-com with casual Jewish rep: Hannah's summer job at entertainment multiplex Bonanza helps her heal from the emotional impact of a sports injury, mend her relationships, and find love with her gay brother's suddenly cute straight best friend.

Boys of the Beast by Monica Zepeda, Tu Books, 2022

As I said in my review of this book for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze, this story sensitively covers relationships, religious belief, depression, and forgiveness while remaining warm and even funny. Told in the voices of three teenage cousins, it models the growth of respectful relationships between nerdy gay Jewish Ethan, sincere evangelical Christian Matt, and traumatized stoner Oscar, well-rounded and sympathetic characters who are all worth rooting for. An fascinating and unusual road trip story.

Comments

kathrynhall said…
This just makes me want to read them all.