Now that the Olympic torch has been extinguished in London, leaving us with images of exceptional athletes and a wild closing celebration featuring pop culture and musical idols, this year’s Association of Jewish Libraries 2012 Sydney Taylor Book Award winners for older readers and for teens feel especially important, dealing as they do with music and sport.
Since 1968, AJL has recognized outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category.
“Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein” by Susan Goldman Rubin
Two-time Honor Book Award author Susan Goldman Rubin went from silver to gold this year with her superb biography, “Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein.” Concentrating on Lenny’s formative years, his childhood in Boston and his passion for the piano, the book culminates in his first appearance, at age 25, conducting at Carnegie Hall.
Rubin offers an inspiring story of the young musician’s determination to succeed despite family opposition. An accomplished pianist, he overcame the lock European conductors seemed to have on classical music in the 1930s and 40s through hard work and a spirit that wouldn’t quit. The intergenerational struggle with his father will certainly speak to young readers, while many excellent and varied photos bring the book’s subject to vibrant life.
Rubin has included a timeline, an introduction to his music, a discography, bibliography, index, a careful source list of quotations, and biographies of selected teachers, musicians, friends and associates who influenced Bernstein over the years. AJL committee member Barbara Krasner commented that “Rubin’s well-researched and polished narrative was filled with tension that today’s kids can relate to.”
“The Berlin Boxing Club,” by Robert Sharenow
Robert Sharenow won the 2012 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s Teen Readers category for “The Berlin Boxing Club.” This historical novel of World War II is also a strong sports story. It reveals the history of Nazi Germany through the eyes of Karl Stern, a typical 14-year-old German assimilated Jew who had little connection to any religious life. With the rise of the Nazis, he faces bullying in school and determines to learn to defend himself. Unlike his father and sister, Karl can “pass,” which makes him a person who can fit in for safety’s sake, someone teens may identify with.
When Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, negotiates with Karl’s art dealer father to give his son boxing lessons in exchange for a portrait, Karl jumps at the chance. As he grows stronger and better at boxing, he discovers a deep love and talent for the sport and increased admiration for Schmeling. Then Schmeling defeats African-American Joe Louis and becomes Germany’s poster boy, “proof” of Aryan superiority. When he and his actress wife publicly associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, Karl begins to wonder where his mentor’s sympathies really lie. Meanwhile, the author has effectively juxtaposed the “civilized” violence, controlled by the honor-bound rules of the Berlin Boxing Club where Karl trains, with the senseless violence against Jews in the streets.
Karl’s life from 1934 to 1938 is a rough one. The author weaves his story well into the cultural milieu of Kristallnacht, degenerate art, Picasso and Matisse, Jesse Owens, Superman and Joe Louis (who decked Schmeling two minutes into a 1938 rematch, much to German disbelief, dismay and rage). A talented cartoonist, Karl’s own cartoons and drawings add visual depth to the novel. Well researched and dramatic, with a strong sense of time and place, this book should inspire teens to self-determination, as Karl gradually transforms himself from passive victim to a young man of strength and confidence, acting to protect his family.
“Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer,” by Shelley Sommer
For ages 10 to 14, the Older Reader Honor Book by Shelley Sommer, “Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer,” is a very good biography of Hank Greenberg. Greenberg, a Jewish boy from New York City, was a contradiction to stereotype — neither small nor scholarly, but rather over 6 feet tall, strong and healthy, and able hit a baseball out of the park. He played with the Detroit Tigers, leading his team to several pennants and the World Series but, like Jackie Robinson, whom he later encouraged, he had a lot to rise above. He did it with courage and integrity, even when his decision to miss a season-ending game in a tight pennant race to observe Yom Kippur actually became a national issue.
In many ways it’s a typical sports biography, but Sommer puts it into perspective for young readers when his experiences were unique. For example, a brilliant first baseman for seven years, Greenberg was asked to change to outfield for team benefit. He was praised for agreeing, and even won MVP in the new position. But the author also tells us one reason he learned to love the outfield was because he no longer had to listen to the constant anti-Semitic insults from the visiting team’s bench near first base. Sommer draws Greenberg realistically, using photographs, quotes and source notes, resources and a bibliography.