Read about the blog tour and all 2018 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 Richard Michelson and illustrator Karla Gudeon for The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew
- For Older Readers—Alan Gratz for Refugee
- For Teen Readers—Author Antonio Iturbe and translator Lilit Thwaites for The Librarian of Auschwitz
- For Younger Readers
- For Older Readers
- For Teen 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?
Richard Michelson (RM): Since I had the honor of contributing to your blog at this time last year (for Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy) my answer is not very different. I always read the yearly AJL recommendations and am never disappointed I keep up as well with the latest offerings by my Western MA friends and neighbors (and it has been a busy year for all of them)—Leslea Newman, Barbara Goldin Diamond (both of whom will be on a panel with me at this year’s convention), Jane Yolen, Heidi Stemple, and Mordicai Gerstein. And though not a kid’s book, I just reread Julius Lester’s Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, and I recommend it to everyone. It was just as relevant and moving as it was 30 years ago.
Fawzia Gilani-Williams (FGW): As a child I loved the stories of the prophets of G-d, such as Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Jonah, peace be upon them. I would recommend them for their empowering messages of peace, justice, forgiveness and love for G-d. Of course there are many other types of story that I enjoy but generally I’m most inclined towards children’s stories that have enlightening and transformational messages.
Jacqueline Jules (JJ): I am a big fan of Howard Schwartz, Eric Kimmel, and Barbara Diamond Goldin.
Madelyn Rosenberg (MR): I suppose saying the other books on this list is too obvious? I’m a faithful fan of Daniel Pinkwater and Laurel Snyder. My TBR pile this year includes Erica Perl’s new All Three Stooges and Elissa Brent Weissman’s upcoming The Length of a String.
Katherine Locke (KL): I am still reveling over The Inquisitor’s Apprentice by Chris Moriarty. It was so magical and real and I love books that can live in both of those spaces. And to have it built around Jewish immigrants and familiar Jewish families tapped into a little corner of my heart. I’ve been thinking about this book for months since reading it.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Alan Gratz (AG): It’s so hard to say what will trend. Trends in kidlit are often organic. One fantasy novel or paranormal romance or dystopian story hits it big, and soon there’s a “trend” following on its coat tails. One trend that I’ve accidentally found myself a part of right now is a real desire among young people to read more about World War II—and particularly the Holocaust. My 2013 Holocaust novel Prisoner B-3087 was right at the forefront of this trend, and within a year of its publication I had received more fan mail about it from young readers than for all my previous six books combined. As far as i can see, the trend toward reading these books is still going strong. As World War II and the Holocaust grow farther and farther away, I worry that the stories and the lessons of that time will grow fainter. But for now, at least, young people seem committed to remembering.
FGW: Well, the internet has brought some amazing changes. Electronic classrooms have sprouted all over the place and there’s also the constant development of interactive electronic media. I think these new platforms are challenging authors and publishers to adapt to new forms of literary knowledge and creative writing.
JJ: I’ve never been very good at predicting trends. I’ve been excited by many a story idea which took years to find a home in the market. But I hope that in the future, there will be renewed interest in Jewish folktales. Folktales have entertained people of all ages for centuries because they offer essential wisdom and emotional comfort.
Yevgenia Nayberg (YN): We will be seeing strong female characters, both historical and fictional.
MR: Trends come and go so I don’t consider diversity a trend. More of a collective consciousness? But there are many types of Jews—in the way we look, in the way we speak, in the way we practice Judaism, in the way we live a Jewish life. Literature is going to reflect that. There are many types of stories, too: humor, romance, science fiction, etc., and there is room for all of them in Jewish literature.
Wendy Wan-Long Shang (WS): I didn’t come up with this thought—I think Meg Medina did—but it bears repeating. It’s not good enough to just tell a good story—the story also has to be relevant. I think children’s literature tackles some of the toughest issues out there—talking about race, resistance, gender equality and identity.
