Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Identity’

And My Winners Are…

As the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee prepares to announce their 2010 award winners in the next few weeks, I thought I would post my hopes for the winning titles. As a former member of the Committee, I know how difficult a decision it is to choose one out of the many wonderful titles offered by publishers. This year is no exception.

I have spent the last couple  months locating, reading and reviewing most of the new Jewish titles published during this past year. My reviews for many of those books are or soon will be posted in the review section of my website. In trying to choose one “Best” book for each category, however, I looked to the books that stayed with me long after I had read them and to which I keep referring and recommending as the weeks have gone on. I have chosen these titles as my best for 2010.

Jewish Books for Younger Readers (Picture Books):

As usual, the picture book titles published during 2010 are, for the most part, about Jewish holidays (Hanukkah, Passover, Sukkot, etc.), bible stories or the Jewish immigrant experience. While there were a couple notable exceptions, my pick for the 2010 Best Jewish Book for Younger Readers is a book I cannot stop talking about and will be recommending to every parent I meet in the year ahead:

The Rooster Prince of Breslov by Ann Redisch Stampler. Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. ©2010, Clarion Books. Following her excellent, Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost and Something for Nothing, Ms. Stampler takes an 18th century, classic story from Reb Nachman of Breslov and gives it a contemporary twist that will open the eyes of many of today’s parents.

The young Prince of Breslov has had enough: “If he asked for a raisin, he was given a silver bowl of candied plums.” He has reached his tipping point, deciding to strip naked and become a rooster,  eating only the crumbs and corn people throw on the floor.

The king and queen, his parents, try discipline, doctors and magicians, to get him to change his behavior. Nothing works. Until a wise, old man comes to the palace, strips himself naked, gets on the prince’s level and actually LISTENS to and watches him. Slowly and gently, with the utmost patience, the wise old man  guides the prince back to humanity and transforms him into a mensch. The best part of the story is the wisdom and pride this outcome creates in the prince.

The illustrations are bright, brilliant and fantastic. Every page is a delight, capturing the story’s message in deeply powerful ways. I will read this to children of all ages, but mostly I will recommend it to adults as an excellent parenting manual. The Author’s Note at the back of the book is a must read.

Jewish Books for Older Readers (Middle Grades)

While I read a number of interesting books in this category, only one has stuck with me. I repeatedly recommend it to everyone I speak with about Jewish children’s books. My pick for the 2010 Best Jewish Book for Older Readers is:

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch. ©2010, Amulet Books. The tag line on the top of the book reads, “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl.”  How can anyone resist reading this fantastic graphic novel? For someone unfamiliar with the Orthodox community, every part of the Orthodox Jewish culture is explained either within the text or in a footnote. For many readers this is just another part of the fantasy world that is set up in this intriguing and captivating story about Mirka, an 11-year-old Orthodox girl, who longs to fight dragons rather than learn how to knit, cook or sew. As if her stepmother’s chores, lessons and arguments aren’t enough, a magic pig that seems bent on ruining her life torments her. Her adventures begin upon finding herself locked in battle with the pig, saving the pig from some bullies, becoming indebted to a witch, then facing a troll to earn her reward. Mirka learns the importance of her stepmother’s lessons from knitting to arguing. This great read with fabulous artwork will thoroughly capture the minds of children in this age group.

Jewish Books for Teen Readers (High School)

Of the three categories, this was the most exciting. These YA authors managed to really “think outside of the box” when choosing their subjects, characters, plots and themes. New twists on Holocaust stories, a modern midrash of the Purim story, a friendship that shares 9/11 and the Argentinean terrorist bombings,  a fantasy novel involving the Rothschilds, an Israeli-American family facing PTSD, Anne Frank’s diary, an unflinching history about the lynching of Leo Frank, incest in the ultra-Orthodox community were some of the subjects I read about in these excellent works. Choosing one has been a wrenching experience, but I am going to stick with my previous statement and go with the book I have been recommending most often to others. My pick for the 2010 Best Jewish Book for Teen Readers is:

Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman. ©2010, Scholastic Press. Sarah Littman is the author of Confessions of a Closet Catholic, winner of the 2006 Sydney Taylor Award. In this, her latest novel, she takes us to Argentina to meet Dani Bensimon and her family. The Bensimons are troubled: by the loss of Dani’s aunt (her father’s sister) in the terrorist bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, by her father’s depression as a result, by the recession in Argentina, by her father’s business closing which has further compounded his depression. When her mother takes a job, and is injured in a street riot on her way home from work, the decision is made that they must move to New York and start a new life.

Even though Dani’s family was well off in Argentina before the recession, and she is attending a rather well to do high school in her new city, she is now wearing hand-me-down clothes, living in a subsidized apartment and using lunch vouchers in the cafeteria. All on top of learning a new language and taking classes in that language, that she does not completely comprehend.  Dani quickly learns that she is not going to make friends easily.

However, she finds herself confronted with a situation where she must choose whether to stand up for another “different” student (a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome) against the school bully or turn and walk away. She decides to take the bully on.  When the Asperger’s student turns out to be the brother of one of the popular girls, her life suddenly begins to turn around. While Dani discovers the benefits of popularity, she also learns that being popular does not give you immunity from tragedy. Her new friend’s father was a victim in the 9/11 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center.

Whether empathizing with Dani’s betrayal by her Argentinian boyfriend, her rapture at the first kiss from her new American boyfriend, or realizing that Dani and Jess share the tragedy of losing a loved one to a terrorist bomb, the reader is present in each moment. The writing style weaves so many emotions into the story – fear, sadness, joy, shame, trepidation, jealousy,  determination, indignation – it’s a rollercoaster ride reading each scene as if you are living it. Thankfully,  in the end, we are left with the feeling that through it all hope prevails.

So there you have it, my picks for the best of 2010. When the Sydney Taylor Awards Committee makes its announcement, rest assured that I will post their choices on my website for comparison. Please share your thoughts, however. I am eager to know what your picks are.

Happy Reading,

Kathy B.

©2010 Kathleen M. Bloomfield and all rights reserved.
Books used in this review were provided by my local public library or sent by the publisher as review copies.
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