The best Jewish children’s book of the year – says who?

On Monday, the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee announced this year’s winning titles. This annual award, named for the author of the beloved All of A Kind Family Series (who also was kind enough to be my occasional pen pal as a child), recognizes “outstanding books of Jewish content for children.”

Because I write a monthly column for the The PJ Library, my children and I have read many of the books that were contenders for this year’s Younger Reader prize. I was very eager to see who would win. It seems to me that Jewish children’s books have changed enormously in the past few years. As my friend Laurel Snyder wrote on Kveller, these new books “jump and sing. They offer silliness and fresh bright voices, as well as inclusive ideas about faith, family, culture, and the evolving Jewish world.” This past year, perhaps for the first time, my family received a substantial number of Jewish books that both my children and I wanted to read again and again. Books that were funny and fresh, cheerful and clever. 


The Gold Medal Winner this year was Gathering Sparks, by Howard Schwartz. This book, while beautifully illustrated and written, did not hold my daughters’ attention at all. Why not? Well, take a moment to read the award committee’s description of the book:

Schwartz spins a calming tale that suggests that the way to bring peace and well-being to our world is by doing good deeds and loving
one another… Swarner’s art and Schwartz’s poetic words interpret the concept of the vessel as a fleet of ships outlined in the night sky by millions of starry points of light.


Does that sound like a book a child would love? Well, maybe yours. But not my children. That’s a book their parent would love. Or their teacher would love. Mine are not so big on “calming tales” or even “good deeds” (at least not in their literature.) What books did they love this year? Beautiful Yetta the Yiddish Chicken and Baxter the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher (both named as “notable” books this year, but not award winners.) Some of their all time favorites? Five Little Gefiltes and The Way Meat Loves Salt and The Tale of Meshka the KvetchBooks that tell a story. One that might just happen to be Jewish, rather than hit-you-over-the-head Jewish. (And books that were never honored above the “notable” level, if at all.)

Which leads me to the question – what makes a great Jewish children’s book? Is it more important that book cover a “serious” topic, as all of this year’s, and most of the past years’ picture book/young reader winners, do? (Click here for a full listing of the winners.) Or is it more important that it makes children clap and laugh and wrestle each other for the book?

I actually don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question. The winning  books this year (at least the ones that I’m familiar with) are indeed wonderful and deserving of recognition. And I think the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee does an extremely good job of tackling a formidable task (And I’m not just saying that because they chose A Mezuzah on the Door as a notable book.)  Of course I don’t think popularity with children should be the sole, or even main, litmus test for a literary prize. But I do think that as the Jewish publishing world continues to change and progress, it’s important to make sure our awards do as well.

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Sarah D.

posted January 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I’m a librarian, and what you’re describing is endemic to awards lists for children’s books. This year’s Caldecott, for example, is a beautiful book, and a very sweet story. And the main character is an elderly man, and the illustrations are old-fashioned to the extent that I actually checked the publication date when I first saw it. I’m road testing it with my four-year-old, and she’s not impressed. “Audience appeal” is not always a factor in determining “quality”.
Young Adult (i.e. Teen, if you’re not in on the librarian jargon) librarians have probably been the best (imo) at acknowledging the difference between quality and popularity – VOYA, which reviews books for teens, gives books one mark for quality and one for popularity, for example.
Having been on a national awards committee, I know how much work (and reading!) it takes. I don’t want to minimize the work committee members do, and I know that all these awards are made with careful thought and debate. But regardless of how many quality indicators a committee charge spells out, “best” is always going to be subjective, and “quality” doesn’t reflect “audience appeal” as much as some folks (ok, I) might want it to.
Also, I’m a happy PJ Library parent, so thanks for the work you do there!

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Frume Sarah

posted January 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm

I think that the answer is just so subjective. For example, my kids really, really love when the Judaism is obvious. There are so few kids in their public school and in the stories they read in school. So when Mama’s girls have to rush out of the library on Friday afternoon because it’s almost time for Shabbos, my daughter squeals with breathless delight, “Shabbos. Just like us.” It’s identity-strengthening.
As for awards, the same could be said of “grown-up” awards. A book can win a Pulitzer and not be a crowd-pleaser. Conversely, many a finely crafted story has failed to win any accolades.

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posted January 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm

I think that “just like us” phenomenon has worn off on my kids now that we have so, so, many Jewish books!

