Read about the blog tour and all 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.
The wrap-up and virtual roundtable
Imagine, if you will, available award winners seated at a dais table with mics, poised to answer questions from the press. We have nine participants:
Sydney Taylor Gold Medalists
- For Younger Readers—Author Debbie Levy and illustrator Elizabeth Baddeley for I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
- For Older Readers—Author Adam Gidwitz and illustrator Hatem Aly for The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
- For Teen Readers—Gavriel Savit for Anna and the Swallow Man
- For Younger Readers
- For Older Readers
The seating’s a little crowded, but we’ve saved room just for you. The energy’s high, although we know this will be a somewhat long discussion—there’s so much to talk about!
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Thank you all for joining us today and congratulations on your great achievement. Let’s just dive right in. What are your recommendations for great Jewish kids lit?
Gavriel Savit (GS): Bear with me on this one—I’m working on a theory that Harry Potter is some of the best Jewish kids’ lit ever written. Not, of course, because Harry Potter himself is Jewish (though Daniel Radcliffe is!), but he does represent a certain type of dual-identitied childhood that so many of us experience throughout our young Jewish lives. Do I say this bracha before eating lunch with my non-Jewish friends? Do I have to keep my magic secret in front of my muggle friends?
Richard Michelson (RM): I think the yearly AJL recommendations are always worth the read, and I keep up as well with the latest offerings by my friends and Western MA neighbors—Jane Yolen, Lesléa Newman, Barbara Goldin Diamond, and Mordicai Gerstein. That alone can keep you busy reading all year.
Michelle Edwards (ME): For great Jewish children’s literature, I propose great stories. Great stories that make a reader feel joyful, empowered, thoughtful, generous, peaceful, civil, entertained, spiritual, and valued. Great stories, and whenever possible, have them paired with great illustrations. Great stories and great illustrations, then crafted into a whole object, that is the both the sum of its parts, and more than that, a third wonder, a book.
Joel ben Izzy (JBI): As a storyteller, I love re-reading books that delve into the rich world of Jewish Folklore. Looking toward’s classics, I recommend picking up a copy of Zlateh the Goat by IB Singer, with fantastic illustrations by Maurice Sendak. I write about the book in Dreidels on the Brain, as it was my earliest inspiration to become a storyteller. Just check out this picture of “The First Schlemiel.”
As for modern collectors and writers of Jewish Folktales, none can compare to Howard Schwartz, past winner of the Sydney Taylor book award. Both his story collections and picture books are wonderful.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
GS: I do my best to ignore trends, so I’m going for a long shot: Beis Hillel Werewolves vs. Beis Shamai Vampires Paranormal Romance.
ME: I think we will have more picture book biographies of major and minor Jewish figures, like Debbie Levy’s marvelous, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark , this year’s Sydney Taylor Award winner. I predict there will more books—picture books, middle grade, and young adult–that emerge from the multicultural parts of the Jewish community like Paula J. Freedman’s My Basmati Bar Mitzvah. I think we will continue to have books that explore Jewish history, our immigrant past, the State of Israel, and the Shoah. These new books will peer into corners of those experiences where we have not been before, like Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man, or Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale.
JBI: I think that recent catastrophic political events will have a marked influence on Jewish kids lit. Storytellers in general—and Jewish storytellers in particular – have long taken a stand against the forces of ignorance and arrogance. With political leadership in direct opposition to the most important Jewish values—”welcome the stranger,” “act with humility,” “treat all people with dignity,” and “be a mensch,” to name a few—I’ll expect Jewish writers for kids and adults to stand up for these values, on behalf of Jews and non-Jews alike.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
GS: I’m just going to keep on writing stories that speak to me and hope they speak to other people as well. I’ve got several irons in the fire—drafts of novels, a huge epic play about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and even a developing idea for a television show…
RM: The next step is my book The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew, which will soon be featured on the wonderful The Whole Megillah blog!!! I am also finishing the follow-up collection to More Money than God, my last poetry collection for adults; the core of the new collection is a series of poems reinterpreting the Haggadah.
