In the past I’ve done two columns on the best Jewish children’s books of the year — one devoted to little-kid books and one devoted to big-kid books. For various reasons, I could only do one column this year, so my list was shorter than I’d like. But I have a blog! So here are ALL the (very worthy!) contenders. (An asterisk indicates that a book is on the Tablet list; the other books are ones I thought were noteworthy even if they aren’t in the Tablet column.) Enjoy! Buy!
Very young readers
Nosh Schlep Schluff* by Laurel Synder (Random House Books for Young Readers) A funny, sweet, Yiddish-teaching board book.
Many Days, One Shabbat* by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Maria Monescillo (Marshall Cavendish Shofar w/PJ Library) A charming non-denominational Shabbat book for very young readers.
The Shabbat Princess* by Amy Meltzer (Kar-Ben) Very cute story, somewhat saccharine illustrations, perfect for the princess-obsessed.
4-8 yr olds
I Will Come Back For You* by Marisabina Russo (Schwartz & Wade) A very well done, not too scary Italian-family-escaping-the-Nazis picture book.
Naamah and the Ark at Night* by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade (Candlewick) Gorgeous, poetic bedtime story told by Noah’s wife — this could work for kids as young as two.
The Story of Esther* by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Jill Weber (Holiday House) To my surprise, Maxie (age 7) loved this – it’s a pretty sophisticated retelling with wonderful Moorish cartoon-y-meets-painterly illustrations. I love it too.
Kishka for Koppel by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Sheldon Cohen (Orca) An amusing retelling of the old folktale of magic-fish wish-granting that will require explaining what kishka is, which is too bad, because I’m sorry, Kishka is DISGUSTING.
Room Enough for Daisy by Debby Waldman, illustrated by Rita Feutl (Orca) A modern retelling of an old Yiddish folktale – a girl complains about her room being too small, so her mom makes her move tons of stuff into it, and when the stuff is finally removed, the kid thinks her room feels huge – a nice story for our privileged youth!
Estie the Mensch by Jane Kohuth, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Random House) An odd, sweet tale of an exuberant kid who people keep telling to “be a mensch”…and she proves herself to be one while also being true to her quirky self. Delightful old-fashioned but not stuffy art.
Hannah’s Way by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Kar Ben) A very writ-small, old-fashioned story, based on a true anecdote about a kid growing up in the only Jewish family in her 19th century Minnesota town – she’s forbidden to get into a car to go to her class picnic on Shabbat…but there’s a sweet solution to the problem.
How Dalia Put a Big Yellow Comforter Inside a Tiny Blue Box and Other Wonders of Tzedakah by Linda Heller, illustrated by Stacey Dressen McQueen (Kar-Ben) Nice sibling story with a slightly confusing structure for younger kids – it will get clearer to kids on subsequent readings — about the miracles tzedakah can accomplish.
Lipman Pike* by Richard Michelson (Sleeping Bear Press) A biography with supercool, hyperreal, semi-trippy art of America’s first home-run king, the first Jewish baseball star. Who knew?
Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime* by Gloria Spielman, illustrated by Manon Gauthier (Kar-Ben) A fascinating biography of the mime – what an interesting life!! — for older picture book readers. I’d give this to any kid with an interest in acting, clowning or physical comedy.
Chanukah Lights* by Michael J. Rosen and Robert Sabuda (Candlewick) A historical pop-up book so gorgeous, parents will be afraid to let their children touch it. This would be a lovely hostess gift if you were invited to a latke party.
Liberty’s Voice: The Emma Lazarus Story by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Stacey Schuett (Dutton) A bio of the Statue of Liberty poet that emphasizes her Jewishness.
Irena’s Jars of Secrets, by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan (Lee & Low) A very good bio for the youngest readers of Irena Sendler, the righteous gentile who saved many Jewish children in Poland during the Holocaust. The stately art is by a former Sydney Taylor Honor Awardee.
The Cats in the Doll Shop* by Yona Zeldis McDonough, illustrated by Heather Maione (Viking Juvenile) A sequel to The Doll Shop Downstairs, which made my list a few years ago – but I think I like this one even more. It’s a sweet, low-stress, old-fashioned Penderwicks/Saturdays/All-of-a-Kind-Family-esque story, and it falls into that hard-to-find niche of early chapter books. A 7- to 10-year-old could read it alone.
When Life Gives You OJ* by Erica S. Perl (Knopf) Yay! The holy grail of kid-friendly, contemporary, funny middle grade novels with Jewish protagonists whom modern-day readers will find familiar! A girl, her zayde, and her quest for a pet dog. No Holocaust, no shtetl, just kids on bikes in the burbs and an embarrassing but awesome grandfather.
OyMG* by Amy Fellner Dominy (Walker Books for Young Readers) A girl who wants to be a debate star hides her Jewish identity to try to get a scholarship for a ritzy Christian prep school with a great debate team. The author is a playwright and it shows – she has a terrific gift for dialog.
