You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour, the culmination of a full week of insightful and inspiring award-winning author and illustrator interviews.
Read about the blog tour and all 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.
The wrap-up and virtual roundtable
Imagine, if you will, a Zoom gallery filled with award winners poised to answer questions from the press. We have nine participants from among the gold and silver medalists:
- Picture Book—Author Susan Kusel and illustrator Sean Rubin for The Passover Guest
- Middle Grade—Author Veera Hiranandani for How to Find What You’re Not Looking For
- Young Adult—Author Aden Polydoros for The City Beautiful
- Author Nancy Churnin and illustrator Bethany Stancliffe for Dear Mr. Dickens
- Author Jeff Gottesfeld and illustrator Michelle Laurentia Agatha for The Christmas Mitzvah
- Author/illustrator Peter Sis for Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
- Author Gordon Korman for Linked
- Author/illustrator Eugene Yelchin for The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
- Author E. Lockhart and illustrator Manuel Preitano for Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero
- Author Hannah Reynolds for The Summer of Lost Letters
- Author Leah Scheier for The Last Words We Said
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?
Aden Polydoros: I recently had the pleasure of reading two Jewish fantasy novels—A Far Wilder Magic by Allison Saft and The Ghosts of Rose Hill by R.M. Romero, and am deeply looking forward to From Dust, a Flame by Rebecca Podos. (Photo courtesy Melanie Elise Photography, LLC)
Peter Sis: Red and Green-Blue and White, Lee Wind and Paul O. Zelinsky
E. Lockhart: For YA readers, I adore Ken Krimstein’s When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers. It’s stunning and moving graphic nonfiction—touching and relatable. For younger people, I’m a big fan of Erica S. Perl. Her middle-grade work, like All Three Stooges, is funny and sad and complex. Her picture books make kids fall over laughing. Chicken Butt! is my favorite. Ooh! And Sarah Mlynowski! Amazing hilarious middle-grade—the kids in her bestselling Whatever After series are Jewish, and her YA book Just a Boy and a Girl in a Little Canoe is set at an historically Jewish summer camp.
Hannah Reynolds: I’m so glad there are now so many more options that there were when I was growing up! To recommend other books in the young adult romantic comedy sphere (which I write in) I suggest As If on Cue by Marisa Kanter; Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler; and We Can’t Keep Meeting Like This by Rachel Lynn Solomon.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Jeff Gottesfeld: I continue to see more Jewish kidlit that is representative of the vast sweep of our people around the world. I hope that they are embraced as the crucial stories that they are, because we’ve got a long and varied history, and as equally promising a future. I suspect that we are going to see some of these books will also stress that no matter where in the world one is a Jew—the USA, Israel, Russia, Mexico, Argentina, France, Tajikistan, wherever, that person is connected to all other Jews, everywhere. That is a rare and sacred bond.
Eugene Yelchin: Last week, Chicago Tribune ran an opinion piece by Liza Lerner entitled, “Jews Belong in a Conversation About Racism,” in which she describes reading The Genius Under the Table with her eight-year-old daughter. When they come across a scene in which a plainclothes policeman insults the members of my family, Lerner’s daughter couldn’t understand how the antisemitic policeman knew that we were Jewish. The reason for the confusion, Lerner suggests, is the exclusion of antisemitism from the public discourse on racism in the United States. Lerner writes, “To defeat hate and racism, we cannot perpetually engage in comparative oppression—who has it worse? Whose experience counts? Antisemitism is alive and well, and it’s thriving in today’s America… So few are speaking out for us, but worse, few of us are speaking out for ourselves.” Lerner’s article feels convincing and timely. I cannot predict what trends are coming our way, but I hope a trend would emerge to encourage American Jewish authors to write candidly about antisemitism for all ages, including young readers.
Sis: I hope to see more books celebrating freedom, democracy and unity.
Lockhart: In terms of Jewish superheroes, I love seeing Arsenic on TV in Runaways. And Harley Quinn becoming a hero rather than a villain. Flash in Justice League, too. There are many Jewish heroes out there in the comics, but we’re starting to see them onscreen with their Jewish identity as an identifiable part of who they are.
Reynolds: We’ve already started to see a lot more variety in the Jewish kidlit being published, and I think that’s only going to increase in the next few years. I expect to see many more romantic comedies, historical fiction outside of the Holocaust, and contemporary fiction exploring different ways of being Jewish. I’m so glad there’s now more types of Jewish stories being told, and I’m excited to read them!
