The ProsenPeople

Where Are All the Happy Jewish Stories?

Thursday, December 07, 2017 | Permalink

Sacha Lamb is a part-time librarian, part-time student, and part-time YA writer and reader. She is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A few weeks ago, I accepted an opportunity to return for one day to the ancestral Jewish homeland—New York City—for the Jewish Book Council’s annual Children’s Literature Seminar. I was invited on the basis that as a debut author through an independent, online publisher, I could offer a unique perspective for the author panel, which was otherwise composed of traditionally-published writers. I was excited to attend my first event as an author, and excited to hear from authors, editors, publicists and librarians, all of them offering Jewish perspectives on publishing.

The conference was an excellent welcome to the world of Jewish books, affirming not only of my status as a “real Jewish author,” but also of feelings, both positive and negative, that I have had toward the world of Jewish children’s literature, YA in particular. A major takeaway for me was that the need for universal marketing creates a gap between Jewish authors and Jewish readers when it comes to themes in children’s fiction—but authors and readers are, so to speak, on the same page, and we shouldn’t let our frustration keep us from telling the stories we need to tell.

Major publishers are reluctant to bring out books that would be termed “Jewish interest” if they don’t have a message that can be marketed outside of the Jewish community, because we represent such a small segment of the population. Unfortunately the easiest “Jewish issue” to market outside of the Jewish community is the Holocaust—it’s on school curricula, a major selling point. Both Jewish authors and Jewish readers express frustration over the lack of Jewish-themed books that aren’t about the Holocaust, and these frustrations surfaced at the conference, both from authors and from librarians and the representatives from Jewish book award panels. What we heard from our editors’ panel was that books need to sell, and even if Jews don’t want to read about the Holocaust, it does sell—to the much larger market of non-Jewish readers.

Even from the perspective of the editors, though, this wasn’t an entirely uncomplicated issue. While one editor emphasized the need for “universal” appeal in Jewish books, which often does translate to lessons about oppression, another added that her house is likely not to pick up new Holocaust-themed fiction, because their backlist is already stuffed with bestselling authors on the topic. What editors really want are original, fresh stories that have a lesson in them which can appeal to any audience—stories about family, stories about taking care of the environment, stories about learning to get along with others. These are all stories that can be written from a Jewish perspective and still connect with non-Jewish readers. The Holocaust is not the only Jewish experience that holds universal lessons, and we should not stop fighting to prove it.

As authors, we are frustrated by the idea that our happy Jewish stories don’t appeal to a non-Jewish audience; as readers, we are frustrated by the lack of happy Jewish stories. Our joy is as valuable as our genocide. And I am happy to say that there are signs that the market is beginning to understand this: for instance, a few of this year’s new Young Adult releases, such as The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli and The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, feature loving Jewish families, the former in the context of a romantic comedy (with a fat teen girl protagonist and a love interest whose spelling of God as “G-d” is one of the things that makes him cute!) and the latter in the context of collective memories—touching on the Holocaust without exclusively relying on it. And next year sees the anthology It’s a Whole Spiel with Laura Silverman and Katherine Locke as editors, entirely composed of Jewish contemporary stories by Jewish authors. The work isn’t finished—but it has begun. I am excited to be part of it, and grateful to the Jewish Book Council for assuring me that I am.

Sacha Lamb is a part-time librarian, part-time goat-herder, and part-time writer of queer Jewish magic realism for teens. As a teenager, Sacha loved YA fantasy, but never felt represented in it as a gay, transgender reader. Now a graduate student in library science, Sacha is dedicated to creating stories for other kids who need to know that they are magic. Sacha can be found online @mosslamb on Twitter.

Interview: Barbara Bietz

Monday, May 22, 2017 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Barbara Bietz, author of The Sundown Kid, talks to Michal Hoschander Malen about the pioneer Jews of the American West, their reception in the wide open spaces of their new homes and the building of new communities.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Among the other fine values peeking out from within the text, the story personifies the Jewish concept of Hachnasat Orchim, or welcoming outsiders, and also highlights the importance of family. What gave you the idea for this particular story?

Barbara Bietz: I have read and researched a lot about the brave families who settled the Southwest. While I am particularly drawn to the stories of Jewish families, what deeply touched me was the way different groups came together in support of one another. I wanted to capture that sense of cooperation in a meaningful way. I have said before that The Sundown Kid is my love letter to all those families that came before me, who created communities that are still thriving today.

