Thank you to Heidi Rabinowitz of The Book of Life Podcast for creating this book list for me to cover. She noticed that my Best #OwnVoices Children’s Books had Jewish books about the Holocaust but not in modern times. I didn’t know how to identify Jewish authors as there isn’t a group blog or database of children’s books categorized in this way. Her point is that Jewish books should be considered part of diverse books.
In the spirit of inclusion, I offer up her list with my take on how we are more alike than different. Where I live in Newton, Massachusetts, we have a large Jewish population with many J’Asians (my daughter’s term) of mixed race Jewish-Asian Americans. I hope you enjoy my connections to this Jewish #OwnVoices list.
I thought I had a basic understanding of Jewish customs because I live in a town with a large Jewish population. My kids have attended many bar and bat mizvah’s for example, but I always thought of these as coming of age ceremonies based on hitting a certain birthday, rather than a ceremony about becoming a good person.
And while my kids’ public schools close for the Jewish High Holidays, I did not know about the ceremony of Tashlich for Rosh Hashanah which sounds like a lovely and cathartic way to prepare for the new year.
I also loved these books for the crash course on Yiddish words that it gave me. Many of these words are firmly embedded in the English language, so much so, that I know that my family uses words like “mensch” but without realizing that women can be “mensches” too.
My thanks again to Heidi Rabinowitz for patiently helping me to learn more about Jewish culture in KidLit. How about you? What are your favorite children’s books with Jewish characters? Thanks for sharing!
#OwnVoices Jewish Picture Books
New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Stephane Jorisch
Part of the Jewish New Year tradition is reflecting on the mistakes of the past year. In this story, Izzy and his family celebrate the ceremony of Tashlich by casting stale bread into the ocean, thus throwing away what they are sorry for. Izzy apologizes to the people on his “I’ve made mistakes” list and then symbolically tosses the error into the sea. It’s a beautiful way to physically let go of mistakes thus creating a clean slate for the new year. Food for thought: how does this tradition compare to the Catholic practice of confession? [picture book, ages 5 and up]
The Cholent Brigade by Michael Herman, illustrated by Sharon Harmer
This is similar to a Stone Soup story in that a community comes together to share a delicious meal. In this story, Monty Nudelman is a mensch who shovels everyone’s house after a big storm. From house to house, he cleans off cars and clears sidewalks ensuring that his neighbors can get out to shop for the Shabbat meal. On the last house, Monty pulls his back. His neighbors notice his absence at the synagogue and rally with their Sabbath stews. Monty shares the feast with the neighbor kids who brought the food. A recipe for Cholent stew is included in the back. This story will make you feel warm and fuzzy as a hot bowl of stew! Food for thought: pair with other picture books about community meals. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Mitzvah Pizza by Sarah Lynn Scheerger
I am familiar with Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah celebrated in my town, but I had no idea that “mitzvah” is a Jewish concept of doing a good deed. This picture book is based on a real pizza restaurant in Philadelphia where people can pre-purchase a slice of pizza for those who need it. The slices are symbolized by sticky notes on a wall where the gift giver can write a positive message. In this story, Missy has a fun day planned with her father that includes a stop at a pizza place. She makes a new friend who chooses cheese pizza and when the girl uses sticky notes to pay for it, she learns about this giving tradition. Ultimately, with the money Missy has earned, she decides to add to the wall of sticky notes. Food for thought: Another “mitzvah” good deed stories is A Hat for Mrs. Goldman by Michelle Edwards. For anyone inspired to commit acts of kindness, my Random Acts of Kindness posts are here, here, and here. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
I Say Shehechiyanu by Joanne Rocklin
Shehechiyanu is Jewish blessing for saying thank you when experiencing something new for the first time. This lovely picture book reminds the reader to be grateful for new experiences. Food for thought: pair with We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell and these other picture books about gratitude.
Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays by Leslea Newman
In rhyming couplets, this picture book celebrates a year of Jewish holidays and seasons. The back matter has more detailed descriptions including crafts and recipes. Food for thought: how does Rosh Hashana compare to Lunar New Year celebrations? [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Always Prayer Shawl by Sheldon Oberman, illustrated by Ted Lewin
Hinting at the Russian Pogroms, this story centers on Adam, a boy who immigrates to the United States with his family and his grandfather’s prayer shawl. It is this shawl that connects him to family history. And while things are very different in this new country, the prayer shawl reassures him of who he is. Over time, as the prayer shawl wears out, Adam replaces each element: the fringes, the collar, and finally, the cloth itself. Now a grandfather himself, Adam passes down the family history and the prayer shawl to his grandson. This is a beautifully told story of family and resiliency. Food for thought: pair with Show Way by Jaqueline Woodson. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Kibitzers and Fools by Simms Taback
This is like having a grandfather who a stand up comedian at your disposal for family gatherings who intersperses Yiddish words in his short stories and jokes thus passing down culture, humor, and language to the next generation. Food for thought: do these stories remind you of folk tales? Check out more here. Pair the last story with Ming Lo Moves the Mountain. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
#OwnVoices Jewish Early Chapter Books
Sam and Charlie (and Sam Too) by Leslie Kimmelman
I’m adding this wonderful series to my diversity early chapter books list. Sam and Charlie are neighbors and friends who just happen to be Jewish. Sam too is Sam’s little sister. I love the play on names with traditional boys’ names for the girl characters. Jewish culture is interwoven into sweet stories about sharing and friendship. [early chapter book series, ages 6 and up]
#OwnVoices Jewish Middle Grade
Penina Levine is a Hard Boiled Egg by Rebecca O’Connell
I am fond of sixth-grader Penina Levine. She has a cute but annoying little sister who seems to get all the attention at home. In this book, Penina has an Easter card writing assignment that she objects to. It’s a rookie mistake on the part of her teacher to insist that she complete it. Penina makes a stand and learns that she’s part of a long tradition of Jews who fought for religious freedom. The Holocaust is also introduced gently through a visit from a classmate’s grandmother who tells her story of survival that reminds me of R. J. Palacio’s White Bird. Fans of Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine series and Annie Barrow’s Ivy and Bean series will enjoy this similar diversity pick. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch
This is a quirky but appealing graphic novel, the first in a trilogy, about an Orthodox Jewish girl who fights trolls and other monsters in a quest to get a sword. Like Lumberjanes and Foiled, there is magical realism at work, making for a particularly fun read. This story also has the feel of a fairy tale from a long time ago, though it’s actually set in modern times. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
p.s. For those who like Jewish fantasy, I wanted to include Anya and the Dragon series by Sofiya Pasternack.
When Life Gives You OJ by Erica S. Perl
I have been a fan of Erica S. Perl’s picture books since I met her ten years ago, but she’s really coming into her own as the author of Jewish middle grade. She really nails the balance between believable characters and humor against the backdrop of navigating middle school friendships. I really loved the relationship between granddaughter, Zelly, and her grandfather, Ace. Perl doesn’t make this saccharine perfect. Her grandfather has his own flaws which Zelda grapples with, along with his own ideas of how she can persuade her parents into letting her get a dog. Zelly also struggles with balancing friendships both new and old, as well as knowing how to deal with the bully of the school. Jewish culture comes mostly in the form of the Yiddish words sprinkled throughout the book. This is a wonderful book for any kid who has ever desperately wanted a dog. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
All Three Stooges by Erica S. Perl
This was, by far, my favorite grade novel on this list. Noah and his best friend Dash have always bonded over humor. They have special sleepover nights where they dissect comedy with Dash’s father Gil. Everything changes when Gil dies, and Noah doesn’t understand why Dash is pulling away. Erica S. Perl shows the reader the human connection between grief and humor, in this bar mitzvah novel about friendship, clinical depression, and laughter. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani
I read Veera Hiranandani’s excelling book, The Night Diary, before I read this one, her debut middle grade novel, so I am spoiled in terms of knowing how well she writes. In this book, I found her characters to be slightly flat. The story is about a girl who is half Jewish, half South Asian (like the author) and coming to terms with her mixed-race identity amid switching from a small liberal private school to a large public school. Her family is also grappling with the loss of her father’s job and the clinical depression that he suffers from this trauma.
