By: Heidi Rabinowitz, Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries
History was made this year when the ALA Youth Media Awards press conference kicked off by naming the winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Who’s Sydney Taylor and what IS this award, anyway?
Sydney (originally Sarah) Taylor grew up in a large, bustling Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York. As an adult, she shared stories of her childhood with her daughter Jo, writing them down and stuffing the pages into an underwear drawer. Her husband secretly submitted the manuscript to a writing contest, and Sydney was shocked to learn she’d won a publishing contract for All-of-a-Kind Family! The book came out in 1951 and became the first in a series about the Jewish-American life of Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. These were the first books with Jewish characters to go mainstream and they are beloved by readers of all backgrounds.
Jo Taylor Marshall (Sydney Taylor's daughter) holding All-of-a-Kind Family, with Andrea Davis Pinkney, 2017 silver medalist for A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day. (Pinkney is not Jewish; the Sydney Taylor Award requires only that the content be Jewish but does not require #ownvoices creators).
The Association of Jewish Libraries’ (AJL)Sydney Taylor Book Award memorializes Taylor and her universally popular books with its annual prize for the best Jewish children’s and teen books each year. Since 1968, AJL has recognized high-quality kidlit that authentically portrays the Jewish experience as a mirror for Jewish readers and a window for everyone else.
Sydney Taylor Book Award committee presenting at the 2018 Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Boston, MA
For any reader interested in Jewish characters and themes, the Sydney Taylor Book Award titles are the best place to start. The AJL website has an annotated list of every winner, honor, and notable book recognized by the committee since 1968, it’s a terrific resource. Other websites where you can learn about Jewish children’s books include:
The Book of Life Podcast, offering interviews with authors, illustrators, and publishers of Jewish books for kids and adults
The Whole Megillah, a blog aimed at writers featuring many interviews and reviews of Jewish kidlit
Jewish Books for Kids, a review and interview blog by Judaic author Barbara Bietz
The Jewish Book Council’s reading lists for adults and children
Tablet Magazine’s reviews of Jewish books for children
Heidi Rabinowitz (that's me) with Richard Michelson, holding his book Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, a 2017 Sydney Taylor silver medalist. I am doing Mr. Spock's "live long and prosper" hand sign, and being photo-bombed (behind my hand) by Adam Gidwitz, author of that year's gold medalist The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog.
Titles make it onto the lists above through an assessment of the quality of writing and relevance of Jewish content. Some of them may be good for those without background knowledge while others may have a more insider vibe. However, there are other lists aimed specifically at non-Jewish readers that may serve particularly well as an introduction to Judaism.
- Jewish Stars is an extremely thorough list aimed at public schools and libraries listing titles for early childhood through high school on basic Judaism, Jewish biography, contemporary and historical Jewish life, folklore, holidays, Israel, and WWII/Holocaust.
- Love Your Neighbor is a series of four booklists aimed at preventing anti-Semitism by helping readers feel kinship with Jewish characters. The lists center on the themes “Standing Up for Each Other,” “Synagogues, Clergy & Jewish Ritual,” “The American Jewish Experience,” and “Let’s Be Friends.”
Jews are less than 2% of the American population, yet an outsize proportion of hate crimes are anti-Semitic. Exposing all youth to Jewish books can help fight this scourge of prejudice. Children who grow up well-informed about Judaism and Jewish history and who’ve made friends with Jewish characters on the page are likely to be friendly to Jews they meet in real life. Reading leads to bridge-building, which helps us create a world as cheerful and welcoming as that of All-of-a-Kind Family.