Leah Scheier: I hope more books about all kinds of Jews, religious and non-religious alike. My agent, Rena, is representing a book about an Orthodox teen boy. Isaac Blum’s debut novel, The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen, absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait to read it! Besides my book, I’m not aware of any books featuring Orthodox Jewish teenagers in traditionally published YA. So I’m so happy this one is coming out in the spring from Penguin.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Yelchin: My next book, a graphic memoir, which will also be published by the Candlewick Press, is a follow-up book to The Genius Under the Table. The second volume, however, is for YA and adult readers since its subject matter, the events leading up to my emigration from the Soviet Union, as well as the narrator’s age, I was 27 at the time, require more mature readership than my usual middle grade readers.
Sis: I am working on a project about immigration, about a little girl who comes to American at the end of the 19th century. I am also thinking about a project on Comenius who was the author of Orbis Pictus (one of the first illustrated children’s books).
Nancy Churnin: I have written 10 nonfiction picture books about people who inspire me that I hope will inspire kids to heal the world. I am going to continue to write about people like that—particularly focusing on hidden heroes and heroines like Eliza Davis—but I also want to expand my reach to different age groups. I am proud that I will be making my board book debut with Counting on Shabbat, a Shabbat counting book about kindness, with Joni Sussman at Kar-Ben Publishing in Fall 2023. I have been offered contracts on three more picture books—two for 2023 and one for 2024, but I also have a nonfiction middle grade passion project that I am researching with a Jewish theme. I look forward to making progress on that and then finding a good home for it.
Gottesfeld: I also did a picture book this past year about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier called Twenty-One Steps, which got a fair amount of attention. I’m going to do a couple more books on themes of the American military past and present, over the next couple of years. I’ve also got a title coming about the start of the food bank movement in the world, which is a remarkable story. On the Jewish kidlit front, I’ve got a couple of new manuscripts, but alas I find myself interested in Jewish subjects where we need to beware of a single story as Chimamanda Adichie said, as well as where angels fear to tread, so we’ll see if I can find the right publisher for them.
Lockhart: My novel Family of Liars (prequel to We Were Liars) comes out May 3, 2022.
Reynolds: My next book, Eight Nights of Flirting, comes out on October 25, 2022. It’s a young adult romantic comedy set during Hanukkah, born out of watching many Christmas movies and wishing there was a Jewish equivalent. It’s a standalone book, but there’s overlap with characters and the setting from The Summer of Lost Letters. Shira Barbanel can’t stand Tyler Nelson, but when they get snowed in together for a night, they strike a deal for the holiday season: Tyler will give Shira flirting lessons so she can catch her crush’s attention, if she helps him land an internship.
Polydoros: I actually have a few novels in the work. My dark Slavic fantasy novel, Bone Weaver, comes out in September 2022. While it doesn’t have Jewish representation, it does explore diaspora and religious persecution in a secondary-world fantasy, and the setting is somewhat modeled after the Pale of Settlement. I also have a middle-grade fantasy novel with a queer, Jewish protagonist coming out in Winter 2023, Ring of Solomon, and am currently working on another historical fantasy novel that I hope to have some news for in the coming weeks.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
Veera Hiranandani: For me, my books are an exploration into some aspect of my identity or family history. For this story, I wanted to understand more about the choices my parents and grandparents made which are similar to what the parents, Sylvia and Max, and the young couple, Leah and Raj, make in the book. I grew up close to my Jewish grandparents. It was so confusing to me since they were such devoted and loving grandparents, when I found out they had rejected my parents’ marriage at first. The more writing and research I did, I found myself empathizing with all of the characters, understanding why my grandparents felt the way they did, and becoming more connected to my own complex Jewish identity.
Polydoros: Having been raised in a rather secular interfaith family, I’ve struggled on and off with feeling not Jewish enough. Receiving this honor has been extremely validating, in that it’s further reminded me that I have a place in our community, and that my queer and Jewish identities don’t invalidate each other.
Churnin: Researching the history of the Jewish community in England gave me insights into the larger significance of Eliza Davis’s letters to Charles Dickens. I was stunned to learn that England had expelled their Jewish population in 1275, more than 200 years before the much better-known expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition in 1492. English law had demanded Jews older than seven wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments hundreds of years before the Nazis would require Jews to wear the yellow felt star. Long before people talked about how perception affects action, Eliza Davis realized that the ugly way Jewish people were portrayed in books by writers like Charles Dickens affected how the English community treated Jewish people. Dehumanizing depictions make it easier, psychologically, to justify segregating people and limiting their opportunities to fully and fairly participate in society.