I like how Hiranandani describes racist microaggressions when Sonia starts her new school. Her peers can not seem to fathom someone who is “Indian from India” or mixed race. Her public school is segregated both racially and along socio-economic lines, putting Sonia as the bridge between these two divides. I would use this book as part of a unit exploring racism and microaggressions. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman
The premise of this middle grade novel about a Jewish girl struggling with her religious identity really drew me in, but the lead character, Jussy, did not come across as a tween. Either she’s an old soul or her tween voice came across as too adult. I’m not sure there are many tweens who struggle with their spiritual identity to relate to Jussy. I also thought the ending was too pat. The relationships, particularly since they are boy/girl crushes, feel like they are from an older era and not relatable to this generation of LGBTQ+ accepting kids. Finally, my copy of this book which I got from the library did not have enough margin around the pages, such that the words were so close to the binding that it was difficult to read. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Becoming Brianna by Terri Libenson
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Brianna, who is already dealing with the fact that her parents have divorced, has given in to her mother’s desire for her to have a significant bat mitzvah celebration. The family is not terribly religious (Brianna’s father is not Jewish), but Brianna understands that this is somehow very important to her mother and acquiesces even though she has a lot of anxiety about public performance. Not only that, but she is struggling to learn Hebrew, and is not confident about the speech that she has to write, especially since she leaves it to the last minute. She is also at odds with her best friend, Emmie, who is not only tired of hearing about the bat mitzvah but also doubts that popular girl Zoe is really Brianna’s friend. Zoe texts Brianna frequently and makes an effort to talk to her and hang out, but the two don’t really click, and Emmie feels that Zoe has heard rumors about the bat mitzvah party and just wants to be invited. Going back and forth in time from Brianna’s preparations t Io the present day, we see a panoply of anxiety-producing events through which Brianna must travel to prepare for her coming of age ceremony, and witness how she and the people who support her deal with them.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
“Freedman’s My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, Weissman’s The Length of a String, and Rosenberg and Shang’s This is Just a Test all cover Jewish culture and coming of age ceremonies, but since this is a key component to the middle school experience for many young readers, we can use many more books on the topic.” from Ms. Yingling Reads
Going Rogue (At Hebrew School) by Casey Breton
Review by Books My Kids Read:
“There are not a lot of books that focus on Jewish boys. There have been a few recent books that have Jewish girls as the main protagonist, but not boys. This solves that problem while easily appealing to boys and girls everywhere.
The story focuses on Avery Green. Like every kid I know, he doesn’t like going to Hebrew School. He doesn’t understand why it is necessary and would rather be playing football, doing some science experiments, or talking Star Wars. The story itself isn’t about Hebrew school, it is merely an entry point and works regardless of your religious background. The story is about being a good person.” [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
The Trouble with Good Ideas by Amanda Panitch
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Leah Nevins and her family have just moved from their home back to live near her great-grandfather, Zaide, who is 93 years old. She had to leave her Jewish school and feels awkward and unable to make friends in her new school. The one thing she does love is getting together with her extended family on Saturday afternoons at Zaide’s quirky home, which is an old telephone office. She plays chess with her great-grandfather and hangs out with her cousins. When her grandfather starts to have memory issues, she overhears her parents discussing sending him to a nursing home. Leah is not about to support that idea, so casts her net wide to find a solution. She latches onto a story that Zaide told her about making a golem back home in Poland, and when she comes across a bag of dirt with a piece of paper with a word written on it, she takes the ingredients, follows the instructions, and creates a golem of her own. It’s name is Elsa, and it looks like a regular girl Leah’s age. Leah is relieved that she can leave Elsa with her grandfather to make sure that he doesn’t get into trouble. She is given pause when Leah shows up at her school during lunch and claims it is boring when Zaide is napping. Elsa seems to have more success making friends than Leah does. When Elsa becomes more and more unreliable, Leah learns a bit more about golems from Zaide and has to come to terms with the reality of his condition.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
No Vacancy by Tziporah Cohen
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“Summer vacation, kids working, a new residence that isn’t haunted– I love all of these things! The best part is that although Miriam isn’t the biggest fan of moving and leaving her friends, she doesn’t complain. She rolls up her sleeves and helps out with making beds, cleaning, and doing things to help her family and not add to her parents’ burden. I also liked the bits of Jewish culture, including Uncle Mordy, who keeps kosher and won’t eat in the diner, and also won’t pursue a relationship with Maria because she is Catholic. The fact that the girls manufactured the picture of the Virgin Mary and let the ruse go on longer than it should have was interesting; on the one hand, it benefits their families and doesn’t really hurt anyone, but on the other, it’s lying. Since I file all religions under fiction, I was okay with this– the girls have just added one more fictional story to a canon of fictional stories.” [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
More sources for recommended Jewish KidLit
The Book of Life, A Podcast About Jewish Kidlit (Mostly)
Sydney Taylor Book Award winning titles from the Association of Jewish Libraries
“Love Your Neighbor” booklists from Association of Jewish Libraries
Tablet Magazine’s Jewish children’s book reviews
The Jewish Book Council’s reading lists
PJ Our Way, Jewish chapter books
PJ Library, Jewish picture books
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.