The Whole Megillah (TWM): What is PJ Our Way? What is its mission?
Catriella Freedman (CF): PJ Our Way is the next chapter of our free Jewish children’s book program, PJ Library, for kids ages 9-11. It’s designed to meet the developmental needs of older kids by letting them choose their own books each month, and by creating a platform to express themselves by encouraging them to post book reviews, ratings, and blog comments on the PJ Our Way website.
Its mission is to engage independent readers with high-quality books that have positive Jewish content. With PJ Our Way chapter books and graphic novels, kids can read about contemporary Jewish life, Israeli history, Jewish history, and Jewish ideas in a way that brings them into the larger conversation. Here are the books we’ve offered in the program so far.
TWM: How and why did it come about?
CF: PJ Library is such a wonderful and effective book program that engages the whole family in Jewish life. Many of our families and community partners felt that this positive experience shouldn’t end at age 8. So Harold Grinspoon (the founder and major funder of PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation) saw an opportunity to continue to reach and engage families with great books by expanding PJ Library through age 11.
As a result of his vision, PJ Our Way started as a pilot program in 10 communities in October 2014. In October 2016, the program became available nationally to all eligible kids. Now kids can sign up starting at age eight-and-a-half, and there are almost 20,000 kids around the country enjoying the program!
TWM: How is the distribution of books different from books for younger readers?
CF: Unlike PJ Library where a specific book arrives automatically each month, kids in PJ Our Way get to choose their monthly books via our website, www.pjourway.org. Everything in the program is designed with the idea of putting kids in the driver’s seat—they need to be active in order to be engaged. Knowing that we can’t predict exactly how many kids will choose a specific book, we print many of our titles on demand (POD) once the orders have been received.
TWM: What kinds of books are you looking for?
CF: Page turners! Since PJ Our Way subscribers choose their books each month, the subject doesn’t matter as much as the pace and having stories and plots that kids can relate to, whether historical fiction or contemporary. Currently we are looking for more books with boy protagonists, written for a younger audience (ages 8-10). Great books for this age seem to be in short supply, and our book selection rates show that boys tend to choose books with male characters while girls tend to be more flexible in their book selections.
We get a lot of submissions with Holocaust themes, and for this age group we don’t consider books set in the camps or ghettoes; our Holocaust content needs to have a hopeful message.
TWM: How are you integrating kids’ feedback?
CF: In all ways! After going through our book selection process, every book we offer in PJ Our Way is first vetted by kid reviewers from all over the country. We take their feedback very seriously. They will often raise an issue with a book that we may have overlooked, and we will raise those issues with the publishers and change actual text when possible. When we were considering the manuscript of The Six Day Hero by Tammar Stein, we ran it through a group of six tweens who shared important feedback with Tammar; she took their comments very seriously and made changes to the plot accordingly. It since has become a Junior Library Guild selection, and we are excited to be offering it as a PJ Our Way selection in May 2017. When deciding whether to offer a book a second or third time, we carefully review the kid feedback and ratings on the website for that book.
TWM: Are you accepting manuscripts? If so, how can writers submit?
CF: Yes! And we have great news! We are currently offering a $2,000 author incentive award for accepted manuscripts in addition to any payments made by a publisher. Potential authors can read our submission guidelines and send manuscripts to firstname.lastname@example.org. The author incentive opportunity is available through December 2018.