Music Was IT* by Susan Goldman Rubin (Charlesbridge). I did not expect to love this, since I am a musical philistine. But Rubin’s great use of original source material brings the young Leonard Bernstein – with his unsupportive dad who wanted him to go into the family perm-equipment business!—to life. The book takes him from childhood through his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall. I felt the passion! Even the endnotes are eminently readable. And there are tons of photos of the very handsome young Bernstein. I’d buy this for any kid with a passion for any kind of art; Bernstein’s hustle and drive, despite lots of challenges, are great object lessons in what you have to do if you want to make it in a creative field.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice by Chris Moriarty (Harcourt) Ach, I wanted to like this so much more than I did. It’s being pitched as “The Jewish Harry Potter” – an alternate universe of New York City at the turn of the 20th century ruled by hidden magic and robber barons who want to steal and corporatize it. Such a great idea, not such great execution. Warning: Tonally weird, goes from jokey to really, really scary. If your kid likes fantasy, doesn’t mind some slightly confusing stage-setting and can handle scariness, it could be a home-run.
Then by Morris Gleitzman (Henry Holt/Macmillan) A sequel to Once, which was on my best-of-the-year list last year, by an Aussie writer with a real gift for using humor in terrible situations. Yup, it’s a Nazi story. As with the first book, this is such an accomplished piece of writing, with a strong voice and gripping writing and a truly masterful blend of humor and sorrow. The thing is, it’s so dark I can’t think of a kid I’d give it to.
Your Friend in Fashion, Abby Shapiro by Amy Axelrod (Holiday House) An unusual, overstuffed book. A Jewish girl in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s who yearns to be a fashion designer sends pen pal letters and dress sketches to Jackie Kennedy, while coping with her desire for a bra and a Barbie, an abusive father, family secrets and scary neighbors. The dad is really too dark a character for the rest of the book, and it all feels just a little too sprawling and undisciplined and overlong, but I admire the ambition and voice. Despite its flaws, I keep thinking about it long after I finished it.
Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg by Shelley Sommer (Boyds Mills Press) An oversized, photo-filled bio of baseball’s Hank Greenberg for the baseball-obsessed.
Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder (Random House). Darn that Laurel Snyder, with two terrific books this year! This one is a lovely, creepy-funny-sad story of a 12-year-old girl coping with her parents dissolving marriage and her discovery of a magic bread box. Discovering the box’s double-edged powers forces Rebecca to figure out what her values and desires really are. The characters just happen to be Jewish — it’s not a central part of the plot — but to me the matter-of-factness is refreshing.
Deadly* by Julie Chibbaro (Atheneum) Exciting! Like an episode of CSI! A poor 16-year-old Jewish girl from the Lower East Side in 1906 gets a typing job at the Department of Health and Sanitation, where her boss – on whom she develops a crush – is in hot pursuit of Typhoid Mary. Like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, this is really a story of a girl’s intellectual awakening. I loved it. Great cover, too.
Flesh and Blood So Cheap* by Albert Marrin (Knopf) Yes, we all know I am obsessed with the Triangle Fire. Shut up. But that makes me a really critical reader! And the non-Jewish critical world agrees with me that this book is AMAZING, so there. Tons of photos – some gruesome – fluid writing, great explanation of the fire and its legacy, both national and global, in a well-designed, oversized book. Essential.
Threads and Flames by Esther Friesner (Viking Juvenile) Wah, this was published in 2010, but it came out too late to make last year’s Best Books list, and now I see it is out of print. Publishing is a harsh mistress. It’s a huge bummer, because this book is a truly painless history lesson and a page-turner at the same time. OK, some of the plot points, and certainly the ending, are unrealistically tidy, but this is a truly readable novel about young immigrant girls and the Triangle Fire, with a lot of humor and a love story – Josie adored it. Buy it from a reseller!
The Berlin Boxing Club* by Robert Sharenow (HarperTeen) A real boy book about a Jewish kid in Germany growing up in an artistic family as the Nazis come to power, trained in fighting by the famous non-Jewish boxer Max Schmeling – it’s unpredictable, exciting, rip-roaring storytelling, based on the germ of a true story. I appreciated that it was a sports book that wasn’t irksomely macho or homophobic.
In Trouble by Ellen Levine (Lerner/Carolrhoda lab) A Jewish teen and her Catholic best friend cope with unwanted pregnancy in the 1950s, pre Roe-v-Wade. This book is very feminist, very gripping, and very good discussion fodder for mothers and daughters.
Miss Etta and Dr Claribel: Bringing Matisse to Americaby Susan Fillion (David R Godine) A beautiful, sophisticated art book that would be a great counterpoint to a Cone Sisters or Matisse exhibition. The text is a little dense for kids who aren’t already art-savvy.
Read, baby, read.