Last week, the Association for Library Services for Children, a branch of the American Library Association, made headlines when it changed the name of its Laura Ingalls Wilder award for children’s literature—because of the depiction of Native Americans found in the author’s Little House on the Prairie books. Yet, writes Emily Schneider, this newfound sensitivity to prejudice seems not to apply to anti-Semitism:
Last year’s recipient of the Wilder Award was the distinguished African-American author and poet Nikki Grimes. Grimes is the author of many critically acclaimed works, including one which is distorted by the most blatant and lurid anti-Semitic tropes. At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter accuses the Jewish people of venality, corruption, and hatred in the events surrounding the death of Jesus. The book closely follows the Gospels’ [depiction] of these events. The high priest Caiaphas is described as “a mongrel smelling blood.” The Pharisees and Sadducees are conflated as members of the same evil elite, and Pontius Pilate is a passive and blameless victim of the enraged Jews who force him to kill the messiah.
The book is composed of poems, each one prefaced by the author’s comments and suggestions for discussion. Grimes encourages children to think creatively about the motives for killing Jesus: “Why would false witnesses agree to provide a legitimate excuse to have an innocent person crucified? My guess is money. Perhaps there were other reasons. Any ideas?” The poems are accompanied by the illustrator David Frampton’s dangerously beautiful woodcuts, giving the story intense visual impact. One picture shows Jewish leaders’ holding coins and other treasures, which they would supposedly risk losing should Jesus and his followers triumph.
I have no doubt that Grimes did not set out to write a book offensive to Jews. Her Christian faith was the source of her deeply held beliefs about Jesus’ death. Grimes seems, [however], to accept uncritically, in spite of both contemporary sources and modern interpretations, that the Jews, not the Romans, were primarily responsible for the torture and death of Jesus. . . . [But] if Laura Ingalls Wilder cannot be exonerated by [the claim] that she merely expressed the norms of her time, how can Nikki Grimes, who wrote At Jerusalem’s Gate more than 70 years later, [be exonerated]?