Joyce Levine earned her library degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She worked as a children’s librarian at the Great Neck Public Library and as an elementary school librarian at a Solomon Schechter Day School. She established two new Jewish high school libraries, including the library at her present school, the North Shore Hebrew Academy H.S. in Great Neck, New York. For several years she provided mentoring services to Jewish high school libraries in the New York area through the Avi Chai Foundation. She currently serves as President of the SSC (Synagogues, Schools and Centers) Division of the Association of Jewish Libraries.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What is the most satisfying part of your job? What is the greatest challenge?
Joyce Levine (JL): The most satisfying part of my job is lighting a flame in a student and turning him or her onto learning and reading. Having them feel comfortable in the library setting is important to me. If they relate to the library as a place to come for information and relaxation, or to study quietly, or to browse the materials on the shelves, I feel I have accomplished a great deal. When the books “move around” on the shelves, I know someone’s been reading them and it makes me happy. When a student comes back and says, “I LOVED that book you recommended. I’m going to tell my friend to read it” it makes my day. That sort of small triumph what helps librarians know that what they do makes a difference in someone’s life.
The greatest challenge is to overcome resistance in a student who is reluctant to learn by actually reading something. Often, the tendency is to click and print, without even examining the material critically. The generation of children who grew up with computers is often lacking in the patience to read deeply, because they’re so used to having everything provided instantaneously.
TWM: What qualities of a book lead you to recommend a book for purchase? To kids? To parents?
JL: A book for purchase must have value, at least temporarily, for the reader. So for example, paperback editions of young adult fiction are fine. They’re popular and get kids to read. History and art books are wonderful because they have enduring power, and can be read and browsed over and over. I feel that every Jewish family should have good Jewish reference books available. That would include Bible texts, encyclopedias, Jewish history and atlases. A good reference book for kids, for example, would be DK’s Children’s Illustrated Jewish Bible.
TWM: What would be your top five list of “must read” Jewish books for kids?
JL: For young adults in high school, here are some of my top picks:
- The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- Snow in August by Pete Hamill
- As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
- Exodus by Leon Uris
- The Chosen by Chaim Potok
- Real Time by Pnina Moed Kass
Oh no! I could go on and on…There’s a lot of good newer fiction out there too.
TWM: Are there any books you’d like to see that you haven’t yet come across?
JL: I haven’t come across Jewish fantasy for teens and I think that would be a good genre for an author to explore. We just read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins in the Novel & Nosh Society, my school book discussion group. That type of futuristic fantasy could be wildly popular. (Hey, I just gave myself an idea. Maybe over summer vacation…)
I think that another good niche could be the Modern Orthodox world, which is what I mainly inhabit and where most of my students are from. I come across many books about Reform and Conservative Jews, and there are a number of novels for the ultra-Orthodox which are sometimes clumsily moralistic. I’d like to see someone like Tova Mirvis or Naomi Ragen focusing on teenagers or pre-adolescents. I can’t wait to read Hush by the pseudonymous Aishes Chayil.
TWM: What advice would you have for writers of Jewish content for kids?
JL: If you grew up Jewish, write about what it was like for you. That’s probably the best way to make your work come alive. Strong and honest feelings and passions come across as real.
The kids love fiction that moves them to feel deeply and examine their own lives in the lens of someone else’s life. Non-fiction, especially biography, can also be a wonderful way for them to broaden their experience and identify with others.
In brief: Don’t be preachy. Think like a kid would think. But write better than a kid would write!
TWM: An editor once told me that an author’s best friend is not the editor but the librarian. Care to comment?
JL: Our patrons look to us for guidance about what to read. Librarians will plug a book to the utmost if we like it. We book talk it, use it for discussion groups, put up posters about it, and suggest it to appropriate patrons. We talk to other librarians and recommend books, so we end up being great disseminators of publicity for our favorite authors.