A History of Jewish Children’s Books—Part Three

Adapted from a talk given by Lisa Silverman, Library Director of Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, May 23, 2010 at the Highlights Founders Workshop, “Writing Jewish-themed Children’s Books

Genres of Jewish Children’s Literature—Realism in Jewish Family Life

The first book in this category is called Our Eddie by Sulamith Ish-Kishor, a Newbery Honor book that was published in 1969. It is the portrayal of an abusive Jewish father and the disparity of the Jewish values he thinks he represents. There are many books where the rabbi or minister is saying one thing and doing something else, but this book was a big deal when it came out because this father is abusive to his child.  Mostly, the reaction from Jews was,  “Don’t tell the dirty laundry!”  This is an important book because it was the first to really deal realistically with modern Jewish life instead of idealizing it.

Later in 1973, Bette Greene came out with the still popular Summer of My German Soldier, which I highly recommend– I love that book.  Greene was brought up in Arkansas and in her youth there was a POW camp of German soldiers there. Among the soldiers were young teenage men who were not necessarily ideologically Nazis, (they were soldiers who were drafted) and were sent there when captured. In this book, the main character is 12 years old, and her family is one of the very few Jewish families in Arkansas.  This book has similarities to author Bette Greene’s life.  In this book the father is also abusive and also quite mean to his daughter.   And he does hit her when he believes she’s misbehaving.  And she has no friends other than her African American housekeeper.  When one of the young German soldiers escapes from this camp and hides out in her shed, she finds him.  And she decides to befriend him, she gives him food, hides him, and tries to figure out how to get him to escape.  Eventually she’s caught, and he’s caught, and she goes to jail. She grows and learns a lot. It’s a very well done book.

Judy Blume is, of course, still popular and so is this book, which was written in 1970, I think.  Are You There, G-d, It’s Me, Margaret is about a half-Jewish girl dealing with both religion and puberty. In the end she really doesn’t choose a Jewish religion for herself, but again, it’s completely realistic and groundbreaking in the fact that it dealt with the growing up issues of teenagers.  And the successor of that one is The Confessions of a Closet Catholic, which is by Sarah Darer Littman and it is a wonderful story from 2006.  It’s about a girl whose best friend is Catholic and she heard that you could go confess your sins, and she gives up being Jewish for Lent, and goes to her closet to confess all of her terrible sins: she likes chocolate too much, she doesn’t know whether or not she believes in G-d. At the end of this one she does attach to the Jewish religion and it is an uplifting book..

Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by Deborah L. Garfinkle is about a 14-year-old Jewish boy and is hysterically funny. His divorced mother is dating his potbellied dentist and clearly nothing could be worse than that, plus, his Bar Mitzvah is coming up soon.   This is about eight years old, but it’s still in paperback, and it’s very cute.  He does mention issues with having an unwanted/unwanted erection.  (So you have to be kind of in ninth grade!)  He talks about what happens, he’s in front of a class and he sees a girl and he doesn’t know what to do—it’s very funny.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly for kids who like realistic, humorous books, and particularly for boys, which is important.

How to Ruin a Summer Vacation by Simone Elkeles is the first of a three-book series about a very spoiled 16-year-old who is sent to Israel by her Israeli father because she needs to meet her grandmother whom she has never met.  Her Israeli father is married to an American mother and they’re divorced.  In Israel, she meets a hunky soldier and learns what it’s like to live in Israel. Again, this sort of broke new ground because it was a typical teen romance novel with a “fish out of water” theme, but took place in Israel without dealing overtly with Middle East politics.

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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