From the cover of Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin. Penguin Books.
Several months ago, in January of this year, the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) announced the winners of the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award. The award, administered by the AJL since 1968, is presented annually to books for children and teens that “exemplify high literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience.”
This year’s gold-medal winners include The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come by Sue Macy, a picture-book biography of Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center; White Bird: A Wonder Story by R.J. Palacio, a graphic novel for middle-grade readers in which a young boy learns his grandmother’s story of rescue in Vichy-occupied France; and the young-adult historical novel Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin, the story of a Jewish family that settles in Shanghai after fleeing the Holocaust. Other award winners deal in largely similar themes: significant Jewish lives, the Holocaust, the immigrant experience.
Whether or not their authors are aware of it, this group of books represents a Jewish cultural landscape significantly changed from that of 1985, the year the Sydney Taylor award came into its full maturity. Back then, bar-mitzvah plots were de rigueur, Jewish picture books dealt mostly in holiday or biblical themes, and the state of Israel was a celebrated topic in texts for all ages. Today, these themes have mostly fallen by the wayside, replaced instead by biographical works and by books addressing the Holocaust from seemingly every imaginable angle.
What do these shifting trends tell us about the changing interests, values, and anxieties of today’s American Jews?
Let’s start by stipulating that Jewish children’s literature has itself been the object of a fair amount of criticism, and from more than one direction. Many, for instance, have criticized what they see as a pattern of inadequate representation of Judaism and Jewish religious life, while others have protested the perceived fixation on narratives of Jewish persecution. More specific criticisms run the gamut. Deborah Kolben, founding editor of Kveller.com, a website for Jewish mothers, has argued that Jewish children’s books often lack the creativity and playfulness found in their secular counterparts, reading instead “like lessons in Hebrew schools.” For his part, the literary scholar and critic Michael Weingrad has castigated in these pages the typical Jewish children’s book as “poorly conceived, substantively shallow, and reeking of chicken-soup nostalgia.” Still others point to a disproportionate focus on Ashkenazi culture and mores, or antiquated representations of gender roles.
How justified are these critiques? What is the place of religious observance in children’s texts? To what extent do Holocaust books really dominate? Which figures are being held up as role models for Jewish children? And why has the genre changed so much in recent years?
Seeking answers, I studied a representative sample of the field, choosing, for a number of reasons, the Sydney Taylor awardees as my data set. As one of the most prominent and long-running prizes in the area of Jewish children’s literature, the Sydney Taylor award has long informed the purchasing decisions of librarians and educators. Winning books are also frequently featured among those selected for inclusion in PJ Library, a charitable program that every month sends more than 200,000 free Jewish children’s books to families across the United States and Canada.
Sydney Taylor awardees are selected by a rotating committee of volunteers who serve for two-year terms. All are AJL members, but they come from diverse backgrounds and professional affiliations. This year’s group, for example, included a freelance writer, a librarian at the Baltimore County Public Library, librarians at public and private schools, an assistant editor at the Horn Book Magazine, and a synagogue librarian.
Over the years, the award committees have kept faith with their mandate to honor “outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” Top awards have generally gone to works of respectable literary quality featuring meaningfully Jewish characters and concerns. Although the winners do tend to skew more secular, the award committee has also recognized a number of books portraying Orthodox life or written specifically for an Orthodox audience. (One charming example is the Hereville series, a set of fantasy graphic novels by Barry Deutsch whose central figure, Mirka Herschberg, is a strong-willed Orthodox eleven-year-old girl.)
Finally, I chose the Sydney Taylor award as the subject of my analysis for practical reasons. Compared with the other prominent prize given for Jewish children’s literature, the National Jewish Book Award administered by the Jewish Book Council, the Sydney Taylor recognizes far more titles: an average of 27.5 in the years 1985-2020, which makes it a much more robust data set.
Analyzing the lists of awardees over this 35-year span, I sampled books in all three relevant age categories (“younger readers,” “older readers,” and “teens”), as well as at each award level (“winner,” “honor book,” and “notable”). I also established thematic categories: Holocaust/World War II, Jewish holidays, Bible stories, biographies, folklore, and so forth. When a book fit into more than one category, I filed it under both. Books that did not fit into any of the common categories were coded as “other.”
On its own, of course, the historical record of the Sydney Taylor awards, whatever it may reveal about the committee’s shifting judgments over time, can’t tell us whether its selections also represent what’s actually being sold and read in the wider world. But by cross-referencing my findings with Amazon.com, and specifically with its two categories of “Best Sellers in Children’s Judaism” and “Best Sellers in Judaism for Teens & Young Adult,” I determined that the two are fairly closely aligned. I also conducted interviews with experts in the field of Jewish children’s literature. Among those who helped me to check and interpret my data were librarians, Sydney Taylor committee members including two chairs, and a freelance writer and children’s book critic.
