My annual list, at Tablet magazine.
Everyone has different standards of “best.” Me, I’m not interested only in distinguished literature (I’m not the Newbery committee) or only in whether a book hammers home certain values. I see my job as helping parents to find books that kids of different reading persuasions will want to read. (If it’s a doorstop, it’s not a good gift.) If a book’s got horrid art or it’s thuddingly didactic, I can’t recommend it. For some Jewish folks, if a book has interreligious dating or it’s not strictly focused on observance and/or a tragic moment in Jewish history, it doesn’t belong on a best-books list. And for some critics, literary writing and/or important subject matter is essential. For me, not always. Hey, let a thousand lists bloom.
For what it’s worth, my favorite not-specifically-Jewish kids’ and YA books this year all had a Jewish component. Wacky! Code Name Verity, my fave young-adult novel this year, is a twisty, brilliantly constructed story of WW2 story about the best friendship between a girl spy and a girl pilot. One character is Jewish, and an awareness of Jews disappearing from France hangs over the story. I reviewed it for the NYT and could not figure out what to say about it because EVERYTHING is spoiler-y. Trust me, just read it. Wonder by R.J. Palacio, my favorite middle-grade novel this year, has truly Jewish ethical values in addition to a half-Jewish character. Titanic: Voices From the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson tells the story of that doomed ship (including its most famous Jewish victims, the Strauses) in a way that seems wholly new and insanely suspenseful. And Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin spotlights a bunch of Jewish scientists struggling with the consequences of their terrifying invention, as well as Jewish spies who think Communism will be better for society than Capitalism. It’s non-fiction that reads like a Ludlum thriller.