KL: I am really excited to see more intersectional Jewish stories! I want stories out there about disabled Jews, LGBTQIA+ Jews, Jews of Color, Jews who converted, etc. I think those are essential parts of the Jewish experience that we should be sharing with readers.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
RM: Last year I got to mention that the next step was my book The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew! This year I have no children’s books on the horizon, but I just finished the follow-up collection to More Money Than God, my poetry collection for adults, and I have a new music theater piece on the life of the artist Edvard Munch.
FGW: I’m interested in collaborating on projects that focus on character education theory and literature-based character education. I also would like to visit more schools and share aspects of positive education along with my stories. I’m working on the Islamic fairy tales series and stories that are multicultural.
JJ: I am looking forward to the publication of Light the Menorah: A Hanukkah Handbook in August 2018. It will be published by Kar-Ben and illustrated by the award winning Kristina Swarner. In addition to history, rituals, activities, songs, and recipes, Light the Menorah: A Hanukkah Handbook contains a poem for each night of Hanukkah. Every poem is accompanied by a short reading. It is my hope that these poems and readings will enhance the spirituality of family celebrations by providing an extra moment of reflection during the candle-lighting ceremony. Hanukkah can be much more than presents. It can be a time when we reflect on our values and our hopes for the future.
YN: I am finishing my first book as an author/illustrator—Anya’s Secret Society (Charlesbridge 2019) and working on my next children’s book about immigration and Russian language.
Susan Krawitz (SK): I’m finishing an adult novel and embarking on another journey with Rose. Her family history offers yet another too-wild-to-be-true story, and I’m really looking forward to getting her in trouble again.
MR: For me the next step is the same as the first step: To write.
Kathy Kacer (KK): I continue to write stories with the goal of connecting the next generations of young people with the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust. I have two new books in the works. The first one (coming out in February, 2018) is called The Sound of Freedom and tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman who founded what became the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra by saving hundreds of Jewish musicians from across Europe. The second book tell the story of the famed mime artist Marcel Marceau who saved about 150 Jewish children by helping smuggle them out of France and into Switzerland. That one will be out in March 2019.
It’s no surprise that we have lost too many Holocaust survivors and the window of opportunity to find and record their stories is quickly closing. And there are a lot of remarkable stories out there that need to be told! My job is to keep telling them.
KL: I’m excited for the second Balloonmakers book to release this fall, The Spy with the Red Balloon, about two Jewish-American siblings who are recruited to use magic on the Manhattan Project. When they uncover a spy, their mission is thrown into jeopardy. And by the time readers read this blog post, I’ll have taken my first trip to Budapest to research two different books I’m hoping to write. And I’m really excited about It’s A Whole Spiel (Knopf, Fall 2019). I’m co-editing this anthology of Jewish YA stories by Jewish YA authors with Laura Silverman, author of Girl out of Water. There are so many exciting things on the horizon.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
FGW: My imagination was sparked to draw upon the common love that the Abrahamic faiths have for G-d. Yaffa and Fatima are Jewish and Muslim and loyal to their interpretation of serving the Almighty. They are both industrious individuals who reflect the kind of compassion and selflessness that make the world a better place. “Love thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) is commonly quoted by Christians but its origin is actually Jewish. Similarly, the Qur’an also encourages kindness to neighbors, “Worship God and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to … the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away …” (4:36). I think the message of universal neighborliness needs to flourish because it sews the seeds of peace and goodwill. I think one of the loveliest things I read while doing some background reading for the story was of Muslims participating in the Passover celebration with Jews in Jerusalem. I thought it was beautiful.
JJ: Rabbi Akiva’s moment of truth, when he realizes that his mind is not harder than a rock and he can learn, little by little, just as water gradually wears down stone, is a stunning metaphor. Jewish texts brim with poetic language. As a poet myself, I find this inspirational.
SK: I did a lot of research for Viva, Rose! and was fascinated to learn how widely Jews had settled in the west by 1915, the time of my novel’s setting. Jewish people played a large and largely under-sung role in western settlement while working to maintain cultural and religious identity.
