Growing up, I only saw Jewish protagonists in Holocaust literature. The kind of books I loved — realistic YA — occasionally had a main character with a Jewish friend, but that was it.
While I don’t believe we should ever stop writing about the Holocaust, for a long time, that was the only narrative I thought we had as Jewish people. People like me didn’t get to be protagonists. For a while, this stuck in my mind: the first four manuscripts I wrote before my debut, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, had no Jewish characters.
But there is so much richness to explore in a modern setting that hasn’t been explored nearly enough. The following novels feature my favorite representations of Judaism in contemporary realistic YA.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
There is so much intersectionality in this book: most notably, the protagonist, Suzette, is queer, Black, and Jewish. She converted when her mother remarried a Jewish man, and there’s a scene with the family preparing Shabbat dinner, including a description of braiding the challah, that is so, so lovely. Little & Lion centers on a tense sibling relationship — Suzette’s brother has bipolar disorder — but it’s also a book about identity and figuring out where you fit when you cannot be contained in just one box.
Your Voice is All I Hear by Leah Scheier
Scheier’s raw, dark sophomore novel deals with mental illness, too. April isn’t sure what to do when her boyfriend is diagnosed with schizophrenia, pushing their new relationship to its limits. April is Jewish, and Scheier folds the religion into the book so naturally; April celebrates Hanukkah and observes Shabbat. It’s informative but never didactic, and the book as a whole packs a powerful punch.
Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen
This is one of the few representations of Modern Orthodox Judaism in contemporary YA — and it’s so much fun. Playing with Matches effortlessly dismantles stereotypes about Orthodox Judaism simply by acting as a window into the life of sixteen-year-old Raina, who finds she has a talent for matchmaking. Throughout, there are casual references to mezuzahs and the family’s dairy sink without halting the narrative for an explanation. I’d never heard it described this way, but the concept of the “Jewish grapevine” is too real. The book is fresh, charming, and hilarious— proof that Jewish literature does not have to center on tragedy.
Kissing in America by Margo Rabb
The title, while adorable, is a bit of a misnomer, as there isn’t actually very much kissing in the book. Romance novel-obsessed Eva is on a mission to track down a boy who abruptly left town, but Kissing in America focuses more on friendship, family, and grief. While on a cross-country road trip with her best friend, Eva learns more about her Jewish heritage through relatives they meet along the way.
It’s a Whole Spiel, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman
Okay, I cheated on this one because the book isn’t out yet, but I’m just so excited about it! This collection of contemporary intersectional Jewish short stories by Jewish authors will be published by Knopf in fall of 2019. Some of the contributors include David Levithan, Nova Ren Suma, Dana Schwartz, Adi Alsaid, Lance Rubin…and me! I’m so honored to be part of this project. I would have loved to read something like this as a teen, and I’m so glad it will exist.
Rachel Lynn Solomon is the author of the contemporary YA novel You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, with another book to follow in 2019. A former journalist, she has worked for NPR, produced a radio show that aired in the middle of the night, and currently works in education.