The cover is gray, beige, taupe, or sepia. There’s a splash of red (lettering) or yellow (star). There’s often barbed wire. Oh, hey, it’s yet another children’s book about the Holocaust. And it looks exactly like every other children’s book about the Holocaust.
But is it good? Is it good for your kid, is it good for literature, is it good for the Jews? Maybe not. In my experience, a great many Holocaust books are factually flawed, trivializing of the horror, numbing, and/or unreadably didactic as all-get-out.
As Yom HaShoah approaches, it’s time not only to think about the Holocaust, but also to ponder the place it holds in our consciousness of our Jewishness and the messages we pass down to our kids. Yes, it’s essential to teach our children about this terrible event … but we also need to be mindful of the risk of teaching them poorly. Or perhaps worse, teaching them that the Holocaust is the defining focus of our identity as Jews.
Shaul Magid’s recent piece in Tablet about our collective fixation on the Holocaust and the event’s centrality to our view of Jewishness made me think about the sheer number of children’s books on the subject. I decided to use the lens of Sydney Taylor Award- and Honor-winning books, awards granted by the Association of Jewish Libraries for the year’s best children’s books, to look at the prevalence and prominence of kids’ Holocaust books published in just the last few years. In 2015, three of the nine top Sydney Taylor Awards went to Holocaust books (Hidden, The Whispering Town, and Isabel’s War). In 2014, it was four of nine (Nazi Hunters, The Boy on the Wooden Box, Dear Canada: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, and The War Within These Walls). In 2013, it was two of seven (His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, Beyond Courage). In 2012, it was four of 10 (The Berlin Boxing Club, Lily Renee, Irena’s Jars of Secrets, and Then). In 2011, it was three of 11 (Resistance, Black Radishes, and Once) and in 2010, it was again three of 11 (Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures, and The Faraway Island).
Many of these books are indeed good literature. Nine of the 19 were on my own best-children’s-books lists for Tablet (Hidden, The Whispering Town, Nazi Hunters, His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg, Beyond Courage, The Berlin Boxing Club, Then, Tropical Secrets, and Anne Frank, if you’re keeping score) in the years they were published. But the amount of real estate, both physical and emotional, that these stories hold on our bookshelves is proportionally just too high.
As a non-Jewish librarian recently observed to me, if you dropped an alien into the children’s section of a library, it would think Jews disappeared after WWII. (The alien could tick off each book’s subject matter on its long green fingers: Holocaust, Holocaust, shtetl, Holocaust, Holocaust, Hanukkah, Holocaust.) As a people, we have a 6,000-year history to mine for stories. So, why are we so relentlessly focused on one event? We are more than just our suffering.
Yet the Holocaust has a rigid hold on our imaginations and self-concept, perhaps to the expense of other important aspects of Jewish identity. As Magid pointed out in his piece, one attention-grabbing finding of the 2013 Pew Research Poll about American Jews was the response to the question “What’s Essential to Being Jewish?” The survey found that 73 percent of respondents named the Holocaust as the primary essential of Jewish identity. (Compare that to “Leading an Ethical and Moral Life” at 69 percent; “Caring about Israel” at 43 percent; and “Observing Jewish law” at 19 percent.)
Writing about the author Jacob Neusner’s scholarship, Magid said in Tablet, “The reception and in some cases mythicization of the Holocaust in American Jewry prevents American Jews from actualizing the distinct potential that exists for them to move beyond an identity founded on oppression and persecution, or ‘negative Judaism,’ and toward a new identity that trusts the world enough to view itself as an integral part of an open society. In short, Neusner advocates a full sense of intellectual and spiritual acculturation based on incorporating a new engagement with the Jewish tradition that changes the trajectory of Jewish identity from insularity and separation to one of expansiveness and belonging.”
This broader view of what it means to be Jewish—and indeed, why we should love being Jewish, in a way that is embracing and not based on defensiveness and fear—is what I’m looking for in children’s books. There’s so much rich material we can tap in to: exciting Torah tales, midrashim, folktales, myths, legends, historical figures who did not die in death camps, vast intriguing swaths of history in Spain and Egypt that could parallel our own lives in terms of acculturation and comfort. There are so many Sephardic stories that have never been told. There are unheralded scientists, athletes, doctors, artists, and writers whose lives our kids could learn from and take pride in. Sure, we have choices of books for little kids about Passover, the High Holidays, and that minor celebration that’s been puffed up into Jewish Christmas, in addition to the Holocaust and lost-shtetl tales, but how about exploring mitzvot, spiritual practices, Jewish music, painting, non-Ashkenazi foodways? Give me the shakshuka picture book! Give me the chubby-baby-faces-of-non-white Jews photographic board book! Give me the middle-grade novels starring kids who go to Hebrew school as well as playing centerfield and electric bass! Give me the YA novels set against the backdrop of the American labor movement and the new adult novels that treat inter-dating as worthy of informed, thoughtful storytelling!
We are in a unique position in that our religion isn’t just a religion: It’s a cultural identity that spans a lot of cultures. And sure, there are books from both Jewish and secular publishers that address some non-holiday, non-Holocaust aspects of Judaism. I was impressed by the current books in rotation at PJ Library, some of which are fab and address a variety of Jewish subjects. (You know about PJ Library, right? If you have kids under 6 or 9, depending on the community, you should sign up to get free books from this foundation-funded initiative.) Current titles I love, which you should immediately go buy on your own if you’re not eligible: Bagels From Benny; Before You Were Born; Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost; Beautiful Yetta, The Yiddish Chicken; Brave Clara; Rifka Takes a Bow; Gathering Sparks; What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street; Yuvi’s Candy Tree; Joseph Had a Little Overcoat; Mrs. Katz and Tush; I Say Shehechiyanu; Cakes and Miracles. And for older kids and teenagers, why not explore the world of Jewish speculative fiction; Proxy, Starglass, How Mirka Got Her Sword (a great graphic novel, not a great Jewish graphic novel). I’ve written about all of them. You know how to Google.
These books are a start, but we need more. Lots more. (Particularly in the early chapter book, middle-grade, and young-adult categories.) The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement ought to encompass Jewish books, particularly now when anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world is on the rise. But even as we worry about hate, we need to avoid the trap of tying our kids’ Jewish identity to the Holocaust. We are bigger than this.
It’s also time to stop grading Holocaust books on a curve. Just because they’re “important” doesn’t mean they’re readable or even meritorious. Do not be suckered by sepia tones and barbed-wire covers. Do your research, think about how young is too young, and for heaven’s sake, don’t just hand over a book and walk away. Think sex ed: A book can start a conversation, but you need to be the one to process it with your child. And if you wait too long, a friend or TV footage or YouTube video will wind up doing the educating for you.
The Holocaust is one chapter in a long, sprawling, colorful epic. It’s not the whole story.
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