Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Response to Jewish Kidlit Article in The Forward

In The Jewish Daily Forward, January 31, 2012, an article appeared entitled "Who Will Light Up Jewish Kids Lit? Death of Two Authors Leaves Gaping Hole in Genre." Written by Kveller.com editor Deborah Kolben, the article mourns the passing of two literary giants, Simms Taback and Russell Hoban. 

The passing of these two authors is certainly sad, but I have to disagree with Kolben's contention that their deaths mark the end of Jewish kidlit, and I also disagree with her overview of the state of the genre. I drafted a response to leave as a comment at The Forward, but it exceeded the 3000 word limit. Thus, my response is posted here at The Book of Life. I urge you to visit http://forward.com/articles/150253/ to read the original article, to consider my points posted here, and to add your own responses either at The Book of Life or at The Forward.

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Kolben declares that “good storytelling is what’s missing” and calls for Jewish kidlit to be held up to the “same high standards as the rest of the books on our kids’ shelves.” I'd like to provide a some context for Kolben's comments about the state of Jewish children’s literature.

Thousands of secular children’s books are published each year. Some of them are terrific; many of them are  only so-so. But the numbers are so large that even this small percentage of good books offers a reasonable  selection.  The niche of Jewish kidlit, on the other hand, is small. Probably between 100-200 Jewish interest titles for kids of all ages are published each year. Even if we get the same ratio of good books to dreck as in secular publishing, the numbers will be much smaller. There will be only a handful of great Jewish kids’ books in any given year, and a gem will only come along once every few years.

Next, let’s address those mainstream “high standards.” It’s important to realize that even secular children’s books are feeling the pressures of a crazy economy and an industry that’s undergoing tremendous change (think e-publishing). Kidlit expert Anita Silvey’s November 2011 article in School Library Journal (http://www.libraryjournal.com/slj/printissue/currentissue/892418-427/make_way_for_stories_theres.html.csp) analyses the forces that make it difficult for publishers to focus on quality over the bottom line. If times are hard for secular publishing, they are even more so for Judaica, where the market is so much smaller.

Lest you think I am an apologist for poor quality Jewish kidlit, I’d like to point out that the field is actually doing quite well, due perhaps to the modern fashion for multiculturalism. The Sydney Taylor Book Awards, presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries, gave out three gold medals, eight silver medals, and eighteen Notable designations to Jewish children’s and teen titles published in the last year alone.  These titles include not only holiday and shtetl stories, but also biographies, folktales, Holocaust-related material, historical fiction and contemporary fiction.

Books that receive Jewish awards are usually fairly explicit in their Jewishness, but there are also plenty of “assimilated” books that may go undetected by the casual reader. Kolben wishes for “great stories in which characters happen to be Jewish.” Look carefully at the illustrations for Fancy Nancy: Bonjour Butterfly, and you’ll learn that her maternal grandparents are named Sid and Faye Abramowitz. The Baudelaires, of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, are Jewish – the author said so himself in Moment Magazine. (http://www.momentmag.com/Exclusive/2007/2007-02/200702-Handler.html) And then there are all the Jewish authors imbuing their secular books with Jewish flavor, from Arthur Yorinks (try Company’s Coming) to Dave Horowitz (beyond Five Little Gefiltes, which is plenty irreverent, I find The Ugly Pumpkin to have a Jewish sensibility) to the granddaddy of them all, Maurice Sendak.

So before we decry the state of Jewish kidlit, and before we start labeling the Frances books Jewish just because Russell Hoban was a MOT, let’s step back and get the full picture. We’re doing pretty well for 2% of the population, and our books are too. Of course there’s room for improvement; there always is, and here’s what you can do to help it happen:  Buy the books to show the publishers there’s a market for Jewish titles. Let authors and publishers know what you want through their blogs and websites. Seek out standards of quality like the Sydney Taylor Book Awards and the National Jewish Book Awards. Keep your eyes peeled for those assimilated Jewish characters and go ahead and “out” them. Create buzz. Create demand. And support the creativity of authors who produce satisfying Jewish children’s books. Laurel Snyder is just the tip of the iceberg.




4 comments:

Bialik Librarian said...

Ms. Kolben's article in the english 'Forward' could lead one to believe that there is no great Jewish children's literature out there, or that there are no new titles being published in the field. Heidi sets the record straight in this informative response.

Laurel said...

Hi Heidi,

First, I'd like to say that I hope nobody thinks I said anything about myself or my own writing in this context. I blushed when I read the piece.

Second, I want to reassert that I stand by my statement: “Holiday books are safe, Bible retellings are safe. Anything set in a Polish-looking village or on Delancey Street is safe... But if you want to write a book that has Jewish values but isn’t rooted in nostalgia, you’re kind of in a no-man’s land.” This was said about the publishing industry, which is often risk averse, and so turns to what's worked in the past. This is not how to best promote artistic innovation. And I do believe this to be true. That publishers are frequently looking for a new version of something they've seen before.

But to dispel any confusion, I want to explain that this was said in the context of a larger conversation. I don't feel so much that Hoban's and Taback's deaths (though sad) are the markers of anything particularly. I'm sad to lose them, but I certainly think we have wonderful writers today, doing great work. I agree with you that things are improving. (though I also worry about the industry and the economoy)

We've had conversations about this subject in the past, and I know we don't always agree exactly about our favorites. (But who does?)

It's true that I lean away from picture books that feel too familiar to me, or "tell" too much. I want character-driven picture books, humor, lots of surprising language play, unusual art, and maybe a little edge. I will never stop fussing about how we could use more of those things in our books, and less of what we've already got.

But I wanted to chime in here and lend my support for the community of artists at large. They are truly great.

Respectfully, Laurel

Jacqueline Jules said...

Very well said, Heidi. Thank you.

Lisa said...

Thank you, Heidi, for your excellent response and for taking the time to do it.