Here’s what I found, by category.
In 1985, children’s books on significant Jewish historical figures accounted for just one out of the 31 books recognized. By contrast, seven of the eighteen books recognized this year centered on a Jewish historical figure. Indeed, recent years have seen a marked increase in both the raw numbers of biographical awardees and in their proportion vis-à-vis the number of awardees in other areas.
This increase mirrors the trend in the larger market for children’s literature, where the demand for picture-book biography and, more broadly, children’s nonfiction, has been rapidly growing. The upsurge may be due in part to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a nationwide program introduced in 2009 that places heightened emphasis on reading “informational texts” conveying historical or scientific information. “Historical fiction has always been popular,” according to a senior books editor at Amazon, “but Common Core kicked it (and historical nonfiction) to the forefront.”
The rise in the numbers of high-quality biographies for Jewish children has also been accompanied by a broadening of subject matter. Historically, says the librarian Rebecca Levitan, chair of this year’s Sydney Taylor committee, biographies written for Jewish children have clustered around just a few figures: Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Harry Houdini, Hank Greenberg, and, lately, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Together with Marc Chagall and Janusz Korczak, biographies of this handful of (mainly secular or assimilated) figures have made up about a third of all Sydney Taylor awardees in the category.
“I think we do ourselves a disservice when we keep writing about the same five or six people,” comments Levitan. But the good news is that the field is diversifying, adding personalities—and chapters of Jewish history—previously untouched. This year, in addition to the picture book about Aaron Lansky and the Yiddish Book Center, another award went to The Key from Spain: The Songs and Stories of Flory Jagoda (by Deby Levy and Sonja Wimmer), a picture-book biography of a figure whose music has been a significant force in reviving and maintaining interest in the Ladino language and traditional Sephardi music.
The rapid growth in Jewish children’s books about historical figures shows few signs of stopping. The result is that Jewish children’s literature is newly rife with role models who offer novel ways of shaping Jewish self-understanding. What to make of this development is a question I leave for later.
For many, the phrase “Jewish children’s book” has long been synonymous with “children’s Judaism book.” Indeed, historically some of the genre’s best and most beloved works—Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s The Adventures of K’tonton (1935), Barbara Cohen’s The Carp in the Bathtub (1972), and Eric Kimmel’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (1989)—have centered on Jewish holidays or Jewish observance. Today, volumes in this category continue to make up the plurality of Jewish children’s books on any subject in both the Sydney Taylor list and the Amazon bestseller listings.
But recent years have witnessed a decline in the number of recognized new books on these themes. In the first five-year period of my sample (1985-1990), books about holidays and Jewish observance (including prayer and the performance of mitzvot) accounted for an average of 37 percent of Sydney Taylor awardees. By the most recent five years (2015-2020), the proportion had fallen to 25 percent. This decline becomes even starker if one focuses on the specific area of Bible stories. Over the past 35 years, such stories—both in their traditional versions and in retellings—have on average accounted for about 10 percent of all awardees, most of these in the younger-reader category. In the past five years, however, no retellings of Bible stories have been recognized.
Can we trace these falling numbers to the supply side of Jewish children’s literature? Jewish publishers have continued to release titles in the areas of both Bible and holidays, but whether at the same rate as in the past is unclear. We must also distinguish between the supply of new books in any given year and the total makeup of what’s available and being purchased. Bible stories, for example, still constitute about 15 percent of the books on Amazon’s “Bestsellers in Children’s Judaism” list, though nearly all are backlist titles.
Nor do the aggregated Sydney Taylor data provide insight into the content of the books in question, let alone their relation to actual Jewish religious observance. Since the 1960s, an emphasis on diversity and multicultural representation has had a profound effect on American children’s literature in general with such deservedly popular and well-regarded books as Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. At the same time, however, it has blurred boundary lines among disparate cultures and religions and encouraged the proliferation of shallow equivalencies (as in the ubiquitous image of a Hanukkiah alongside a Christmas tree). In the case of Judaism, the new dispensation also evinces a marked intolerance toward any hint of a value system at odds with current liberal nostrums (e.g., belief in the chosenness of the Jewish people, or attachment to Israel as the Jewish homeland).
In an email to me, the librarian Heidi Rabinowitz, a former chair of the Sydney Taylor committee, mentioned that amid the recent decrease in Bible stories she had noticed an increase in the number of picture books about the talmudic rabbis and parables involving them. It would seem that an influx of such books, especially when rooted in authentic sources, points toward a religious upswing.
