The High Holidays and Evaluating Jewish Representation in Children’s Literature

The holiest time of the year is approaching for members of the Jewish faith. The High Holidays will occur later this month, with Rosh Hashanah on September 15-17 and Yom Kippur on September 24-25. While books about Judaism published for children often focus on holiday traditions (specifically Hanukkah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday) or experiences of oppression (especially antisemitism and the Holocaust), it’s important to seek out stories that represent the fullness of Jewish life. The Association for Jewish Libraries has a rubric available for evaluating Jewish representation in children’s literature, which emphasizes that libraries and other institutions should share stories about Jewish main characters that highlight intersectional identities, Jewish joy, contemporary everyday experiences, avoid harmful tropes, and more. The books featured here exhibit a wide range of formats, themes, and subjects in Jewish life that indicate the broad array of children’s and YA books with high-quality Jewish representation. To find more titles, check out the Sydney Taylor Book Award lists, linked at the end of this post, along with the evaluation rubric.

Cohen, Paula
Big Dreams, Small Fish. 2022 (Picture Book).
In their new country, Shirley and her family all have big dreams. For instance, Shirley has great ideas about how to make the family store more modern, pretty, and profitable! She even thinks she can market the one food no one seems to want to try: Mama’s homemade gefilte fish. Shirley’s parents think she’s too young to help and they didn’t come to America for their little girl to work. “Go play with the cat!” they say. But this doesn’t slow down Shirley’s flow of ideas. One day, when the rest of the family has to hurry away and leaves her in the store with sleepy Mrs. Gottlieb, Shirley seizes her chance! Set in an urban neighborhood during the Great Depression, this story highlights the entrepreneurial spirit of a young girl and her Jewish immigrant community. Yiddish words are sprinkled throughout the text, with a glossary of terms at the end of the book.
Q. SE. C6607bi

Hiranandani, Veera
How to Find What You’re Not Looking For. 2021 (Middle Grade Fiction).
This historical fiction novel follows middle schooler Ariel Goldberg as her life changes in the aftermath of her big sister’s elopement following Loving v. Virginia. At twelve years old, Ari feels like her life is deflated. Her family’s Jewish bakery has run into financial trouble, and her older sister has run away with a young man from India following the Supreme Court decision that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Ari is forced to grapple with both her family’s prejudice and the antisemitism she experiences as the only Jewish kid in school, all while she defines her own beliefs. As change becomes Ariel’s only constant, she’s left to hone something that will be with her always: her own voice. Written in the second person and loosely based on the story of Hiranandani’s parents’ marriage, this book tenderly examines social justice history, identity and disability, and love and honesty.
S. H6132ho

Lamb, Sacha
When the Angels Left the Old Country. 2022 (Young Adult Fiction).
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl. They have been studying together for centuries, but violence and the search for new opportunities have pushed all the youth from their village to America. When one of those young people, Essie, disappears, they set off to find her. Along the way, the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has left her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his journey to America. The obstacles in their path are as challenging as ever: medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island, corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, and poverty. With cinematic scenery and tender insights, Lamb presents a totally original drama about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
S. L164wh

Levinson, Cynthia
Illustrated by: Evan Turk
The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art. 2021 (Picture Book Biography).
As an observant young child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn yearned to draw everything he saw. After witnessing his father’s banishment by the Czar for demanding workers’ rights, he also developed a keen sense of justice. When Ben and the rest of his family immigrated to America, Ben brought with him both his sharp artistic eye and his desire to fight for what’s right. During his life, he spoke up for justice through his art: from challenging classmates who bullied him for being Jewish, to resisting his teachers’ demands to paint beautiful landscapes in favor of painting stories about real human experiences, to using his art to urge the US government to pass Depression-era laws that helped people find food and security. In this moving and timely portrait, Levinson and Turk honor an artist and activist whose work still resonates today, as Ben was a true painter for the people.
Q. SB. Sh139pe

Lowe, Mari
Aviva vs. the Dybbuk. 2022 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Everything seems to be making sixth-grader Aviva’s life more difficult. Her isolation, the long ago “accident” that resulted in her father’s death, and not to mention a ghostly dybbuk, that no one but Aviva can see, causing mayhem and mischief that everyone blames on her. This story follows a girl growing up in Orthodox Jewish culture who seems to have lost everything, including her best friend Kayla, and a mother who was once vibrant and popular, and who now can’t always get out of bed in the morning. As tensions escalate in the Jewish community of Beacon when a swastika is carved into new concrete poured near the synagogue, discord grows between Aviva and Kayla and the girls at their school, and the meddling actions of the dybbuk get worse. Could real harm be coming Aviva’s way? This remarkable story is a compassionate look at grief, survival, community, and healing.
S. L95152av