By speaking up, much as Queen Esther spoke up to her king in defense of her people, Eliza made Charles Dickens see the injustice perpetuated by the stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. When Eliza inspired Charles Dickens to create his first kind Jewish character in Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend and he spoke up for Jewish people in his magazine, that changed hearts and minds. More just laws followed. As I write in my Author’s Note, it’s hard to imagine that the anti-Semitism that raged in England before Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens would have allowed what happened in 1939—the rescue of thousands of Jewish children through the Kindertransport. Words can change hearts ,minds, and history. As I write in my Author’s Note, “How fortunate we are that Eliza Davis bravely spoke up for justice and that Charles Dickens listened and used his powerful pen to make his readers listen too.”
Yelchin: The antisemitism was so deeply imbedded in the Soviet society that it had produced a feeling of shame, inadequacy, and insecurity in most of the Soviet Jews. My family comes from Ukraine, and the memory of the Nazi occupation that claimed the lives of my great-grandparents, the antisemitic purge of 1948-1953, and the antisemitic provocations following the Six Day War, which I describe in the book, created an atmosphere of constant anxiety and fear among us. I was certainly not exempt from those feelings. From the very early age, I too was made to feel less of a human than my Russian peers. When I came to the United States, I was only partially aware of the huge impact the Soviet-style antisemitism had left on my psyche. It took much work to become fully cognizant of it and many years to overcome it. Most of my self-healing materialized in the form of artmaking. In my paintings and my stories, I have been examining my past again and again until my efforts culminated in The Genius Under the Table. Working on that book, I became painfully aware that growing up in the atmosphere of the everyday antisemitism made me take it for granted, as if it was a natural order of things. As a result of that discovery, the ability to recognize and confront hatred and injustice became a major theme in the book.
Sis: I grew up in Prague, in Czech Republic. The hero of my book, Nicholas Winton, saved 699 children who left Prague on trains for London. He never talked about it and his name was revealed 50 years later on a TV show.
When I was working on Nicky & Vera, my friend from high school wrote to me that her older sister was one of the children supposed to be on the train but their mother did not have the heart to leave the little girl on the train going into the “unknown.” Shortly after that mother and daughter were deported to the Terezin concentration camp. They survived. My friend who, like me was born after the war, wrote “On plus side, if there were any, the fact my sister did not take her place on the train made it possible for another child to leave—so they both survived but under different conditions”
My friend’s letter and horrors of Holocaust in Prague, where different ethnic groups lived in peaceful democracy until the Nazi takeover in 1939, made the story of Nicky & Vera very palpable.
Lockhart: I had researched the history of New York’s Lower East Side for another project, and that knowledge influenced Whistle at every step, because I basically invented a neighborhood in Batman’s Gotham City that mirrors the LES—an historically Jewish neighborhood with a long history and many Jewish-owned businesses. I also spent time thinking about secular Jewish concepts of morality—and how my own path is influenced by it. I wanted my Jewish superhero to be thinking about tikkun olam.
Reynolds: The Summer of Lost Letters is set on Nantucket, and I wanted to invent a family that had lived there for generations—so I had to create a believable backstory to get them to the island in the early 1800s! I learned all about early Jewish settlers in the US, particularly New England Sephardic communities. I visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, the oldest standing synagogue in the US (built 1763). I learned about the New Bedford Jewish community, New Bedford being a Massachusetts whaling town with ties to Nantucket. And I learned about Nantucket’s Jewish community as well! It was all a ton of fun (my book is about teens doing historical research, so it’s no surprise I also love doing it).
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Hiranandani: It means more than I can say. I grew up reading the All- of-a-Kind series and it was one of the few books I read as a child where I could see at least one side of my family background portrayed in a story. My grandparents’ families immigrated to the Lower East Side from Poland and Russia. Even my grandmother’s name was Gertie, just like one of the sisters in the book. I used the books to learn more about the Jewish side of my family. Back then I would have never guessed that one day I’d grow up and win an award in Sydney Taylor’s name!
Polydoros: I hope other authors writing queer, Jewish books will feel emboldened, seeing a queer YA fantasy receive this award, and know that there is a place in publishing for them. As for myself, it’s made me even more determined to write these kinds of stories.
Churnin: Growing up, most of the heroes and heroines in the books I read were not Jewish; sadly I didn’t discover Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books until I was an adult. They would have made such a difference to me as a kid! I missed having those mirrors. I think that the lack of mirrors may have been one of the reasons I was very private about being Jewish—proud within my family and Jewish community, but private outside that community. The Sydney Taylor Book Awards have done so much good in encouraging and promoting books with Jewish characters and themes for kids. I am so proud that Dear Mr. Dickens will now be providing windows and mirrors for Jewish and non-Jewish children, inspiring them with the true story of a courageous Jewish woman who spoke up to someone in a position of power and persisted until she achieved change. I am thrilled that Dear Mr. Dickens is a Sydney Taylor Honor book, which gives it a spotlight that will encourage it to be seen and read more widely, but also that I have two Sydney Taylor Notables: A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah this year and Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing in 2019.
