For August 2010, The Whole Megillah Librarian’s Notebook features an interview with Linda R. Silver. Linda is a librarian and a specialist in Jewish children’s literature. She has written two books on the subject as well as speaking, teaching, and writing articles about it. She has reviewed children’s books for many years and has been the children’s book review editor of Jewish Book World as well as currently editing The Jewish Valuesfinder, and co-editing book reviews for children and teens for the Newsletter of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). She has long been active in AJL on the national and local levels and is the recipient of the Association’s Fanny Goldstein Merit Award for distinguished contributions to Judaic librarianship. Linda is retired and lives with her husband and Pembroke Welsh Corgi in a suburb of Cleveland. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): When you review a book, how do you approach it? What do you look for?
Linda Silver (LS): I try to begin reading every review book with the feeling that I’m going to like it because the author really has something significant to say; that the writing style and art work are distinctive, not ordinary; that the theme is an important one; that the author shows a respect for the audience s/he is writing for; and that the Jewish content is authentic and accurate. Hardly ever does a book measure up to all of these qualities but if the reviewer approaches each book with the expectation of being pleased with it, then even books that turn out to be ordinary or poorly written are given that initial, open-minded reading that every book and every author deserves. In instances when I’m pretty sure I won’t like a book–graphic novels, for example–I let someone else review them.
I think that one of the most important attitudes that a reviewer can have is a love of books and reading. Because if you have that, then you’ve most likely read widely and deeply, everything from the Greek classics to the cornflakes box–because you can’t stop yourself! And if you want to be more than a casual reviewer, then you also need to read and study other people’s books reviews, not just of children’s books but also of adult books. Adult book reviews in magazines like The New Republic, The New Yorker, and the new Jewish Review of Books are longer and more thoughtful than reviews of children’s books in Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal, etc., plus they tend to be more rigorous–to have higher expectations. I think that many children’s book reviewers are too accepting of mediocrity, or too reluctant to hurt authors’ feelings–so I try to learn from those adult reviews while still always remembering that I’m reviewing children’s books, which are different from adult books in several ways.
TWM: You have a new book coming out from the Jewish Publication Society in October, Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens. What prompted you to write this book for JPS? What defines “best?” How did you organize it?
LS: The Jewish Publication Society asked me to write this book, envisioning it as part of its guide series. (My first book, The Jewish Values Finder: A Guide to Values in Jewish Children’s Books, published by Neal-Schuman in 2006, was also written at the request of the publisher.) JPS was in the process of publishing Josh Lambert’s American Jewish Fiction at the time and I believe that the editor of the JPS guide series, Norman Finkelstein–a well-known author of Jewish non-fiction children’s books, himself–thought that one on children’s books was needed.
“Best” to me is a book that has something important to say to young people about Judaism and the Jewish experience. It written with honesty and respect for both the subject and the child; it is informative, accurate, interesting to read and sometimes (depending on the subject) fun. The best Jewish books for children and teens expand their readers’ perception of what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be human; they raise questions, challenge trite or conventional thinking, and create some moral coherence out of the seeming randomness of everyday life. They instill Jewish values and they help to form a sense of peoplehood.
Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens is organized in chapters by subjects such as famous Jews, holidays, history, Israel and Zionism, the Holocaust and World War II, and others. Each chapter begins with an introduction that gives historical context and then goes on to identify and describe the best books on that subject. There are title, author, illustrator, and subject indexes, a list of titles sorted by recommended reading level, plus lists of Sydney Taylor Book Award winners and National Jewish Book Award winners.
TWM: What is the Jewish Values Finder? What do writers of Jewish children’s books need to know about it?
LS: The Jewish Values Finder is an online guide to values in Jewish children’s books sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries. I started it in 2003 and have edited it ever since, adding titles to the database that other reviewers and I consider to merit the attention of librarians, teachers, parents, clergy, and others interested in the books that Jewish children should be encouraged to read. There are about 2,000 titles in it at present and it is not comprehensive–not every book that should be there is because of lack of time. (From the start, I have done this on a voluntary basis, at home, and in my spare time.) A note on each title describes its contents and usually includes some critical or comparative comments. Each entry contains the book’s main subjects and values. The Valuesfinder is searchable by author, title, illustrator, subject, value, keyword, and ISBN; searches can be limited by grade level, publication date, and publisher. A book bag feature allows users to create, print, and email bibliographies.
The Valuesfinder is the largest compilation of information on Jewish children’s books on the Internet or in print so writers can find out a lot about the field of Jewish children’s book writing and publishing from it. For example: What subjects tend to be over-represented or under-represented? What values predominate in books for younger children or for teens? What differences are there in the books published by Orthodox Jewish publishers from other Jewish publishers? To what age child does a particular publisher direct its books? What are some examples of titles in a particular genre–biography, let’s say? Writers will find the Valuesfinder to be a useful resource along with review journals, trade journals, published bibliographies, writers’ handbooks, and blogs.
TWM: What attracted you to becoming a librarian?
LS: I was fortunate to have parents and grandparents who believed in the importance of reading and passed on a love of it to my sister and me from earliest childhood. They read to us, took us to the library, gave us books as gifts, and always made sure that we had enough to read. In elementary school my favorite books were Little Women and Little House in the Prairie–not only reading them, but drawing pictures of them and playing them, taking roles and having adventures, in our free time. In my senior year in college, I took two courses in children’s literature and realized–in one of those aha moments–that if I went on for a Master’s in Library Science, specializing in service to children, I could happily spend my days immersed in children’s books. So directly from college, I entered graduate school at Case Western Reserve University, having as a teacher the iconoclastic Dorothy Broderick, who taught her students the importance of literary quality and the need for children’s librarians to dare to speak out in its favor. My career as a librarian began in the children’s room of a branch library and no matter what twists and turns that career has taken, many of them far removed from children’s services, children’s books have always remained my foremost interest. To this day, there are few things that delight me more than opening and leafing through a brand new book for the first time. There is something satisfying about it that electronic formats can’t begin to replicate.
TWM: Is there something you wish authors of Jewish children’s books would do? Not do? Are there values or themes you’d like to see writers take on in their books?
- Stop writing illustrated books about the Holocaust. With few exceptions, these books serve neither the subject nor the reader. The Holocaust is too profoundly evil to be reduced to 32 heavily illustrated pages and children deserve to have a few years of innocence before they are exposed to the worst of which humans are capable.
- Incorporate historical or background material into the text of the book instead of tacking it on at the end in an author’s note. Children don’t read notes and in the best writing, background material is integrated into the content, becoming part of the fabric of the text.
- Remember when writing for children, especially teens, that Jewish identity is collective as well as individual. We are part of a people and a tradition that readers need to know about so they can preserve and be proud of it.
- Before writing books about Israel and the Middle East, do research and learn about the subject. It is shocking how many books, mostly titles in series aimed at the school market, are filled with errors, distortions, and evidence of the sloppiest of research.
- Jewish folklore is an incredibly rich source of inspiration. Writers should be familiar with it.