February 25, 2011
Jewish Children’s Book Awards: Winning literature tackles complex issues
After taking a look at the latest award winning literature for Jewish youth, one could easily conclude that the time has come to put aside K’Tonton and All of a Kind Family, and get real. Many of the winners and honor books recently awarded either the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award (by the Association of Jewish Libraries) or the National Jewish Book Award (from the Jewish Book Council) tackle subjects unheard of in Jewish children’s literature when author Sydney Taylor was alive.
Winning writers explored a variety of complex subjects, including the Holocaust, life under Romanian communism, 9/11, Argentinean Jewry, post traumatic stress disorder and the war in Iraq, sexual abuse within the Orthodox community, and the intricacies of the Leo Frank case. Rest assured however, that these subjects appeared in the categories of “Older Readers” (grades 4 – 7) and “Teens” (grades 8 – 12) and were not covered within the younger picture book category. Picture book themes remain the same as always: colorfully illustrated folklore, retold myths, explorations of Jewish religious practice, and a smattering of historical fiction.
The following are descriptions of some of the noteworthy winners and honor books:
Picture Book Award Winners: Illustration meets new heights
The picture book, or “younger reader” category of the Sydney Taylor Award was awarded to noted folklorist Howard Schwartz and illustrator Kristina Swarner, for Gathering Sparks, (Roaring Brook Press) a handsomely illustrated lyrical gem based on a sixteenth century teaching about tikkun olam: repairing the world. When a quizzical child asks her grandfather where all the stars come from, he lovingly relates a tale about fragile vessels carrying light and sailing across the sky. It is the job of the human race to “gather the sparks” and restore them to their proper place by doing acts of kindness and love. The book is a beautiful melding of art and words, and a lovely reinterpretation of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria. It would make an especially treasured gift from a grandparent to a grandchild.
The National Jewish Book Award for the best illustrated book goes to The Rooster Prince of Breslov, a famed folktale retold by Ann Redisch Stampler and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, both local LA authors. Great fun to read aloud for the witty dialogue and quirky artistic style, this story of the young prince who has everything but suddenly rips off his clothes, yells “cock-doodle-do” and begins behaving like a rooster, is a crowd-pleaser. Yelchin’s inventive gouache illustrations provide delightful hints of the story’s progression on each page. Jewish Book World magazine gave it a starred review calling it “a beautiful retelling of the Yiddish folktale by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that infuses the humorous story with deeper meaning… The author’s endnote confirms that the book is meant as a coming-of-age story in which the prince learns that compassion and good deeds make him human.”
Winning Books for Older Readers and Teens: The Comic is King
Graphic novels seem to be at their peak of popularity. So if kids like comic book heroes, then why not offer a clever, headstrong, troll-fighting, 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl heroine? Mirka, pre-teen protagonist of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (Abrams Books) by Barry Deutsch, is not only the finest Jewish comic hero since Benjamin Jacob Grimm (aka: “The Thing”), but also the star of the first graphic novel to win a Sydney Taylor Award. Spunky and strong-willed, Mirka holds on to her dream of fighting dragons and getting her sword, all the while battling wits with her misunderstood step-mother Fruma, and facing down an annoying talking pig. The artwork is stunning and the plot is entertaining and age-appropriate. The details of Orthodox Jewish life are seamlessly woven into the story, with tiny asterisks by the Yiddish terms for those who need to glance to the bottom of the page for help. This surprising hit for Deutsch, a political cartoonist from Oregon, is now appealing to a wide audience, which is surely unusual for the subject matter. When mainstream reviewers such as School Library Journal’s Elizabeth Bird, rave, “Without a doubt, this is the best graphic novel of 2010 for kids. Bar none.”, we know we can look forward to the further adventures of Mirka and her unusual family, and that another breakthrough has been reached in the genre of Jewish children’s literature.
The Sydney Taylor Award committee also honored another graphic novel entitled Resistance by Carla Jablonski, with art by Leland Purvis (First Second Books). It is the first of a trilogy and relates the story of two children drawn into the French Resistance in 1940 when they try to help hide their Jewish friend Henri from the German occupiers. This novel is intended for an older readership (7th grade and up) due to its subject matter, and it is compelling historical fiction about the Holocaust which will draw in many youthful readers.
Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid: A Graphic Novel of Dueling Jewish Folktales in the Wild West (Jewish Lights Publishing), by Steve Sheinkin, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and is also an admirable graphic novel for younger readers. It was reviewed favorably here in the August, 2010 issue.
Teens Can Handle Some Pretty Heavy Stuff
The gold medal in the Teen Category goes to The Things a Brother Knows (Wendy Lamb Books), by popular YA novelist, Dana Reinhardt. Reinhardt, a one-time Los Angeles resident who is married to Daniel Sokatch, CEO of The New Israel Fund, previously won an honor award for her first book, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, which delved into issues of Jewish identity, a Hassidic unwed mother, and adoption. This new book takes on the troubles of what appears to be posttraumatic stress disorder and how it impacts not just the returning soldier, but also the rest of his family. Teenager Levi Katznelson has a hard time dealing with brother Boaz’s return from war and the changes he sees in what used to be the local high school hero. Boaz won’t leave his room or ride in a car, and hardly speaks. His Israeli-American family are supportive, but struggle with how to help him. The suspenseful story of two brothers on the road to recovery told through Levi’s eyes, includes a variety of engaging characters, terrific dialogue, and leaves the reader thinking long and hard about the big issues of heroism, war and redemptive love.
The YA book that should win the award for “Biggest Buzz” within the children’s literature community is a powerful teen novel (based on true events) that takes place within a Hassidic community, written by the pseudonymous “Eishes Chayil”. It won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award and has been categorized as “bold”, “insightful” and “disturbing” along with quite a variety of superlatives. However, this is not one of those YA books that proud moms should be suggesting to their “reading above grade level” 10 year olds. Protaganist Gittel is getting married in Borough Park at age 18 to a good man that she has met only once in accordance with the customs of her community. But she can’t forget that she once witnessed something that became a terrible secret: her best friend Devory’s sexual abuse at age 9 that was perpetrated by her older brother. The story moves between the years 2003 and the present, as Gittel attempts to find some sense of justice for her friend by telling her story, hoping her insular community will accept the truth instead of hiding it. Exposing the truth becomes her attempt to understand what being a true eshes hayil really means. The Hasidic community is portrayed with honesty, warmth, and yes, humor. The anyonomous author (who may no longer be a member of the community) stated in a Tablet Magazine interview, that she feared her story will erroneously be assumed false, “written by some ‘self-hating Jew’ who ‘just wants attention.” Far from it; this author creates beliveable characters and writes beautfiully about moving events. No wonder the book world is buzzing—Hush is quite an engaging read whose brave heroine will empower young women of all faiths.
To see the full list of children’s book award winners see:
http://barbarabbookblog.blogspot.com and http://jewishbookcouncil.org.
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles and the children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.