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G-d Gave Us the Rainbow: A Valentine's Day Reading List

Thursday, February 08, 2018 | Permalink

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

Living at the intersection of gay and Jewish can be lonely. We’re about ten percent of less than two percent of the population in the United States, which is technically enough for a minyan, but sometimes it doesn't feel that way. For teens, especially teens with limited resources, it’s even harder to find your people. Luckily, we have always had books, and now we have more books than ever—Jewish books, gay books, and even a few of the greatest treasure of all: gay Jewish books.

As a reader and writer of young adult fiction, I’ve been excited over the past couple of years to see Jewish characters appearing in stories about gay teens. There are still big gaps on my bookshelf—most Jewish teens in YA fiction, particularly in the LGB romances I have been able to find, identify as secular, and so far I have found only one transgender character who expresses a sense of Jewish identity, J in Cris Beam’s I am J. As far as I know, the only book so far which features Jewishness as centrally as romance is Sarah L. Young’s independently published Nice Jewish Boys.

I would like to fill the gaps on my shelf, but while I wait, I am grateful for the books that do exist. In the spirit of making Valentine’s Day more sweet and less lonely, I’ve gathered a short list of young adult Valentine's reads for gay Jews. There is at least one gay or bisexual Jewish character in each of these books, and all of them get happy endings, even though the way to happiness is tough at times. Whether you're alone on February 14th or you're looking for something to read aloud to a partner, these books will bring a little more love into your life.

Cover of Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

For those who like their romance with a bit of a darker turn, Amy Rose Capetta’s Echo After Echo tackles an issue that's been front and center over the last few months, with a plot about a theater director who gets away with abuse because he is so admired for his art. It also offers a passionate romance between a young actress and an apprentice lighting designer. Zara is Jewish and Eli is Latina, and their romance is painted in the beautiful brushstrokes of Capetta’s prose. This is the perfect read for a girl who likes girls and theater and murder mysteries, and a little bit of menace, but still wants a happy, romantic ending.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert was one of my favorite new releases last year. Suzette, the protagonist, is dealing with a lot of things: she’s one of the only black girls at her New England boarding school, her brother Lionel is struggling with bipolar disorder, which Suzette doesn’t know how to respond to, and at the same time she’s developed a crush on the same girl Lionel likes! The romantic plot is great, but what really sold this book for me is the portrait of a close, complicated, loving Jewish family.

The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller, features another gay Jewish teen, and another struggle with mental illness. Matt is the one gay kid in his small town, his sister is a runaway, and the only thing that makes him feel powerful is controlling how he eats. Eating disorders are incredibly common among LGBT youth, and Miller’s portrayal is raw and real and necessary. Of all the gay, Jewish YA I’ve read, this is perhaps the most difficult to read, but at the same time the most powerfully cathartic. By the end of the book, Matt is on the road to recovery and he’s no longer so alone: this book will certainly break your heart, but then it will glue you back together better than ever before.

Image result for simon vs the homo sapiens agenda 

To bring it back to a lighter, sweeter, chocolatier tone, the wonderful Becky Albertalli has given us not one, but two books with significant Jewish characters and significant same-gender relationships. Next month, the film Love, Simon will bring one of those relationships to the big screen, in a huge moment for teen romantic comedies. Although the main character of the original book, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, isn't Jewish himself, he's one of those Gentiles whose friends are all Jewish—and no spoilers, but the mysterious figure behind the email address of “Blue,” Simon’s online crush, is Jewish too. Albertalli’s second book, The Upside of Unrequited, stars the Jewish cousin of one of Simon’s best friends. Molly herself is straight, but Jewishness plays into her love story, and she is surrounded by women who love other women: her moms, her sister, and her sister’s friends and girlfriend.

Albertalli’s world isn't free of the scourges of bullying and body image issues that plague real teenagers, but it's a world full of sincere and loving people, and a world where being gay, or bi, or Jewish, or, yes, LGB AND Jewish, feels entirely expected and natural. Baruch HaShem! I look forward to more of the same warmth from her upcoming title, Leah on the Offbeat, following one of Simon’s best friends as she comes to the realization that she is bisexual.

G-d gave us the whole rainbow—I hope I can soon have the whole rainbow on my bookshelf. Until then, I'm going to reread the books that already exist, and maybe some fanfiction, too. Or is that midrash?

Happy Valentine's Day, and happy reading! <3

Sacha Lamb is a graduate student in library science dedicated to crafting stories for kids who need to know that they are magic. His published work featuring gay, trans Jewish teens offers some bittersweet:“Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live,” and some just sweet:“Miss Me With That Gay Shit (Please Don’t)."

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.