When I set out to write The Sundown Kid, my heart was really with Mama, who promises some things will never change, even in a new home far away. How hard it must have been to leave a whole life behind! I flipped the perspective to the boy who wants to help his Mama feel at home in “the wide open spaces,” so he invites their new neighbors for Shabbat dinner. The Jewish value of welcoming strangers is as important today as it was in biblical times. Our differences disappear over a shared meal.

MHM: Have you spent time in that part of the United States, yourself? Did you have a particular town in mind for the setting as you haven't specified one? Did you do any research on the time period?

BB: I was born and raised in California and went to college and grad school in Tucson, Arizona. My identity is deeply rooted in the Southwest. Many Jewish immigrant stories began at Ellis Island, but not all families stayed in New York. I did extensive research over a long period of time before I wrote The Sundown Kid. I was inspired by Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin. I had the opportunity to hear Harriet speak about the lives of Jewish pioneers. When she said, “We were there, too,” my heart skipped a beat. Moving forward, I was especially interested in the strong women who maintained Jewish rituals in spite of great challenges.

I discovered an anonymous family in Tucson had commissioned a series of dolls to honor Jewish pioneer women. I wrote an article about the dolls for Doll World magazine. A wonderful artist named Andrea Kalinowski did a series of mixed media paintings of quilts to honor Jewish pioneer women, and I was deeply touched by her work, too. I love the notion of using traditionally feminine art forms to share stories of women.

MHM: Do you have a backstory for the family who made the long trek from East to West? What did they hope to find? How did they think life would unfold for themselves so far away from an established Jewish community?

BB: My backstory for the family is about hope—the universal hope that families have shared historically. The hope of being able to support their families, practice their faith in peace, and create a meaningful future for their children.

MHM: You focused on the role of Shabbat and on the role of food as two of the components in the "glue" that binds Jewish communities and here is used to create bonds with others, as well. Why do you think these and other touchstones are so important from generation to generation?

BB: Rituals connect us to one another. The smell and taste of something familiar will always evoke an emotion. Sharing food we love, or food that has a traditional significance elevates the eating experience from biological to spiritual. Shabbat gives us pause to honor a day, and each other, in a meaningful way. The greatest gift we can give our children is the tradition of rituals.

MHM: How do you think teachers, librarians, youth leaders, etc., can use this story to help children develop a sense of community and to help them further understand its value?

BB: My goal as a writer is to share a story that resonates with readers. I am also passionate about educational opportunities for children. I was very lucky to find an educational specialist who created a beautiful educational guide for The Sundown Kid, which is available on my website for any interested parents or teachers.

MHM: A good picture book is a perfect blend between the text and the art. How do you feel about the illustrator's vision of your idea?

BB: John Kanzler brought this story to life so beautifully. He created subtext that added depth and meaning in such a thoughtful way. I am in awe of his work.

MHM: What can we expect next from the pen of Barbara Bietz? Is there anything coming up in the near future for us to look forward to?

BB: I am working very hard on a few projects, including a picture book biography and a middle-grade historical novel.

Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council's young adult and children's book reviews. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to children and books and her greatest joy is reading to her grandchildren on both sides of the ocean.


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The Origins of Oskar: Where Jewish Children's Book Characters Come From

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 | Permalink

In honor of the 65th National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book Council asked some of this year's winners to share their top rules for writing an award-winning book. Richard Simon, recipient of the 2015 award for Children’s Literature—together with his wife and co-author, Tanya—for Oskar and the Eight Blessings, decided to go in a different direction entirely.

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

“When your father was ten, we had some unexpected visitors.” He motioned for me to sit. “Three rabbis from the old country, from the city my father came from. Black coats, black suits, black hats, black beards down to here, the works. All they spoke was Yiddish, not a word of English. I understood them okay, but I don’t speak Yiddish, so Grandma had to translate for me. I couldn’t figure out how the hell they even got to New York, forget about how they tracked me down to Avenue K.”

“Why did they have to track you down?” I suspected gambling debts, but thought better of saying so.

He rubbed his forehead and winced more than smiled. “It was crazy. They said my grandfather, their big rabbi, had died, and they had to find his successor.” He shook his head. “I said, ‘You’re telling me you don’t got enough rabbis over there to do the job?’ They said, ‘We got plenty rabbis, but nobody in the lineage.’ Turns out the big rabbi had to be the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son, going back God knows how long.”

He went on. “I told them they couldn’t have found anyone more wrong for the job. I barely had a bar mitzvah, and I hadn’t been in a shul since. I don’t know Hebrew. I can’t speak Yiddish. I’m the exact opposite of a rabbi. Do I have to eat a ham and cheese sandwich on Pesach to prove it?”

