Becoming Thankful for Jewish Book Month
The start of Hanukah in just a few days marks the end of Jewish Book Month. While I am always up for a holiday, I am not always that big a fan of the Cause of the Month. The Jewish people celebrate our rich textual heritage on a daily basis. We take for granted connections of logic and vibrant thought throughout as part of our cultural heritage. Text and its interplay with life are the backdrop to our existence.
As a professional within the world of books, I am very aware of the importance of promoting quality Jewish literature both internally within the Jewish realm, and externally to introduce others to this richness of expression. Jewish Book Month started off as just this, as one Boston professional's outreach to share with a diverse audience the best of Jewish writing. With this driving force behind it, Jewish Book Month expanded from a one-week local celebration to a vibrant national festival. Despite, or perhaps because of, the explosion in Jewish publication in the children and Young Adult market, it can be hard to negotiate finding just the right book for just the right person. This is one of the reasons why the new guide Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens is pivotal.
As a child of the 1970's, I was privileged to grow up in a time when K'tonton, Debbie in Dreamland, and Tell Me a Mitzi were featured prominently alongside the Jewish Catalogs (direct to you from Somerville, MA-via-NY!) and Mae Shafter Rockland's (now Mae Rockland Tupa) crafts books. Though I remember explaining to my mostly Catholic classmates that the book about Nana's death didn't reflect my experiences with my own grandmother's death, I did not feel alienated from the literature that I encountered as a child.
It was only in my first encounter with Jewish children's literature as an adult hearing Leslea Newman speak about Heather Has Two Mommies in the mid-1990's that I heard the deep yearning that others had felt to see their lives in print. This sentiment has most recently been written about by Lisa Silverman in her "30 Days, 30 Texts," post about All-of-a-Kind Family on the Forward's Arty Semite blog earlier this month.
This is the context behind the publication of Linda R. Silver's Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens. This title, published by JPS last month, was requested by the publisher as part of the JPS Guide series. Linda Silver is a Jewish children's literature specialist who has long been involved in the Jewish library field. She is best known as the force behind the Association of Jewish Libraries' online Jewish Valuesfinder, a database of Jewish literature for children and teens searchable by midot, or character traits, also published in book format. Until recently, she served as the editor for the Association of Jewish Libraries children and teens book reviews.
This annotated publication reflects the full gamut of "the classics" of Jewish children's literature, through stories that could only be set in contemporary times, or could only be published within the current children's or Young Adult book markets. The book is true to its description, including titles aimed for preschoolers through highschoolers. Chapters include both fiction and nonfiction organized by topics such as Jewish rites and customs, holidays, Bible, folklore, history/historical fiction, contemporary issues, biography and religion. Each chapter is introduced with an insightful overview that places the type of literature or nonfiction to be discussed in context. The over 1,000 books presented are thoroughly indexed, also including a comprehensive list by recommended reading level. Silver goes the extra step of including lists of the titles awarded the National Jewish Book Award in years when one was given to a children or teen book and of the titles awarded the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
In the book's introduction, Silver states that aside from assessment of the literary merit of a title, her criteria for determining whether a book qualifies as a "Jewish book" is the inclusion of explicitly identifiable Jewish characters or content. She notes that throwaway Yiddishisms are not enough to denote a Jewish book, a nod to today's multicultural melting pot of linguistic borrowings in which oftentimes non-Jews using Yiddish phrases aren't aware of the words' origins. That is not to say that there is no variance in the books presented. The titles included embrace the reality that families are blended not only in terms of biology, but also across religious and cultural boundaries. Even within the Jewish community, we are aware of the wide range of diversity of belief and practice - let alone that of ethnic and religious origin or family structure. Excellent children's literature is not restricted to any specific experience of Jewishness. The challenges faced by publishers, particularly in choices made in illustrated books, comes through clearly in "The Inside Scoop on the Jewish Children's Publishing World", a discussion with representatives from URJ Press, Hachai Publishing, and EKS Publishing at the Association of Jewish Libraries' Celebration of Jewish Children's Literature, in honor of the Sydney Taylor Book Award's 40th Anniversary, held on June 25, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio.
These are the reasons why it is important to celebrate the diversity of Jewish writing on so many levels -- both physically and virtually. We routinely incorporate these texts within our Jewish homes, communal libraries and educational organizations. Periodically, we recognize them with local lectures and events, online reviews and roundups such as the Carnival of Jewish Books. Annually, celebrations such as Jewish Book Month, Sydney Taylor Book Awards and National Jewish Book Awards give opportunity to acknowledge their contributions to enriching lives of readers of all types.
For more information on the Boston origins of Jewish Book Month, see The Jewish Women's Archive background, or Ellen Smith's full biography of Fanny Goldstein. Goldstein was a member of the Boston Jewish community. In her professional life, she was head of the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, a diverse community where, in 1925, she organized a display of Jewish books, founding Jewish Book Week, the precursor of what was to become Jewish Book Month.