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 Kvetch. Books 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.