Gottesfeld: I have been a writer for a long time in many genres, including YA, television, and for the stage. But I still feel like a total rookie at picture books, since my first one only came out six years ago. To be in the company of breathtakingly accomplished authors like Peter Sis and Leslie Kimmelman, and to look upward to folks like Jane Yolen and Leslea Newman, is both an affirmation that I am on the right track, and a challenge to get better.
Yelchin: To have written a book that is recognized by the Association of Jewish Libraries as a work that “authentically portrays the Jewish experience” means that perhaps I am on the right track. I have always tried to make my stories about life in the former USSR as authentic and honest as I could possibly make them. Paradoxically, few Soviet Jewish emigres speak out publicly about their experiences in Russia, while many dismiss their unpleasant past as if it has no value for the Americans. I disagree. What we have lived through in the USSR needs to be known to the American readers of all ages so that they could recognize and oppose oppression when they come across it here at home.
Sis: I came to America and American children’s books late in my life. I became an illustrator
almost by chance. I am lucky my wife is American and loves books. So, she told me about her favorites—Sydney Taylor being one of them. I love the fact Sydney Taylor wrote her books for her daughter when living in Lower East Side and so did I when we lived down there where our daughter Madlenka was discovering the neighborhood.
Lockhart: I grew up with Sydney Taylor’s books. My eldest child was obsessed with them. I wrote All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah! I am so grateful to her stories and all they have given me.
Reynolds: I feel incredibly thankful to have received this honor. Abby—the heroine of The Summer of Lost Letters—has a family history similar to my own: granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, who rarely talk about their past. But Abby’s own story is still about bright curiosity and summer romance. Getting this honor award made that story feel validated—it’s okay to have love, humor, and traumatic history exist in the same space. The light can be just as powerful as the dark.
Scheier: While the novel is intended for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike, I hope the Sydney Taylor Award will bring it to the attention of Jewish educators and librarians and will give Jewish teens the pleasure of seeing their own community respectfully and accurately depicted. Representation is so important, especially now, with the rise in antisemitic speech and attacks in the USA and abroad.
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?
Hiranandani: When a writer’s work is fortunate enough to be recognized with a prestigious award, it’s extremely personally and professionally validating. You wonder, however, if it means you have a new set of expectations to live up to. Ultimately each new book I write has its own set of challenges and as I work through them, it always brings me back to where I started—trying to write the best story I can in the moment. That’s all anyone can do.
Churnin: Winning a Sydney Taylor Honor for Dear Mr. Dickens makes me feel supported in writing more books with Jewish characters and themes. Dear Mr. Dickens crosses many boundaries, just as the friendship between Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens did. I feel happy that winning this Jewish honor would have been especially gratifying to Eliza. I also love how people who come to the book through their love of Charles Dickens or their respect for the theme of speaking up and persisting, will always be reminded by the Sydney Taylor Honor that this is a story that is most accurately and beautifully seen through a Jewish lens.
Yelchin: Awards are excellent for building confidence in their recipients. They make us bold and decisive, and they discourage our natural desire to please, to entertain, to be polite in our work. One wants to aspire to write a book that has a chance to be banned, a book that jolts us out of our complacency, a book that changes our lives. Writing truthfully requires courage. I don’t know a better recipe for courage in writing than receiving recognition for it. The Sydney Taylor Honor Award gives me courage to continue working and a permission to dig deeper into myself and into my characters.
Sis: I hope more people will get to know the history through this book and take a note.
Lockhart: I don’t know! Maybe! I am very psyched that I get to go to the AJL conference and connect with the amazing community of Jewish librarians and authors.
Reynolds: I hope it means even more readers find their way to The Summer of Lost Letters. Also, I hope it helps readers recognize that Jewish books can be joyful and optimistic. I think those are important emotions for everyone—especially teens—to experience and to see as valid. And I think they’re emotions everyone can use more of these days.
Scheier: Honestly, I can’t get over how beautiful that seal looks on the cover. I can’t stop staring at it! I’ve always gravitated towards books with award seals on the cover, and I’m so honored that now my own book is in that company.
The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion and we congratulate all the Gold Medal, Silver Medal, and Notable award winners. 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 and give space to honor these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.