But much depends on what these books offer by way of substantive content. Three of the books to which Rabinowitz pointed me to focus on the famous sages Hillel and Akiva. Though indeed based on traditional sources, they preach decidedly universal ethical themes: “It’s never too late to learn,” “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you,” and the like.
There’s nothing inherently troubling about such messages, but their choice hardly seems accidental. Removed as they are from their original contexts and applications, such stories provide little religious education, offering instead only a self-righteous sense of Jewish ethical prescience. Contrast these with the decidedly more particularistic theme of, for example, Jacqueline Jules’s 2007 book Abraham’s Search for God (from the same publisher that brought out two of the three books above), which uses Jewish folklore and commentary to tell the story of Abraham’s journey out of his idolatrous environment to monotheism. Though arguably less textually based than the others, it offers, at the very least, a thoroughly Jewish educational message.
In brief, what was once a staple of Jewish children’s literature—new, high-quality books centered on Jewish holidays, Bible stories, or religious observance—appears to be dwindling, and even the one apparent exception to the trend seems to frequently fall prey to the universalizing impulse. Slowly, the gap between a “Jewish children’s book” and a “children’s Judaism book” seems to be widening.
In one area, Jewish children’s literature faces a unique challenge: namely, a glut of Holocaust narratives.
Of the approximately 420 books for “older [i.e., middle-grade] readers” (those between eight and twelve) recognized by the Sydney Taylor awards since 1985, 37 percent have dealt with themes relating to the Holocaust and/or World War II. This dominance is even more pronounced in books written for teen or young-adult audiences, where the proportion of Holocaust-related awardees rises to 45 percent. And as with award lists, so with the numbers of such books being published, bought, and read in the market at large. Of the top 50 bestselling books in Amazon’s category of “Judaism for Teens & Young Adults,” more than half center on the Holocaust or World War II, as do seventeen of the 50 titles on Amazon’s “Children’s Judaism” list.
Teachers, librarians, and parents have long been concerned about this situation. Their worries tend to center on two points: that the books are frequently of questionable historical accuracy, and that their prevalence places a disproportionate weight on the history of Jewish persecution and victimization. Add to these the larger concern about the impact of such books on young readers, a consideration that has itself influenced the approaches taken by authors and publishers.
Thus, in walking a thin line between conveying historical trauma and actually traumatizing young readers, children’s Holocaust books have traditionally focused on tales of hidden Jews or refugees (see the wide appeal of Anne Frank’s diary and its spin-offs), or presented the stories of the comparatively fortunate (Allan Zullo’s Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust), or addressed the Holocaust through the eyes of non-Jewish friends or acquaintances (Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars). Regardless of the specific approach taken, the result is a genre that makes the systematic state-sponsored persecution and mass murder of millions of European Jews by the German Nazi regime seem both less brutal and less extensive than it was.
Moreover, because the conventions of children’s books usually require their protagonists to survive, much of children’s Holocaust literature ends up telling the stories not of Jews, whose main plot function is to be persecuted, but of their Gentile rescuers. The numbers bear this out: of the 245 Sydney Taylor winners dealing with the Holocaust or World War II, about one-third feature significant plot lines involving non-Jewish saviors and/or cross-cultural friendships. Often these rescuers are the true heroes: embodiments of the didactic messages, common to Holocaust texts, that you must see each individual as a human being, practice tolerance, and follow your conscience when it runs counter to authority.
These are all issues of content and execution. No less troubling is the dominance of this one chapter of Jewish history to the frequent exclusion of others. So unbalanced in this respect is Jewish children’s literature that not only do Holocaust-themed books represent a huge proportion of the books published for Jewish children and teens, but they have continued to make up increasingly large proportions of recent Sydney Taylor awardees as well.
According to Rebecca Levitan, her predecessor as chair of the committee had assumed her office with the explicit intention of redressing the balance by favoring works other than Holocaust narratives—until “she realized that the Holocaust books are a really large number of books that are submitted and the largest number of books that are well done. And you’re sort of stuck with this conundrum.”
Heidi Rabinowitz similarly sees the problem as a vicious circle. Publishers, she says, “invest a lot in the editing and the marketing and the illustration, and they create some really good Holocaust books and they promote them very hard. Then those books do really well, so they say, ‘Oh, this is what sells. Let’s make more of them.’ And it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”
To recap: we’ve seen three trends in award-winning Jewish children’s literature: an increase in nonfiction and historical-fiction books about significant Jewish figures; a decrease in books on religious themes, especially particularist ones; and an increase in fiction and non-fiction books dealing with persecution and the Holocaust. What can these trends tell us about the aspirations and anxieties of American Jews?
