There is no better way to locate the best in Judaic children’s books for sharing and giving as gifts than to turn to the international Association of Jewish Libraries. AJL’s annual Sydney Taylor Book Awards are given in three categories — younger readers, older readers and teen readers — to acknowledge works of high literary worth which also exemplify authentic examples of various aspects of the Jewish experience. The awards memorialize Sydney Taylor, whose classic All-of-a-Kind-Family series, published in the ’50s, is still popular among Jewish and non-Jewish children alike. Here are some of AJL’s 2011 recognized books — winners and honor books — plus a couple of extras which might be of interest:
FOR YOUNGER READERS (Pre-K–2nd Grade)
The gold medal winner is Gathering Sparks, by poet and folklorist Howard Schwartz and beautifully illustrated by Kristina Swarner. Both second-time winners, this team’s collaboration, based on Rabbi Isaac Luria’s concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is both inspiring and exquisite. Full of love and reassurance, it nonetheless calls for everyone, however young, to take part, whenever possible, in gathering the sparks of kindness and help restore peace. This is a work that can be used by all faiths.
Modeh Ani: A Good Morning Book by Sarah Gershman, also illustrated by Kristina Swarner, offers a selection of simplified morning blessings from Birkot HaShachar, with illustrations which beautifully express the joy to be found in waking to the beauty of the world and the excitement of each new day. The back of the book contains excerpts from the Hebrew original service and translations.
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty, by Linda Glaser with illustrations by Claire A. Nivola. (K-3rd). A wonderful blend of text and illustration, this book brings Emma Lazarus’s privileged world into bold contrast with the poverty and desperation of the immigrants whom she was determined to help. By showing her humanitarian efforts and then focusing on how she found the words to speak to and for those who had no voice of their own, this work has much to say to today’s immigrants as well.
FOR OLDER READERS (Grades 4–7)
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, the gold medal winner. Because of its unusual format as a graphic novel adventure starring an Orthodox Jewish heroine and featuring fantasy elements such as witches and dragons, it was a real trailblazer. That AJL chose it for its 2011 Gold Medal practically guarantees that more works by Jewish artists and writers will follow the current trend toward graphic novels in general publishing, carrying on the legacy of the famous 20th-century Jewish graphic novelists.
To prove the point, honor book Resistance: Book 1, by Carla Jablonski with illustrations by Leland Purvis, is a WWII graphic novel that tells of how young Paul and his sister determine to rescue their Jewish friend, Henri, who has escaped a roundup and been left behind. Their efforts to hide him, deal with their own family troubles and dangers, and work with the French Resistance, are well expressed in this highly visual format.
Another graphic work is not one of the AJL nominees but I thought I’d mention it for its historic and feminist interest. Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins, illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh, tells of a 14-year-old Jewish girl from Vienna who escaped to England with the Kindertransport. A real figure, whose photographs are liberally included, Lily got to the U.S. and eventually became a well-known comic book artist, specializing in comic strips about women heroines fighting the Nazis. Who knew about Jewish women comic strip artists? I certainly didn’t.
Jewish female graphic novelists are little known, but are vibrant and rising in their field.
FOR TEEN READERS (Grades 8–12)
Choosing this year’s gold medal teen award winner and honor books was no easy task. Each of them has something distinctive to say about an important part of the Jewish experience and says it well.
The gold medal book by Dana Reinhardt, The Things a Brother Knows, is the story of what happens when an Israeli-American family tries to reintegrate and understand their oldest son Boaz, who had shocked them by joining the Marines upon graduation from high school. Now returned from active duty, lauded as heroic, he is silent, withdrawn — a changed person. When he sets off on what he claims is a solitary hiking trip, his worried younger brother Levi decides to follow him, join him, and discover his true destination. Levi shows his own kind of strength as he determines to uncover the true depth of his brother’s pain, to understand the nature of his heroism, and to help his family heal. A serious story but leavened with humor and realistic family dynamics.
I could not put down Hush, the honor book, which was published under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil for reasons that quickly become obvious. The author, raised in a Chassidic world of schools, synagogues and summer camps, establishes both the insularity and warmth of the community surrounding 9-year-old Gittel and her best friend Devory. But, rule-bound and secretive, this life gives Gittel no guidance in dealing with her confusion and guilt when she witnesses an act of mysterious violence against her friend. Unable to speak out or be listened to, she cannot save her from destruction. Years later, as a young wife haunted by Devory, she understands what she had seen and eventually finds courage to break through the earlier silence forced upon her by the community she trusted. The author, whose pen name was unpronounceable by the Third Place Books clerk I asked for help in locating the book, is truly a woman of valor for making clear that walls built to keep out the cold, terrifying world can also make people forget that the greatest enemies always grow from within.
Let her speak for herself: “This is for all the children—past and present—who still suffer. I have used a fictitious name, Yushive, for the main sect in Hush. I did this because I refuse to point a finger at one group, when the crime was endemic to all.”
Sarah Darer Littman’s honor book, Life, After, was of particular interest to me since I have family in Buenos Aires. Dani’s life, before, exploded when the terrorist attack on the AMIA building in 1994 killed her aunt and her unborn child. That insecurity expanded exponentially as the terrible economic crisis of 2001 destroyed the middle class and her family’s future in Argentina. The story follows teenaged Dani and her family as they decide to emigrate and deal with making a new life in New York.
The final teen honor book, Once, by Morris Gleitzman was reviewed in an earlier column on Holocaust books. Read it first, before its sequel, Then, now available. I recommend both books, and their depiction of innocence and evil, with the author’s own words, “This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable.”