Panitch, Amanda
The Trouble with Good Ideas. 2021 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Twelve-year-old Leah Nevins is not a fan of change. When her parents start talking about sending her beloved great-grandpa Zaide to an assisted living facility, she is very opposed to the idea. Zaide’s house, where her family gathers on Saturday afternoons, is the only place where Leah feels like she truly belongs. Luckily Leah remembers a story Zaide once told her. To protect their family from the Nazis in Poland, he built a golem: a creature from Jewish folklore made out of clay. Leah decides to make a golem of her own to care for her ailing great-grandfather. The directions he gave her were easy to follow, but there is one thing he never mentioned: what to do when a golem turns against its creator. This dark, exciting novel blends contemporary Jewish life with tradition and lore, highlighting lessons about friendship, family, and identity along the way.
S. P1939tr

Pasternack, Sofiya
Black Bird, Blue Road. 2022 (Middle Grade Fiction).
It’s the eleventh century. As the daughter of a prominent judge of Khazaria, twelve-year-old Ziva doesn’t at all care about learning etiquette with the purpose of finding a good husband, like her family expects. Instead, she dedicates her time to her twin brother, Pesah, as they work to try to find a cure for his leprosy. Now Pesah’s health is declining, rapidly. The best doctors have predicted he has just weeks to live, and Pesah has an alarming premonition: the Angel of Death is coming to collect him on Rosh Hashanah, only one month away. Panicked, Ziva runs away with Pesah to the Byzantine Empire, home to hundreds of doctors, who must surely have a cure. But when Ziva accidentally frees a half-demon boy named Almas along the way, unintentionally binding him to her until his debt is paid, Almas tells her about the legendary city of Luz, where the Angel of Death is forbidden to tread. If the three of them can get there by Rosh Hashanah, they can save Pesah for good. This adventurous story, informed by Jewish folklore, is a heartbreaking look at life and death and the unbreakable bond between siblings.
S. P2685bl

Samuel, Sigal
Illustrated by: Vali Mintzi
Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi. 2021 (Picture Book).
This picture book biography shares the little-known story of the first female rabbi. Osnat Barzani, also known as Asnat or Asenath Barzani, was born almost five hundred years ago, during a time when few girls were allowed to read. Her father was a great scholar whose house was filled with books, and she convinced him to teach her. Osnat grew up to teach others, becoming a rabbi and a famous scholar in her own right. Beautiful illustrations depict the lore around her life and utilize colors, textile patterns, and Hebrew letters to adorn the pages of this enlightening story.
SB. B296sa

Savit, Gavriel
The Way Back. 2020 (Young Adult Fiction).
This historical fantasy follows Eastern European teens Yehuda and Bluma on a journey through realms of dark folklore. For the people of the tiny village of Tupik, demons are everywhere: dancing on the rooftops at night, congregating in the trees, even reaching out to try and steal away the living townspeople. The demons conspire within a land of their own: a Far Country, governed by demonic lords and ladies. When the Angel of Death comes strolling through Tupik one night, Yehuda Leib and Bluma are sent spinning off on a journey through the Far Country. There they make pacts with ancient demons, declare war on Death himself, and try desperately to find a way to make it back alive.
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Walters, Eric & Kathy Kacer
Broken Strings. 2019 (Middle Grade Fiction).
A violin and a school musical unleash a dark family secret in this moving middle grade novel. The year is 2002. In the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers (and the death of her beloved grandmother) Shirli Berman is determined to move forward. As the best singer in her junior high, she auditions for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof, but instead is cast as the old Jewish mother in the musical. The upside is that Ben Morgan, the cutest and most popular boy in the school, is playing the role of her husband. While exploring her grandfather’s attic for some props, she discovers an old violin in the corner, which is strange, since he has never seemed to like music. After she shows her grandfather the violin, he reacts angrily, and a long-kept family secret is revealed. In this moving story that examines the longstanding effects of historical trauma, Shirli learns the true power of music, both terrible and wonderful.
S. W1712br

Additional Resources

Association of Jewish Libraries – Evaluating Jewish KidLit Guide
This free guide outlines criteria for evaluating Jewish representation in children’s literature by describing several important themes to seek out or avoid. Includes tips for evaluating collection goals and individual titles as well as further resources.

Sydney Taylor Book Award
Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries, this award encourages the publication of quality Jewish literature by recognizing outstanding books for young people that “authentically portray the Jewish experience.” The yearly award covers three categories: Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. The web page has a searchable list of all past award winners.