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posted January 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Great column, Amy! Lots to think about and talk about here. (And thanks for the tip about The Way Meat Loves Salt — I’m embarrassed to say I’m not familiar with it; just put a hold on it at the library.) And Sarah, thank YOU for the comment about this year’s Caldecott winner. I respected it but did not lurv it on an emotional level; neither did my 6-year-old. I felt so alone until you posted! (Do you have a blog? If so, I want to read it.)
I do think parents have an important role that is different from that of librarians, and we need both sets of voices. The Newbery and Caldecott committees explicitly seek to reward “distinguished” work, which may not fly with actual children. The Jewish Libraries peeps sometimes seem to give “Jewishness” more weight than artistic merit. We parents, especially book-loving parents, want our kids to have books that they’ll love and that have real literary value and Jewish value…but mostly that they’ll love.
And differences of opinion are just fine. I’m glad you were explicit about a book you and your kids did not adore — I wish more writers/bloggers did.

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laurel snyder

posted January 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm

I feel like I’d be a chicken if I didn’t chime in, but I’m nervous to do so, because I fear people will assume I think Baxter should have won something. That’s not the case!
Still– I’ll say this:
I don’t like to see things divided into “more Jewish” and “less Jewish” categories. We aren’t talking about books in which a kid who likes baseball happens to be named Danny Gold. All of the books we’re discussing have considerable Jewish content. All are good books. Certainly I won’t argue that the winning books aren’t worthy of the prizes.
The bigger question, to my way of thinking, is whether the folks on award committees are so accustomed to liking a certain “kind” of Jewish book (or Newbery, or Caldecott) that they find it difficult to like anything else enough to give it an award.
And maybe I’d think that. But.. but… but…
I found myself deeply excited by the award being given to Mirka. Because I feel like that willingness to see something different, and honor it, suggests that the committee WAS willing to stretch. Just in this case they liked Gathering Sparks better than, say, Yetta. Or Ann Stampler’s amazing new Rooster Prince (which delighted me to no end, and just won the National Jewish Book Award, yay!)
But that’s okay, because in the end– parents will decide whether Yetta needs to grace our shelves (I trust they will), and kids will decide how often they want to read it (in the case of my house, NONSTOP).
And that another kind of award.

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Barry Deutsch

posted January 12, 2011 at 6:42 pm

“Is it more important that book cover a “serious” topic, as all of this year’s, and most of the past years’ winners, do?”
“All of this year’s” winners? With all due respect, my book “Hereville” (which won for the middle readers category) is about an 11-year-old girl who fights trolls. 😛
So you might be mistaken — if I’m any example, there was no need to write about a “serious” topic to win. Putting that aside, I agree with you that seriousness shouldn’t be a requirement for winning these prizes.

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posted January 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Thanks so much for commenting, Barry, and Mazel Tov. I was only referring to picture books/younger readers category. Sorry if that wasn’t clear-

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Barry Deutsch

posted January 12, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Oh, I’m sorry I misunderstood! Thanks for clarifying.
Without commenting on the books for younger readers at all (which I haven’t read, so all I can say is that judging from their covers they all have gorgeous artwork), I do agree with your general point. It takes just as much skill (maybe more) to create a great book about a “trivial” subject as it does to create a great book about a Serious subject.
That said, from your description of it, “Gathering Sparks” deserves some credit for trying an ambitious and difficult subject for a kid’s book. Yetta and Baxter may have split the “silly” vote this year. :-)

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posted January 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm

My kids really enjoy the Gathering Sparks book…perhaps partly as a response to the fact that this aspect of Jewish mythos comes up a lot at our Temple and that we always “gather the sparks” before we say the Shema at night. Howard is a great guy that has had a tough year, and I’m really happy that he was given this honor.

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posted January 12, 2011 at 8:10 pm

He came to OSRUI one summer when I was working there, and I also thought he was wonderful. I’m very happy for him as well.

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Pingback: Jewish children’s books for grown-ups. And a give-away. - Homeshuling


posted March 25, 2012 at 1:23 pm

firstly i thanks for comments to you and i talk that My kids really enjoy the Gathering Sparks books perhaps partly as a response to the fact that this aspect of Jewish mythos comes up a lot at our Temple and that we always “gather the sparks” before we say the Shema at night. Howard is a great guy that has had a tough year, and I’m really happy that he was given this honor.if you need some services (printing,editing,typing,designing,flyers)and many more so you contact and see

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