This made me laugh.

“You should try it, it’s good. Especially with a milkshake.” He winked. “Anyway, they’re not buying. ‘Don’t worry,’ they say. ‘We’ll teach you everything,’ they say: ‘Hebrew, Yiddish, Torah, Talmud— you’ll learn it all, because you have the blood. And our city will be saved because we will once again have a leader who will guide us through these dark times.’”

He stared into his sweating drink and took a slow sip. “I told them, ‘No.’”

I leaned forward, “What happened when they got back?”

My grandfather blinked and looked at me. “What do you mean?”

“Without a new big rabbi—did they get in trouble?”

My grandfather could be brokenhearted about a losing horse for five minutes, but he was never on his worst day anything close to sentimental. At that moment, though, he took my hands in his giant calloused ones. “Richie, that was just a couple of years before the war. They were all killed.”

Decades later, I had a daughter. Two years ago she turned seven, and I found myself gazing into her eyes as she asked me why Jews were being attacked in France, and what exactly the Holocaust was. I immediately thought back to Grandpa and our conversation. Remembering how my own awakening to the Holocaust was framed by helpless rage, I didn’t want my daughter to feel that, even as I didn’t want to revise history to protect her.

Tanya and I talked about what we wanted our daughter to take away from the stories of brutality that our people had endured. Our answers were the same: that you can survive. And so we told her, but we balanced death with life, and tempered loss with hope. We told her about the Nazis, about accommodation and complicity, and about the camps—then we told her stories of cunning, of will, of survival.

And in this telling the character of Oskar was born. Oskar is the spirit of survival, the part of me, of Jews, of all oppressed people, that can escape, mourn, and be born into a new life. He is for me the embodiment of not forgetting, never forgetting, but also refusing to let memory be delineated only by grief. Oskar was born because I needed the example of his life.

Over time I have found a way to make peace with the fact of the Holocaust, if not the details, although I along with every Jew on the planet will forever live in its shadow. Kristallnacht in particular had always disturbed me. Why didn’t they all flee? The three rabbis—why did they go back? And did my grandfather feel guilt? Of course he did, or he might have chosen a different way to tell me. To spare me, as I was sparing my own child.

Richard Simon is chair of the language department at an independent school and is co-author of a successful off-Broadway play. He lives and works with his wife and co-author, Tanya Simon, in Westchester, New York.

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Book Cover of the Week: Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar

Thursday, February 11, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I don't know anyone who didn't grow up with Eric Carle, whether has a young reader or a parent or a grandparent. Universally familiar to the last half century of children and those who read with them, the distinct artwork and restrained text prompting readers to turn the to the next page impacted if not defined how generation after generation learned to see the world around them: the personalities of animals, the adventures of insects, the vibrancy of the natural world.

As much a novelty of nostalgia as a short picture book for all ages, one of Eric Carle's most beloved characters returns between heart-patterned flyleaf pages to deliver a continuous message of love:

"You are so sweet, the cherry on my cake, the bees knees," the captions read. "You make the sun shine brighter, that stars sparkle, the birds sing, my heart flutter." Who wouldn't want to share that with their lovebug, large or small?

Eric Carle gave one of my favorite interviews of all time in The Paris Review for Young Readers, Spring 2015. Everyone who has ever met or been a child should read it. And check out the Eric Carle Museum, too.

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Spicing Children's Literature with Jewish Humor and Jewish Life

Friday, November 14, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The 16th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Seminar was held on Sunday, November 2nd at the Jewish Book Council offices in New York City. An intimate gathering of 30 or so authors and artists spent a full day workshopping and learning about different facets of children’s book publishing.

Book designer, artistic director, and children’s author Claudia Carlson kicked off the seminar with a keynote speech about her personal trajectory climbing the ropes in a very difficult industry. Claudia’s tenacity—necessary for any aspiring illustrator, designer or writer—immediately struck and resonated with her audience: unable to find the kind of work she desired upon entering the publishing world, Claudia enrolled in as many workshops and courses as her schedule allowed, took jobs in departments she had never considered before, and spent her lunches browsing bookstores to “research” how other designers approach books. “A good book cover will make someone pick up a book already asking a question—but none of it can make up for bad writing,” she observed.

Claudia named Uri Shulevitz’s Writing with Pictures as the ultimate resource for illustration and book design, and recommended taking calligraphy courses to sharpen one’s eye across the page. Book covers are more about typography and design than art—Claudia recalls a former mentor repeating, “Stop illustrating the cover!” over her drafts—and the interiors have to be set to match the stories they contain. “Good book design is like a table setting,” Claudia quipped, “people should remember the food and conversation, not the plates. A good designer illuminates the words and pictures, never overpowers them.”