Also, though I’d had formal religious schooling as I was growing up, I never really had a very broad understanding of Jewish spiritual and humanitarian concepts. During research for the book, I was surprised and delighted to learn about the Jewish concept of welcoming the stranger, and to discover, as I dug into the lives of the real-life people who inspired the story, the ways Rose’s family seems to have lived these beliefs. I’d heard via family stories that her parents had welcomed all kinds of people into their home, especially new immigrants, and a 1910 census seems to confirm it. Of the 12 people living in their house, half were recorded as nuclear family and the other half boarders. Perhaps they did this for income, though they’re listed as owning the home, and Sol, the patriarch, had a couple of jobs. I like to think that this shows a living, practicing belief that the creation of a socially-just world can start in your own home.
WS: I was aware of some similarities between Jewish and Chinese culture, but I learned more about historical ties as a result of doing background research for this book. I had been vaguely aware that China was a safe haven during the Holocaust, but I did not know that Jews have actually lived in China for centuries.
Tammar Stein (TS): I spent six months researching the Six Day War before I wrote a single word of my novel: scholarly explorations on the causes that led to the war and the effects of its aftermath, Israeli newspaper articles from 1967 that showed me how the war unfolded, day by day “in real time,” and interviewing people with first-hand experience with the war, either as Israeli soldiers, as Israeli children, or as young American watching with fear and pride as Israel defended itself.
It took real courage to withstand the growing tension, the sense of isolation and vulnerability, and not give in to panic or defeatism. The Jews in Israel came up with a brilliant military plan that is still studied in military academies today. The Jews in the United States came together to donate historic levels of funds that provided critical support for Israel. It’s inspiring how Jews all over the world supported each other, bolstering morale and changing each other’s self-image.
KK: This book follows the journey of a young activist, Jordana Lebowitz as she travels to Germany, at the age of 19, to observe the trial of Oskar Groening, one of the last Nazi war criminals to stand trial for his crimes in Auschwitz. Jordana is a passionate young Jewish woman—someone who is determined to preserve the important history of the Holocaust for her generation and someone who is determined to spread the world about combating intolerance wherever it exists. I have watched Jordana engage with teenagers and talk to them about speaking up about injustice in the world, thinking about how to be a leader in their community, envisioning a place for themselves in developing a more just future. These are not qualities that are only applicable to Jewish life. But they are qualities that all young people—and those not so young—need to continue to embrace.
KL: I thought a lot about how how memory and identity work together on Jewish identity. By that I mean, how does my grandfather’s experience influence how I see myself? How does my Jewish identity affect my siblings’ Jewish identities? How does my identity and my family’s memories change or affect the community around me in both Jewish and not Jewish spaces? I don’t know that I reached conclusions, but those became the central spaces I sought and found in the writing of The Girl with the Red Balloon. Now those are the places where I start with my new works-in-progress.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
RM: The Sydney Taylor Award means that the smartest and nicest people on the planet—Jewish Librarians—find what you are doing worthwhile. And it means the book will have a longer shelf life-span, which is especially important for this book, which has a niche market; maybe some people will pick it up who aren’t necessarily interested in the subject (they will be after reading the book, of course). But in the end, nothing is ever really different after an award; you still have to face the same blank sheet of paper (computer screen) the next day. The struggle is always with yourself, and the rewards must come from within as well.
Chiara Fedele (CF): This award means a lot to me. The book that I illustrated is a beautiful story of peace suitable for the historical moment we are experiencing. Rewarding this book is rewarding the idea of peace.
JJ: Twenty-five years ago, I daydreamed about having my first book for Jewish children published. Like Akiva’s doubts regarding his ability to learn to read, I worried I would never find a publisher for my first book, let alone the many which have come since 1995, when The Grey Striped Shirt was published. To be recognized with a fourth silver medal for my work by the Sydney Taylor Awards committee is more than a dream come true. It is amazing. Pinch me!
YN: This is my second Sydney Taylor (the first one was Notable Book for The Wren and The Sparrow). I belong to the last wave of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. It would have not been possible to create Jewish books like these ones where I come from. I was very lucky to land these projects and it is a great honor to be recognized for them.
SK: I’m a debut author but am incredibly fortunate to have had a previous experience with the Sydney Taylor awards as Viva, Rose! won the manuscript award in 2015. I credit this honor with connecting me with my agent, and then with Holiday House for publication. When I attended the AJL’s annual conference to accept the award I got to meet the vibrant community of book-lovers who make up this organization. After so many years of typing alone in a room, what a delight to connect with the AJL!
