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.
Sacha Lamb is the author of Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live (Book Smugglers, 2017), a Jewish fairytale with a trans boy protagonist. A 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow, Sacha has also published with Foreshadow YA (“Epistolary”, 2019) and is currently working on a novel. Sacha can be found @mosslamb on Twitter.