ME: I am about to begin a revision of a middle grade novel I started several years ago. I am still intrigued with the story’s possibilities. I can’t wait to dig in. I will fiddle with my inventory of stories, stirring the pot. I will take a step most days towards creating something I call #studioscrawls, which I post on Instagram and Facebook. It’s my personal idea lab.
JBI: I go back and forth between telling stories and writing, so I’ll be looking forward to performing more. I have some ideas floating around for books as well, though I’m still deciding which ones are ready to put in writing.
Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (SJ/LF): It’s not flashy! We hope to continue to create artwork for stories written by and about people of all races, ethnicities, social class and experience. We hope to continue to grow and learn and challenge ourselves as artists.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
Brian Karas (BK): My Jewish in-laws of 20+ years made me “Honorary Jew” despite my non-Jewish background (a joke of course). I learned a lot about Jewish life in that time, so I had a head start on insights when working on A Hat for Mrs. Goldman. For me though, the book isn’t so much about Jewish life as it is about the spirit of mitzvahs. I love that Mrs. Goldman lives by that notion. And what better way to share your love than to knit someone a hat or scarf to keep you warm?
JBI: When I decided it was finally time to share a story I had heard at age 12, and treasured since then, I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it now. Over time—and a lot of writing and rewriting—I think I’ve come to see why I told this story: It’s about finding light in the darkness.
And I think that’s my realization—all our stories are about that same thing: finding light in the darkness. It’s as though we’re somehow writing footnotes to that legend of the shards and the sparks, sifting through to find those that will catch on. And while it’s always important, it’s especially important now.
Andrea Davis Pinkney (ADP): I’d often heard that many Jews changed their names as a means of assimilation, but when I researched the life and times of children’s book creator Ezra Jack Keats, I truly saw discrimination’s impact. Ezra was born the son of struggling Polish immigrants. His birth name was Jacob Jack Ezra Katz. He was proud of this name. When Jacob returned to Brooklyn after serving in World War II, he could not find a job. There were signs in windows saying “Jews Need Not Apply.” When Ezra changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats, he no longer faced job prejudice, and was able to find work as a comic book artist. While employment was a good thing, the very notion that Ezra was forced to hide his heritage to be able to support himself, is very upsetting. Ezra had experienced what it meant to marginalized. This was one of the reasons he so successfully incorporated people from all races and backgrounds into his books, and it’s why those books continue to stand the test of time, and are still beloved today.
SJ/LF: We already knew a great deal about historic and contemporary Jewish life, so we didn’t learn a ton of new insights. Primarily, we focused on authenticity in our art and honoring the legacy of Ezra Keats.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Adam Gidwitz (AG): When I was a kid, we used to sit around the dinner table and play what I now refer to as the “Jewish” Game. The game would start unexpectedly, usually when I was telling my parents about some fascinating figure from history that I learned about in school. “Guys, I read something amazing today by Sigmund Freud.” At which point my mom would interrupt: “Jewish,” she would say. And then I was free to continue. Or sometimes I would be asking a question: “Did Ralph Lauren invent the polo shirt? Is he even a real person?” “A real person? Yes, he is, and his real name is Ralph Lifschitz. Jewish.” I suppose, to an outsider, this game might have been marginally offensive. It wasn’t that Jews were the only smart ones. (“Darwin?” I’d ask, hopefully. My mother would just shake her head like we, as a tribe, had missed an opportunity.) The point of the “Jewish Game,” I think, was that my parents wanted me to see myself reflected among the most educated, the hardest working, and, yes, the smartest. But the hidden message of the “Jewish Game”, the one that was never stated, and was never forgotten, was that there were some Jews worth talking about over dinner.
