My career as a librarian working with children, primarily in Jewish settings, began in the days when most mainstream publishers’ booklists for kids were heavily rooted in reality. Judy Blume and her compatriots ruled. One reviewer commented that the key to Blume’s popularity lay in the way her narrative techniques “are used to communicate a style of experiencing and perceiving the self and the world and a definition of what it means to be a pre-adolescent child in suburban America,” concluding that such books are “poor nourishment for the imagination of children.”
Another said, with disapproval, that while books used to provide children with valuable windows onto a larger world, Blume-era books provided only mirrors, reinforcing a self-involved, insular and frequently superficial world view.
Fast-forward some 30 years. The picture has diversified and books for elementary and middle school kids often seamlessly include Jewish values and family life in contemporary stories that still have crossover appeal and lots of imagination. Here are just two I recently received and much enjoyed.
Beyond Lucky by Sarah Aronson (Penguin, ages 11-14). In 12-year-old Ari Fish’s life, lucky rituals rule. So when he finds a rare soccer trading card of his hometown’s soccer hero, Wayne Timcoe, he takes it for a sign that he and his team are under magical protection. But things get complicated when the addition of a girl named Parker to his team creates friction, his best friend Mac starts acting strange, and Ari’s lucky card disappears. Worrying about his older brother Sam, a missing fire jumper, Ari negotiates some of his difficulties by talking with his parents and his rabbi, but mostly he comes through the challenges in this fast-moving coming-of-age story by learning to rely on himself and not on omens or lucky cards. A good book for boys and, because of talented Parker Llewellyn’s determination and character, girls will like it too.
When Life Gives You O.J. by Erica S. Perl (Knopf, ages 8-12). Erica Perl’s new middle grade book is a great example of how a modern Jewish family can be integrated smoothly into a broadly appealing small-town American story. It’s complete with humor, intergenerational differences, and a very clever shtick devised by Zelly Fried’s Yiddish-spouting grandfather.
After Zelly’s grandmother dies, her family moves from Brooklyn to Burlington, Vermont to live with her eccentric Grandpa Ace. He sympathizes with her desire for a dog, persuading her to convince her parents she can be responsible by pretending an old orange juice jug is a dog and treating it accordingly. Zelly, aka Zelda, eventually meets Jeremy, a Jewish boy who has also moved into the neighborhood. She takes on walking real dogs along with O.J. (orange juice), her practice jug/dog, and has adventures sure to delight any dog-loving 3rd grader and up. Includes a glossary of Yiddish words so the reader can enjoy Ace’s jokes and references.