Image from the book cov­er of The Length of a String

Almost six­ty years to the day after a bomb ripped through Atlanta’s most promi­nent Reform con­gre­ga­tion — the sub­ject of my new young adult nov­el, In the Neigh­bor­hood of True—I found myself watch­ing the cov­er­age of the 2018 Pitts­burgh tem­ple shoot­ing on an end­less cable loop and think­ing about Jew­ish nov­els that would offer hope and courage to my daughters.

As the cul­ture of hate, fear, and mis­trust of the oth­er” has increased, YA lit­er­a­ture has stepped up to coun­ter­act it. Anti­semitism is ram­pant — up six­ty per­cent last year alone, accord­ing to the Anti-Defama­tion League — and at this pre­car­i­ous point, broad Jew­ish rep­re­sen­ta­tion in YA lit feels more urgent than ever. In the last few years, writ­ers have adopt­ed a bold, diverse view of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence with books grap­pling with racism, LGBT iden­ti­ty, inter­faith fam­i­lies, and nar­ra­tors who turn toward faith or turn their back on it.

Many cred­it the work of renowned edu­ca­tor Rudine Sims Bish­op for lead­ing the charge for increased diverse sto­ries in YA and children’s lit. Bish­op wrote about the need for win­dows, mir­rors, and slid­ing glass doors in lit­er­a­ture so that under­rep­re­sent­ed read­ers could view their world, see them­selves reflect­ed in it, and walk through new open­ings. Shin­ing light on voic­es we haven’t heard before has brought a wide range of sto­ries to thought­ful read­ers in com­pli­cat­ed times.

Here are a few of the Jew­ish authors and nov­els who are open­ing win­dows and doors — as well as hearts and minds.

A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

Haunt­ing, heart­break­ing, and whol­ly orig­i­nal, this Goth­ic-esque nov­el intro­duces us to the com­pli­cat­ed Bina. Ear­ly on, Bina’s moth­er tells her daugh­ter what to do if she’s asked if she’s Jew­ish: We should not be afraid and hide what we were. We should look them in the eye and say yes.” But hid­ing — and lying — are baked deep into Bina’s life. After her moth­er mar­ries a church­go­er with evil daugh­ters, and asks Bina to move out and crash with church friends for a while, Bina hitch­hikes to New York to find Cather­ine House, a home for girls that once pro­vid­ed refuge for her mom. There, as Bina is attract­ed to the most mer­cu­r­ial girl in res­i­dence, the mys­ter­ies esca­late until the past threat­ens to swal­low the present. Like the reli­gion she won­ders about, Bina is left with more ques­tions than answers. And that end­ing — wow.

The Length of a String by Elis­sa Brent Weissman

Imani’s par­ents promise she can choose her own gift for her upcom­ing bat mitz­vah, but she’s scared to ask for the one thing she real­ly wants: to know her birth par­ents, whom she calls her blood-and-guts fam­i­ly. Imani, a black girl grow­ing up in a white Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Bal­ti­more, says the odds that she’s genet­i­cal­ly Jew­ish are prob­a­bly, like, zero, and she pages through a Chil­dren of the World book to guess where she might be from (maybe Ghana, she thinks). Her com­ing-of-age sto­ry inter­twines with a dif­fer­ent kind of jour­ney — that of her great-great grand­moth­er Anna who ven­tured from Lux­em­bourg to Brook­lyn in 1941 before find­ing an adop­tive fam­i­ly of her own. The twin sto­ry­lines play off one anoth­er in a beau­ti­ful, heart­felt way — Imani is dev­as­tat­ed to learn that much of Anna’s first fam­i­ly” died in the camps, and as she learns about one his­to­ry, she begins to recon­sid­er her own. As Imani says when research­ing Anna’s Holo­caust close call, this was stuff I’d seen six mil­lion times before. Only now, it was like I was look­ing at them for the very first time.” Exactly.

Lucky Bro­ken Girl by Ruth Behar

We meet Ruthie in 1966, just after she’s been giv­en her first pair of go-go boots, in this exu­ber­ant sto­ry. Ruthie and her fam­i­ly are new­ly arrived Jews from Castro’s Cuba and they move into a Queens apart­ment build­ing with Indi­an, Bel­gian, Mex­i­can, and Moroc­can neigh­bors. But the family’s dreams are deferred when, out for a just-because Sun­day dri­ve, they’re hit by a car full of drunk boys. Ruthie ends up in a full-body cast for near­ly an entire year. Stuck in bed — my bed is my island; my bed is my prison; my bed is my home” — her inner world grows as she taps into a love of art and search­es for for­give­ness for the dri­ver who has caused her such pain. While the family’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious, Ruthie writes to God, to Shi­va, and to Fri­da Kahlo, the guardian saint of wound­ed artists. Some peo­ple don’t think you should pray to more than one god,” she says, but I won­der how many peo­ple who say that have spent a year of their life in a body cast.” Authen­tic­i­ty radi­ates from the page — and it’s not a sur­prise to learn the nov­el was inspired by the author’s own childhood.

The Things a Broth­er Knows by Dana Reinhart

Levi, the main char­ac­ter, intro­duces him­self as a guy with a weird last name who has to call his father Abba like they all still live in Israel. As the nov­el opens, Levi is anx­ious­ly await­ing the return of his old­er broth­er, Boaz — a marine who turned his back on col­lege accep­tances to Berke­ley, Tufts, and Colum­bia to serve three years in the Mid­dle East. But once Boaz is home, he holes up in his room, not sleep­ing, tun­ing the radio to sta­t­ic, and sur­round­ing him­self with maps. Boaz tells his fam­i­ly he’s plan­ning a hike on the Appalachi­an Trail, but Levi has stud­ied those maps and knows bet­ter — his broth­er is head­ing to Wash­ing­ton, DC … but why? And why on foot? Levi fol­lows his broth­er; at first he is an unwel­come taga­long, but step by step, mile by mile, the broth­ers start to open up to one anoth­er. Boaz walks, he says, because he still has legs. This is a beau­ti­ful book about war and trau­ma, fam­i­ly and faith — and find­ing your way back home.

You Asked for Per­fect by Lau­ra Silverman

Just in time for the crazi­ness of the col­lege admis­sions cycle comes this good-natured nov­el about grade-obsessed Ariel. He’s inter­est­ed in being first vio­lin and vale­dic­to­ri­an, inter­est­ed in guys and girls, and real­ly inter­est­ed in get­ting accept­ed ear­ly to Har­vard. He’s so tight­ly wound, he uses flash­cards to mem­o­rize his own biog­ra­phy. But under the worka­holic façade is a vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that make you root like crazy for him to find more in life. After fail­ing an AP Calc quiz, things start heat­ing up with Amir, a class­mate who steps in as an emer­gency tutor. Ariel’s Jew­ish faith — fam­i­ly Shab­bat din­ners, reg­u­lar Sat­ur­day morn­ing ser­vices, and a well-timed talk with a wise rab­bi — help realign his pri­or­i­ties. The book ends with the author’s great-grandmother’s recipe for mat­zo ball soup — a pinch of this and a bis­sel of that — to help nur­ture us all.

Susan Kaplan Carl­ton cur­rent­ly teach­es writ­ing at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty. The author of Love & Haight and Lob­ster­land, her writ­ing has also appeared in Self, Elle, Made­moi­selle, and Sev­en­teen. She lived for a time with her fam­i­ly in Atlanta where her daugh­ters learned the fin­er points of eti­quette from a lit­tle pink book and the pow­er of social jus­tice from their synagogue.