The Best Kids’ Books of 2012
From pirates to dinosaurs, superheroes to baseball, the best of the year’s Jewish-themed children’s books
Now, by Morris Gleitzman. The final book in a trilogy (Once, Then, Now) by Australian author Gleitzman, this book stands on its own just fine. Where the first two books told the story of a boy named Felix and his escape from the Nazis, this one is set in 2009, and the narrator is Felix’s 11-year-old granddaughter. I thought the first two volumes were masterful (Once was on my best-books list in 2010), but I was ambivalent about recommending them, because despite the superb writing (simple sentences, vivid descriptions, the genuine sense of the narrator processing horror the way a child would), they’re devastating. They’re just so bleak, and the Nazis’ atrocities are depicted so explicitly, I couldn’t imagine giving them to a child. (That’s why Then wasn’t on my 2011 list, incidentally; it made me physically ill.) But Now isn’t Felix’s story; it’s his granddaughter Zelda’s. And that remove makes it much easier to take. Zelda keeps comparing herself to the first Zelda, the brave and wonderful girl her grandfather rescued in 1942, and finding herself wanting. She’s being bullied at school, and she sees herself as a coward. Her grandfather refuses to even say her name (he calls her “Babushka” or “Margaret”), which makes her feel even more a loser. What she doesn’t understand is that Felix has his own issues with using the name, as well as with the way the world views him as a hero. The book is ultimately about each of them opening up to the other and easing up on their mutual guilt. When the devastating brushfires of 2009 hit (a chapter of Australian history I did not know about, and a very literal sort of Holocaust), grandfather and granddaughter come together in mutual understanding. Once the fire starts, Now becomes a real page-turner. It’s unrealistic, but wildly gripping. The third book helped me make peace with the first two. (Ages 9 and up)
His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, by Louise Borden. Some critics objected to this book being written in verse; they found it odd, given the subject matter. I think the short lines, tons of white space, and large print make Wallenberg’s story more accessible to young readers. (Maybe I’m biased in favor of Borden, since I felt she didn’t get nearly enough credit for her earlier book, The Journey That Saved Curious George, which inspired the traveling museum exhibit Curious George Saves the Day.) Few kids today know of Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat based in Budapest who helped saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. As with the Curious George book, Borden did a ton of research, visiting Wallenberg’s childhood home and interviewing his family numerous times. She offers different theories about his disappearance (Stalin’s officials took him into custody in the early 1940s, and he was never heard from again), but the ending of Wallenberg’s story remains a mystery. Tons of photos and maps help provide drama. (Ages 9 and up)
Looking For Me, by Betsy Rosenthal. Once again, poetry proves an enticing way to tell a complicated story. Looking For Me is the story of author Rosenthal’s mother Edith, kid #4 in a huge Jewish family in Baltimore in the 1930s. (The full title is Looking For Me in This Great Big Family.) Edith’s parents are poor (“in my family/we wear/hand-me-down/down/down/down/downs”), and Edith has to work in her dad’s diner, babysit her younger siblings, and cope with feeling less accomplished than her older sisters. When the family suffers a terrible loss, Edith feels even more invisible. But a teacher sees her potential, and she begins to envision a life and identity for herself as an individual, not only as a member of a big, vibrant, messy family. Rosenthal, a former civil-rights lawyer, creates an affectionate portrait of her mom as well as a clear-eyed, lyrical look at a specific period in Jewish-American history. Photos and a Yiddish glossary add to the sense of place. (Ages 9-14)
Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip, by Jordan Sonnenblick. I raved about Curveball earlier this year, but it deserves a second shout-out. Peter Friedman is a high-school freshman and star pitcher whose baseball dreams are ended by a terrifying injury. His grandfather is a professional photographer, and Peter—grieving, self-conscious about his scars, unable to tell his best friend and former teammate that he’ll never play again—starts taking pictures himself. Angelika, a girl in Peter’s photography class, is a worthy romantic interest. Peter’s grandfather’s decline is depicted sympathetically, not cheesily. Peter is super-likable; the book is funny and sad in equal measure. Curveball feels real and humane and bittersweet and pretty darn perfect. (Ages 10-15)
My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan, by Seth Rudetsky. Do you remember that cheeseball ‘80s teen flick Can’t Buy Me Love, starring pre-McDreamy Patrick Dempsey? This book is a gay version of that fizzy teen comedy. It’s goofy, dopey, and endearing. Our short, chubby, Jew-fro’d hero Justin has only two goals for his sophomore year: to go out with football-playing-hottie Chuck and to become part of the cool crowd in the caf. Chuck, alas, is as straight as the day is long. But Justin, undeterred, hatches a plan in which Chuck’s girlfriend Becky will pretend to date Justin, because Becky’s dad hates Chuck, and Justin will wind up hanging out with the popular kids getting Chuck to fall in love with him. Teen movie! Shockingly, nothing happens the way Justin plans. But I was charmed by Justin’s nebbishy yet confident voice and the sweetness of a gay high-school story presented without heavy drama. (The fact that it’s so frothy, as well as so chaste, makes me think it’s more appropriate for middle-schoolers than high-schoolers.) Bonus: As a theater geek, I appreciated Justin’s strongly held passions. (“You were pretty public about wanting to make the day of the Tony Award nominations a school holiday,” his best friend observes.) (Ages 10-14)
There you have it: 18 books—chai! Books are life, for sure. Happy Hanukkah.
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As we endure a season of destructive storms and surging seas, why on earth would we pray for rain?