Remember the chapter in All-of-a-Kind Family when Charlotte and Gertie buy penny candy and sneak it into bed to nibble at night?
When they reached the candy store, the two little girls stood before the glass cases so full of chewy and sucking delights and could not make up their minds. It was most important that they get something exactly right for tonight's fun in bed. It was hard to choose when everything looked so tempting.That's how I felt when I joined the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee of the Association of Jewish Libraries, which just happens to be named in memory of the author of All-of-a-Kind Family. I was like a kid in a candy store, faced with overloaded shelves of literary delights.
Like Charlotte and Gertie, who finally settle upon chocolate babies as their top choice, I enjoyed the process of discussion and selection. For most of the year, we read and review 100+ Judaic kids' and YA books on our own. Around December, the real fun begins! That's when we begin a vigorous e-mail discussion about the merits and flaws of our contenders, about kid-appeal, about age appropriateness, and about the very definition of Jewish literature. A certain title may be both loved and hated by committee members, while others inspire complete accord. We play a balancing game between championing our favorite books, being sensitive to each other's opinions, and trying to choose titles that we will all feel proud to promote to readers as authentically representing the Jewish experience.
Some of the roadblocks that we've faced time and again on this committee are:
- the preponderance of Holocaust-related middle-grade literature and the dearth of contemporary Judaic themes for young readers
- a tendency among writers to project backwards, giving their modern child characters grandparents like those we remember, instead of like the grandparents of today (i.e. too many immigrant or Yiddish-speaking grandparents)
- too few Judaic books for really young children, and especially too few non-holiday picture books
In fact, this year's Sydney Taylor Book Award winners represent a mix of these trends. The winner in the Younger Readers' Category, The Bedtime Sh'ma, was published by EKS Publishing Co., a small press that specializes in books and materials for mastering Classical Hebrew, and this lovely, meditative title is accompanied by a companion CD. The winner in the Older Readers' Category, The Entertainer and the Dybbuk published by HarperCollins, is more traditional for our award: a Holocaust-related novel by a large publisher. Yet author Sid Fleischman's creativity raises the story above the ordinary by using ghosts, possession, and revenge and mixing these themes with humor! The winner in the Teen Readers' Category, Strange Relations published by Knopf, bucks the historical fiction trend by presenting us with a contemporary story that dares to address the relations between observant and non-observant Jews. The uniqueness of each of these books shows us that, despite some stumbling blocks, Judaic youth literature is continuing to push the boundaries.
So, here's to our chocolate babies, the winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards! May you get more delicious every year!