My mother wanted me, of course, to be someone worth talking about over dinner. She figured that law school was the surest path for me to get there. When I quit full-time teaching, at the age of 25, to pursue a career in writing books for children, she was hopeful that this little interlude would give me a chance to fill out law school applications. When my first book got published, she was slightly perturbed, concerned that this would delay the start of my law career. And when my book first hit the Bestseller list, she took me aside, very somberly, and said, “Does this mean you’re not applying to law school?”
What does the Sydney Taylor award mean to me? It means that maybe, in some household somewhere in America, and child will say to her parents, “I’m reading an amazing book called The Inquisitor’s Tale! It’s by this guy, Adam Gidwitz.” And her parents will nod and sagely say, “Jewish.” Also, now, maybe, my mother will finally put the whole law school thing to rest.
GS: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place on the planet then a well-stocked library. To see my work accepted and celebrated by such a redoubtable organization of Jewish libraries, no less, is, in a certain way, like the best kind of homecoming.
RM: I have been privileged to have been awarded both the Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medals previously and it is always an honor. I try to stay abreast of what is being published in the Jewish children’s book marketplace, but every year I discover gems I’ve missed, so I take the committee’s recommendations seriously, and consider myself fortunate when one of my books is singled out. We writers publish to find a readership, and those AJL stickers on the books certainly help. That said, awards are a nice temporary sugar high, but they do not change anything essential when you are facing the next white piece of paper or blank computer screen– you are back to struggling with yourself; and finding the perfect word is just as difficult each and every time regardless of prior recognition. I can promise all aspiring writers out there, that a Sydney Taylor Medal does not mean your next book will automatically be snapped up by a publisher (and if you are hoping for untold riches, you are plowing the wrong field). One can only get back to work on the next manuscript—and make it the very best you possibly can– so that you don’t let down all those the wonderful and dedicated AJL librarians.
ME: It means a lot to mean. Receiving the Sydney Taylor Honor feels like what I imagine it might feel like to be in command of a tiny boat struggling to the shore, and to be surprised by a bright hopeful and helpful beam from a far away lighthouse. The Honor Award is an affirmation of both my story and Brian’s soulful illustrations, and it is a wonderful feeling to hold onto that positive light as I head into my studio.
BK: It’s meaningful to me in that it recognizes books that authentically portray the Jewish experience. As an artist, authenticity is something I strive for. It’s impossible that I can ever truly know how someone else feels, but I can learn about them and their culture so that their experiences are relatable to mine. I know what happiness or sadness feels like, whatever the circumstances.
ADP: Sydney Taylor’s legacy is one that carries such sparkling beauty—such kid-friendly storytelling. So many threads that bring readers from a multifaceted tableau of backgrounds and cultures together. It’s what every writer aspires to—the chance to unify, to inspire! And so, for this writer to have a book honored in Sydney Taylor’s name, is a true gift.
SJ/LF: If it results in more kids seeing this book, if it brings more children to write and tell their stories or to make art, if it spreads the word on a broader scale that literature matters now and forevermore, well, winning this award means that we’re part of a very, very cool, celebratory happening.
TWM: And now for the final question for today’s discussion: Will anything be different now that your work has been recognized by the Sydney Taylor Book Award?
ADP: Absolutely. Like the stories of African Americans whose heritage and culture are vital strands of history, so are the narratives of Jewish people. I hope to bring more of these stories into future writings.
GS: Hopefully the award will carry my work to new readers, but for me, the job is always the same: tell the best story I can, and make it true.
ME: I am not sure. For now, I plan to do the same thing I have done most every day for decades. I will go to my studio and work.
JBI: Dreidels on the Brain is about my forblondjet family, how we never fit in, and how I somehow survived Hanukkah 1971. Never while I was writing did it occur to me that my family’s mishegoss would someday be linked to her All-of-a-Kind family.
It’s a great honor—and a great gift as well, a sense of fitting in that I’d long since given up having. Thank you.
The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion. Readers, please check out the preceding blog tour and get to know these winners and their works even better—their techniques, their approaches, their inspirations. And thanks to all the wonderful bloggers who volunteered their time and space to interview these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.