For books with religious themes, the answer seems straightforward: the decrease in the area of children’s literature would appear to reflect, at least in part, the decreased religiosity of the adult Jewish population. The 2013 Pew Report, “A Portrait of American Jews,” tells the story. Whereas fully 93 percent of Jews in the “Greatest Generation” identify themselves as Jewish on the basis of religion and only 7 percent describe themselves as having no religion, the equivalent figures among millennials are 68 percent and 32 percent respectively. In general, about six in ten American Jews today say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture, and just 15 percent say that it is mainly a matter of religion.
A similar effect is likely at play in the increasing prominence of Holocaust/World War II stories and persecution narratives. We’ve seen that such books currently make up about half of the Sydney Taylor awardees in the teen category and half of the bestsellers in Amazon’s category of “Young Adult Judaism.” We’ve also seen a kind of feedback loop that leads publishers to invest resources in Holocaust books with the foreknowledge (and then result) that they tend to sell well. But, once again, another and perhaps more basic factor may be at play.
According to the 2013 Pew survey, in response to the question “What’s essential to being Jewish?” the number-one answer (at 73 percent) is “remembering the Holocaust.” Compare this with the proportions of American Jews who cite observing Jewish law (19 percent) or caring about Israel (43 percent). Indeed, thanks to this widespread attachment to the memory of the Holocaust, books dealing with the theme possess the unique advantage of crossing intra-Jewish boundaries, whether social, political, or religious.
In sum, while one key marker of Jewish life—religious tradition—is on a downslope among American Jews, another—the Holocaust—seems to be binding them together in some nebulous way.
It should be clear that a Jewish identity centered on the Holocaust is no substitute for an identity based on millennia of religious tradition, culture, and shared history. It may in the short term promote unity and a shared discourse, but it lacks richness as well any positive Jewish content.
But exactly here is where a better children’s literature could come in—not as an indicator of already existing values but as a potential inculcator of stronger ones in future generations. The distinctiveness of children’s literature, after all, lies not only in what it reflects but in what it is designed to teach. To some extent, the latter purpose can be consciously cultivated.
One possible way to understand the recent rise in biographical texts among Jewish children’s books is as an expression, inchoate or not, of American Jewry’s search for positive, authentic, non-religious content in which to ground their children’s Jewish identities. After all, biographical texts provide an occasion for celebrating Jewish accomplishments in areas often overlooked in Jewish children’s literature: music, language, graphic arts, literature itself. They can also speak to the diversity of Jewish culture and practice, cultivating knowledge of and pride in different Jewish traditions.
As always, much depends on execution. The very best biographical books have always demonstrated the extent to which the concerns of an individual hero or heroine are rooted in the concerns, ideas, accomplishments, and needs of the Jewish community. Some of these books are already appearing—The Book Rescuer and The Key from Spain are excellent examples—but we will need many more. Luckily, the time for such a project is ripe and the format is ready. “We’re happily seeing some branching out from [the traditional handful of figures],” says Heidi Rabinowitz. “Picture-book biography as a genre is becoming more of a sure thing, so it’s safer to use that framework but to introduce a new person within it.”
What could this look like?
For a start, it would involve more books about the modern Jewish people’s greatest enterprise: namely, the founding and flourishing of the Jewish state. Israel is a topic given relatively little space in American Jewish children’s literature, with books about it and/or Jewish nationalism making up only about 11 percent of all Sydney Taylor award winners over the last 35 years. In 2020, not a single book on the theme won an award. There are also shockingly few books about the revival of modern Hebrew as a mother tongue, admittedly a pre-state project that became an indispensable component of that larger achievement. (A notable exception from 2017 is Richard Michelson’s fictionalized tale The Language of Angels.)
Other stories of Jewish peoplehood yet to be told in English-language children’s books include the tremendous saga of Soviet refuseniks and American Jewry’s own collective campaign in support of Soviet Jews. Closer to home is the account of New York’s earliest group of Jewish settlers: the 23 Spanish and Portuguese refugees who arrived in New Amsterdam in September 1654 and founded the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States.
Children’s books featuring Jewish role models won’t solve American Jewry’s identity crisis, but the active search for and enshrining of new Jewish heroes—people like Aaron Lansky, Flory Jagoda, and Eliezer ben Yehuda—offers a glimmer of hope. It suggests that there are a significant number of American Jews who continue to desire, for themselves and for their children, a distinctive, self-confident identity deeply rooted in history, culture, and tradition. It is clearly possible to bring such a project to fruition in the next generation. Whether it will be done, and done well, is up to us.