by Leslie A. Kimmelman
“Why do you write so many Jewish books for kids?” I’m asked frequently.
The truth is, writing Jewish books for kids was never my intention. Judaism is an important part of my life, but it wasn’t until some time after I’d finished my first picture book in the late 1980s and couldn’t find a good Hanukkah book for my then-preschool-aged daughter, that I even considered it. I’d been looking for something simple—not the story of the holiday, but rather, what she’d experience during the holiday: the lighting of the candles, the tasting of the latkes, the spinning of the dreidels. And please, some colorful pictures to go with. The Jewish books I remembered from my childhood were disappointingly didactic, with way too much text and way too little color—drab cousins to the vibrant stories and lavish illustrations of the Christmas titles (think The Night Before Christmas or The Gift of the Magi). They were more about the responsibility of being Jewish than about the fun and warmth of being part of a wider religious community. I can’t say I was enticed.
So I wrote my own, very basic, manuscript. It eventually became Hanukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights. Because I was a children’s book editor then in a large publishing house, I went first to my own colleagues. It’s hard to believe today, but there was a lot of discussion about whether there’d be enough people interested in a Hanukkah title from a trade (rather than a specialty Jewish) publisher. My response, only partly tongue-in-cheek, was something along the lines of, We may be small in number, but we’re all readers, and we all celebrate Hanukkah! After the title went on to good sales in hardcover, paperback, and board book editions, my editor asked me to do something similar for Passover, then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then a book for all the holidays together. And I was off...
The world of Jewish children’s books has, happily, grown exponentially; there are a dizzying number of great choices now, from just about every publisher and about every conceivable topic—fiction and nonfiction, funny and serious, thoughtful and inspiring, contemporary and old-fashioned, and most of the time, gorgeously illustrated. It’s heartening to see a growing library of high-quality titles that introduce Jewish children to the core beliefs and values of their religion and connect them to their roots. Books in which they can see themselves reflected. It is no less important that children of other faiths have access to these books. Living in New York City, it’s easy to forget how many people there are with little or no exposure to the Jewish religion. (I remember how shocked I was to learn from my first college roommate that she’d never met anyone Jewish before; later in my freshman year, the college food service considerately—and naively—ordered beautiful braided challahs “all the way from New York City” to help celebrate Passover.)
I’ve been asked if it’s limiting to write Jewish books. Judaism has an ancient history and fascinating culture to research, colorful traditions to explore, a rich religion to delve into, and a wonderfully unique sense of humor to make use of. I keep a list of colorful Yiddish proverbs above my desk, in case one should spark an idea—sayings like Truth never dies, but lives a wretched life and If God were living on Earth, people would break his windows. How can writing about Judaism be limiting?!
Many people involved in children’s books will tell you that, in general, while girls will read books with boys as the main character, the reverse isn’t typically true. Boys mostly want to read only about boys. In the same vein, could it be true that Jewish children will read books with non-Jewish main characters, but not the other way around? Jewish children are used to reading about their favorite characters irrespective of religion, and they don’t bat an eyelash. I’m not sure if the reverse is always true. I believe that the more children’s books are available with explicitly Jewish characters, whether or not they have explicitly Jewish stories, the closer we will get. It feels good to be a small part of creating this library.
Leslie A. Kimmelman has been a children’s book editor for more than twenty-five years, and currently works at Sesame Workshop. She is also the author of many picture books for children, including many with Jewish themes, such as The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah and The Shabbat Puppy. She and her family live near New York City.