Archive for September, 2009
I have been busily reading and reviewing the many books I receive for Sydney Taylor Award consideration. I will write about the many Holocaust books I have read in a separate blog. Today, I want to write about the frustrations of someone who reviews books for Jewish values content. This is definitely a carry over from my bookselling days. Some things never change I guess.
It is always fascinating to me how publishers seem to overlook the Jewish community when they publish books. The Jewish people are known as “The People of the Book.” We have earned this designation because of our love of and loyalty to the Torah (the Five Books of Moses, The Pentateuch, the first five book of the Bible), also, because of our love and loyalty to learning, literacy, reading and education. Jews buy books. It has always been my experience that if you tell a Jewish community about a good book, they will rush to read it, many to buy it.
While it can be quite easy to make a book appropriate for the Jewish community, it can be just as easy, with a simple word or illustration, to make it inappropriate. I want to share with you three examples of books I recently read that illustrate my point.
The Story of Queen Esther. Jenny Koralek. Illustrated by Grizelda Holderness. Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers. 2009.
How exciting to receive a new book about the Purim story. How disappointing to read it and find an illustration that is inappropriate for a Jewish audience and a change in the text that also makes it unacceptable to the Jewish community. The book is unpaginated so I will refer to text to lead you to the proper pages.
On the eleventh page of the story it reads, “For three days and three nights Esther and Mordecai ate and drank nothing.” The illustration shows both Mordecai and Esther kneeling as they pray for “help” and “courage.” Jews do not kneel when they pray. Many other faiths do, but not the Jewish people.
We read on to the twelfth page, “When he saw her coming before him uninvited, his face blazed in anger – and Esther fainted./ Then the king remembered how much he loved her. He leapt to his feet and took her in his arms.” Unfortunately, this is not how the Hebrew text of the story reads at all. In fact, this is a rewrite of the Megillah text, which reads, “As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor. The king extended to Esther the golden scepter which he had in his hand, and Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.” (Esther 5:2) No anger, no fainting. A midrashic version would “fill in the blanks” of the text. Perhaps it would say that as Esther stood waiting she felt like fainting. Or when the king saw Esther he was first upset, thought “what is she doing here?” and then remembered his love for her. The text itself does not reveal anger or fainting. Queen Esther was not a damsel in distress at this moment. She had a plan and she was in the process of implementing it.
Faith. Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakassis, Cynthia Pon.Charlesbridge, 2009.
Another example, a beautiful book, filled with exquisite photographs of children and families around the world celebrating their faith traditions in every possible way. Girls and boys from every tradition are presented in these pictures – except Judaism. All the pictures of Jewish ritual, are of traditional Jews or boys, with two exceptions. A grandFATHER showing his granddaughter how to make challah (a traditionally woman’s role) and in the far back of the book, in the “Words to Know” section, there is a picture of a very young girl waving a lulav for Sukkot. Nine pictures of Jewish rituals. Two with girls, all the rest, only men or boys and of those, three are pictures of Haredi males. A book like this, representing the different denominations of faith all over the world, including different forms of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc., with pictures of women as priests, boys and girls praying and working together within and across faith traditions, should also take into account the different forms of Judaism, especially for an American audience.
A Seed Was Planted. Toulla Palazeti. Illustrated by Pamela Barcita. Raven Tree Press, 2009.
Last but not least, here is a beautiful book I saw at BookExpoAmerica (the publishing industry trade show) and wanted to review for my catalog. I imagined it would be a wonderful Tu B’shevat title. It really would have, except for one illustration. On the page that reads, “The teacher pots a tiny sapling as a gift for his friend,” the teacher has a bowl of candy next to his sofa that has a candy cane in it and a bag next to the bowl has green and red tissues and ribbons coming out of it. Still, nothing in the picture says exactly what the tree is a gift for. The following page shows the tree in a pot surrounded by presents with all colors of wrapping paper and bows, the tree’s pot has a big, beautiful purple bow on it. Lovely. Fine. Unfortunately, the tree is decorated with colorful ornaments on its branches. It has been turned into a Christmas Tree! With that one illustration, this perfect book is no longer acceptable for a Jewish audience.
I know I seem to be nitpicking. I am nitpicking. That’s my job. It is these little things—kneeling in prayer, a lack of Jewish diversity, Christmas ornaments—that make the difference between a book being acceptable to the Jewish community or unacceptable, that enable me to recommend a book to my audience or make me throw it on the unacceptable pile. It really is that small and that simple, or that big and that complicated, depending on how you look at it.
Three books, three reviews, three missed opportunities to reach a larger buying audience because editors failed to take the sensitivities of potential Jewish readers into account. As a result, I am unable to recommend either of these books to the Jewish libraries and schools who seek my advice for book purchases. Perhaps it’s time for publishers to identify someone with expertise in this area to vet these manuscripts prior to publication. I would love to be able to recommend more books to my readers.
My website launched on September 9, 2009. When I picked that day, I did so because it seemed like a good date. Before the High Holidays. After Labor Day. Just as school was beginning. As summer was ending. Plus I like all those nines in the date: 09-09-09. It just sounded, well…cool.
I have been cleaning out my files and found a letter I wrote to everyone I had been working with in the Jewish community back on 05-30-01. I was explaining my reasons for closing forwordsbooks, the book fair and catalog business I had built from scratch and run for more than 11 years. Looking back, the answer was complex, involving a move across country, an exciting job offer and much more.
Here it is 09-09-09, 8 years later, and I am writing a blog to explain why I am re-launching forwordsbooks. The answer is a bit simpler this time. I miss the books.
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Book Review | Passover Around the World
by Tami Lehman-Wilzig
Illustrated by Elizabeth Wolf. © 2007, Kar-Ben Publishing. This is a lovely book explaining the different ways that Passover is celebrated in various countries throughout the world. The customs are so varied that I believe that matzah may be the only unifying factor in the celebrations! Nonetheless this book provides students with a number of [...]
Book Review | Rebecca’s Journey Home
by Brynn Olenberg Sugarman
This book describes in wonderful detail and with beautiful illustrations the many steps the Stein family had to take in order to adopt a child from Vietnam. It describes how Le Thi Hong would become Rebecca Rose and then Rivka Shoshana. It describes how she would be Vietnamese, American and Jewish. It also describes her [...]