So clearly, I’m overjoyed that Viva, Rose! was named a Sydney Taylor Honor book as well. It’s an opportunity to show the success of the manuscript award, which was created to help lift books out of an editor’s manuscript slush-pile, and a positive confirmation of the thoughtful, diligent work performed by manuscript award committee chair’s Aileen Grossberg and her dedicated team (it’s obvious that Susan Kusel’s Book Award crew are equally as amazing).
I love the award’s reach, and the fact that they help books find readers in both the Jewish community and beyond. I’m also very much looking forward to going to the conference again, this time with Viva, Rose! in-hand, printed and bound.
WS: Receiving the Sydney Taylor Honor for This is Just a Test shows me that readers have an appetite and appreciation for the astonishing diversity of stories that exist within Judaism. I hope that the story of a Jewish-Chinese kid growing up in the ’80s will reach more readers, as either a window or a mirror, as a result of the Sydney Taylor award, and that more writers of different backgrounds might be emboldened to tell their stories.
MR: Growing up, I knew more Jewish girls in the All-of-a-Kind-Family than I knew in my hometown. Sydney Taylor’s books were my first mirror and to get an honor with her name on it for a book that will (we hope!) be someone else’s mirror is amazing. Publishing isn’t easy. As writers we have to keep bucking ourselves up, telling ourselves, “we can do this, we can do this.” For me, getting an honor from a committee of librarians who truly know Jewish literature is a little like having those librarians whisper, “you can.”
TS: It’s an incredible honor that The Six-Day Hero won a Sydney Taylor Honor medal. The Sydney Taylor is basically the “Jewish Newbery.” It was chosen by librarians who love books, who have dedicated their lives to celebrating books and getting them into readers’ hands. I’ve always felt the books that the Sydney Taylor chooses are the best of what Jewish children’s literature has to offer and I’m over the moon that my novel is now part of that cadre.
KK: It’s such a thrill for me to receive this honor, and to be recognized in this way by the Association of Jewish Libraries. I see this award as an opportunity to continue to spread the word about my writing and to continue to reach as many young people as I possibly can through my stories. I live in Canada and am able to travel across my country visiting schools and libraries and talking to students. The Sydney Taylor honor enables me to reach beyond the border and influence an even larger audience of readers. That is a huge gift and huge responsibility. I take both seriously and am grateful for this opportunity!
KL: It means a lot to me. I’ve used the Sydney Taylor Book Award lists for several years to guide my own reading, and especially to find Jewish children’s literature from smaller presses or outside the mainstream book community’s conversation. I am so honored to be on this list, and so proud to be in this company.
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?
AG: I think so, yes! The Sydney Taylor Book Award is the first major award I’ve ever won for any of my books, and I think in many ways it “puts me on the map” in the world of children’s literature. It’s a fantastic award that is recognized far beyond the Jewish library community, and will definitely bring me and Refugee greater respect and a broader audience.
FGW: In the field of child identity studies, the Sydney Taylor Award is a very special recognition. The award is likely to impact my future work on mirror books and window books by taking a more overt multicultural approach.
CF: I will continue my work as an illustrator with more passion. It is a great honor for me that I am a foreigner to be awarded in the USA.
JJ: The prestige of the Sydney Taylor award gives books a higher visibility in the librarian community at large. Any book which makes it to an award list has a better chance of being purchased by a library system. Since I am a librarian myself, it is very important to me to see my books available in school and public libraries.
YN: Right now I am researching the mystical Jewish tales of Eastern Europe. My hope is to write and illustrate a book inspired by those phantasmagorical stories.
KL: Yes, and no! It’s great to be able to say The Girl with the Red Balloon was honored this way, and it will open doors for me and this book to reach more readers. That is amazing and I am so grateful for that. But I also can’t stop here! I have to keep writing, and I want to keep writing. So onto the next book, and the book after that! Thank you to everyone on the Sydney Taylor Committee for their hard work and advocacy!
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.