In The Children’s Book of Virtue, William Bennett frankly admits aiming at the “moral education of the young.” Bennett sets forth, through mostly pedestrian literary selections, rules and precepts chosen specifically to lead to what he terms “moral literacy.”
Jews, too, desire that children grow into moral awareness. To make a mensch is our ultimate goal. But don’t expect Linda R. Silver to compromise her well-honed literary and critical judgment; she’s not about to welcome heavy-handed pap as an acceptable means to that end. On behalf of the Association of Jewish Libraries and for the greater benefit of Jewish and non-Jewish librarians, teachers and parents worldwide, she answers to a higher authority.
Silver encourages us to set as high a literary standard as a moral one for the books that shape our children. In over 1,000 entries, her annotations in The Jewish Values Finder address the quality of the given work, whether just acceptable or truly exemplary, whether message driven or just for fun. Her years of work in public and special libraries, wide-ranging expertise in the field of children’s literature and pivotal role as editor of the AJL online Jewish Valuesfinder (www.ajljewishvalues.org) made her the perfect person to provide this much needed professional and personal tool. And with this printed work, she has also brought us full circle by dedicating the book to Dr. Marcia Posner whose print guide “Juvenile Judaica” was the precursor for the outstanding AJL online resource Silver so ably maintains.
Posner’s doctoral dissertation, “A Search for Jewish Content in American Children’s Fiction” (University Microfilm, 1980), was, to my knowledge, the first ambitious attempt to establish measurable guidelines for Judaic content. The following year, Northern California librarian Enid Davis, examined over 450 books in A Comprehensive Guide to Children’s Literature with a Jewish Theme (Schocken Books, 1981). Both these publications were indexed by subject, as well as author/title; both were divided into major chapter topics. Since then, however, only individual bibliographies and a small, text-linked but unannotated AJL publication, “Literature as a Means of Teaching Values to Children” (Karp and Frischer, 1999) were available until 2002. In that year, Linda Silver published an excellent article on Jewish children’s books (“A Librarian Offers Tips for Evaluating Books of Jewish Content,” School Library Journal, January 2002). Then, encouraged by Marcia Posner, she went online with the continually updated AJL Valuesfinder site, which served as the foundation for this work.
The Jewish Values Finder (the book) does not break down into as many distinct values as the online resource, using 18 instead of over 100. However, it enhances its entries by providing an opening chapter defining and giving a historical overview of Jewish children’s literature in the U.S. The following chapters, 2 through 18, are organized by particular values, while Chapter 19 contains short story collections which naturally cover numerous different values. Values include “Decency and Ethical Conduct,” “Honor and Respect”, “Lovingkindness” and “Repairing the World”, among many others. Silver has arranged each chapter for maximum helpfulness: titles are listed by grade level: pre-school, elementary, middle school and high school with the most highly recommended titles set off by shaded boxes. Entries contain author, title and publishing information but not ISBN numbers. Each entry is annotated and Silver carefully notes deviations that may disqualify a book for certain readerships (e.g. Julius Lester’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter as opposed to a more traditional version, Miriam by Bernice Gormley). Occasionally I found the notes somewhat vague; e.g., the entry on Pamela Melnikoff’s Prisoner in Time gave a plot summary but no inkling of whether the story “works” or not.
Sometimes Silver’s comments are oblique, as when she chides Chelsea House for anti-Israel bias by praising one recent, more positive work as a “welcome exception” to its usual approach. Some chapter topics offer large umbrellas: For example, “Remembrance” covers mourning, personal reminiscences, nostalgia, history, and Holocaust. “Repentance and Forgiveness” includes stories of Jonah and a careful criticism of The Hardest Word, pointing up the slightness of its link to Yom Kippur and the inconsistency of its illustrations. Grandpa’s Gamble also gets some constructive criticism as Silver points out the mismatch of format (simple) and ideas (complex and contrived). Throughout, Silver offers selection guidance by being generous with earned praise but unafraid to nitpick when deserved.
In addition, Silver has provided all the add-ons that libraries find essential and more casual users find helpful. Besides the chapter defining Jewish Children’s Literature, setting standards and providing historical context, you’ll find the following appendices and indices: Glossary; Jewish Holy Days and Festivals; Sydney Taylor Book Awards (winners and honor books by year); Jewish Publishers (with contact information); Author/Illustrator Index; Title Index; and Subject Index.
This is an outstanding work, beneficial to libraries and also useful as a resource for families. You’ll wonder how you got along without it.