Seth Fishman and Shira Schindel followed with a split presentation on researching and querying literary agencies and exploring e-publishing options. Seth, a literary agent and current JBC Network author, offered earnest advice on finding the right agent—“An agent works for you: if you’re with the wrong agent it can really burn your career. You want to find a partner in your agent; editors, publishers come and go, but agents take their clients with them wherever they end up.”—and outlined the optimal query letter. Seth has noticed a “direct correlation between research and quality of writing,” observing that authors who have clearly put in the time to learn about the agencies their querying and the industry in general ten to prove the better writers in the “slush pile.” Shira, who heads acquisitions for Qlovi, heartily agreed with Seth on the importance of making a strong impression from the slush pile, mentioning that most firms assign interns to sort through all query letters for standouts. She discussed the advantages and drawbacks of e-publishing and digitally-enhanced books, comparing different sites and sources—and their terms.

Freelance journalist and children’s book review Penny Schwartz facilitated an author panel featuring Leslie A. Kimmelman, Linda Marshall, and Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum. Leslie’s career in Jewish children’s book writing grew out of a personal need for a vibrant library for her own children. “At the time, there was only Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, All-of-a-Kind Family, and Zlateh the Goat. The only Jewish children’s books when my kids were growing up were pedantic, dated, and small-press.” She recalled her children asking her why Charlie Brown celebrates Christmas as an example of how few literary characters existed to whom they could relate during the holidays. “I think it’s really important for kids to read Jewish books that aren’t about the shtetl or the Holocaust—non-Jewish kids, too—in order to teach children about Judaism, and to teach non-Jews about Judaism.”

Linda agreed, adding that she frequently hands her book to non-Jewish parents—even ones specific to Jewish holidays or history. “The Jewish values and Jewish stories I write about are applicable everywhere, to everyone; I’ll hand The Passover Lamb to the man who runs the newsstand on my way to work—and he’s definitely not Jewish—and ask him for feedback, what his kids think of the book.”

“I really want to develop a library of books that speak to Jewish children,” Leslie followed up. “Books that are universal but just happen to be Jewish; characters are doing Jewish things, but that’s not the focus.”

“It’s like a spice when you’re cooking something,” illustrated Andria, whose own desire to be a writer arose out of a love for the sound of literature from listening to her father read science fiction and Robert Louis Stevenson novels aloud. “You have this delicious spice that will enhance the book, the story, but you add too much and it tastes terrible.”

“I happen to think it tastes great,” Leslie chuckled, “but maybe other people just don’t like the spice! The characters that always stuck out to me—even now—are the villagers of Chelm: every time I read a Chelm story I think it’s hysterical. Jewish humor is so distinctive, and such a wonderful device for children’s literature, especially. I could it eat it by the bowlful.”

After bowlfuls of actual food, following the lunch break Vivian Newman from the PJ Library presented on how children’s books teach and transmit social and moral lessons. Children acquire values through discussion, role models, and experimentation with different behaviors—and books serve as a vehicle for all three. “Reading with children presents an opportunity to bring up issues or ideas that might not arise in daily life; characters serve as role models and anti-role models; and parents can use books to show a child what interests them and other adults in the child’s life, on top of presenting new perspectives that the child might not encounter elsewhere.”

Claudia Carlson returned for a Q&A session together with Penguin Random House editor Avery Briggs to answer questions about what they each look for in a manuscript and the shift in children’s book publishing to accommodate the Common Core.

The presence of several Jewish Book Council Board and staff members—including Jewish Book World’s Children’s & YA section editor Michal Malen—exhibits the Jewish Book Council’s dedication to the reading, writing, publishing, and distribution of Jewish children’s literature. See what children’s and YA titles been reviewed in the most recent issue of Jewish Book World and the full index of starred children’s reviews online, and contact the Jewish Book Council through the form below for more information about next year’s seminar!

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Book Cover of the Week: Nest

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

Nest by Esther Ehrlich tells the story of Naomi "Chirp" Orenstein, a young girl living on Cape Cod in the 1970s. When Chip's beloved mother falls ill she finds comfort in watching wild birds, observing their patterns to develop a "nest" of her own. The beautiful cover of this middle-grade novel is designed by extraordinary designer and illustrator Teagan White. Nest is due for release this September.

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New Jewish Children's Book Reviews

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 | Permalink
Find the full list of the latest children's book reviews here.