The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2013
From Jews in space to Bigfoot on the loose, this year’s selections take kids of all ages into new territory
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust, by Leanne Lieberman, is so good! Don’t let the in-your-face title scare you; it’s funny, smart, and thoughtful. Sixteen-year-old Lauren’s dad is a Holocaust scholar, and she’s been dragged to memorials and museums nearly every vacation. (She reflects acidly, “Some kids got Disney. I got Hitler.”) When she was younger she went through a period of obsessively reading Holocaust books, but now she’s burned out. She doesn’t want to go to synagogue or Jewish youth group, she’s haunted by Holocaust nightmares, and she wonders why Jews don’t seem to worry about other people’s genocides. She secretly decides she’s no longer Jewish. But when the guy she has a crush on starts playing Nazi war games with his friends in the park (all of them wearing swastika arm bands drawn in Sharpie and wielding squirt guns), she has to figure out whether to speak up. Teenage readers will relate to Lauren’s obsession with hypocrisy, as well as her worries about popularity and boys and her autistic brother. My 12-year-old loved this book, as did I, and it spurred some really great conversation. Highly recommended. (But why, why, why did the cover have to be so generic?) (Grade 7 to 12)
I wrote “OMG” and “holy crap” repeatedly in the margins of The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi, by Neal Bascombe. This is a gripping spy thriller about the capture of Adolf Eichmann. I knew that the Israelis had kidnapped him from Buenos Aires nearly two decades after WWII and brought him to stand trial in Jerusalem. I’d seen pictures of him in his glass box in the courtroom. But I had no clue what a twisting, nail-biting endeavor his discovery and capture were, with many near-misses and almost-disasters. Bascomb’s book is so suspenseful it puts Robert Ludlum to shame. Who knew that the first clue to Eichmann’s whereabouts came from a Jewish teenage girl in Argentina who went on a date with his son and got suspicious? (Grade 6 to 11)
Is your kid into sci-fi and fantasy? I’ve already ordered you to pick up the whip-smart thrill ride that is Proxy, by Alex London, but if your kid can handle a more deliberatively paced book (translation: OK, so it could have been shorter), check out Starglass, a first novel by Phoebe North. It is insane, in a good way. In the distant future, a 15-year-old girl named Terra Fineberg lives on board the Asherah, a city-sized spaceship populated by Jews from the doomed planet Earth. Five hundred years earlier, the ship was launched in search of the distant planet Zehava … and now they’ve almost arrived. The ship is ruled with an iron fist by an oppressive council of leaders that has gradually increased its own powers over the years, assigning everyone’s jobs, approving everyone’s life partners, and dictating everyone’s reproductive choices. (Children are all “born” on the same day every year, grown in womb-like eggs in a lab, and cut out by their parents at the same time. It is creepy.) Terra’s beloved mom has died, and her dad is perpetually drunk with grief and anger. Wandering through the bowels of the ship in search of escape, she witnesses a murder and is gradually drawn into a populist rebellion. Starglass’ world-building is terrific, and the novel is rich with ethical dilemmas, friendship, and passion. The incorporation of Hebrew words and Jewish ideas is clever and consistent, and Terra’s relationship with a cynical female botanist is especially well-drawn. The book could have been more tightly edited, and some of the twists are easy to see coming, but I’m still jonesing for the sequel. (Grade 8 to 12)
So, there you have it. I felt like this year was particularly strong for books about the Holocaust and WWII—I’ll put a longer round-up of best-book contenders on my personal site so you can see for yourself—and particularly weak for picture books. Regardless, there’s something for every reader and reader-to-be on this list, so happy reading, and Happy Hanukkah!
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Make a moist brisket, then shred it and add it to your potato pancakes. It’s not what my grandmother used to make. It’s better.