Let’s look at the year’s best chapter books and graphic novels. Bear in mind that I’m not G’veret Newbery; I don’t require that books be “distinguished.” They just have to be good and enticing to young readers.
I was shocked at how much I liked An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank, by Elaine Marie Alphin. It’s rigorously researched and very, very gripping. One spring day in Atlanta in 1913, 13-year-old Mary Phagan put on a pretty violet dress and went to pick up her paycheck at the National Pencil Company. She intended to go from there to the Confederate Memorial Day parade. She never made it. Her body was found in the factory basement, a cord around her throat, her dress pushed up past her knees. Leo Frank, the pencil factory’s supervisor, who was seen as a rich, dirty Yankee Jewish interloper, was convicted of the crime in a rigged trial. When Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment, a crowd of furious citizens kidnapped Frank from prison and lynched him. The miscarriage of justice led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. Alphin’s book, chock-full of photos and newspaper clippings, tells the story in an immensely readable way, like a horrifying, absorbing mystery novel. Alphin presents evidence about who really committed the crime, offers a picture of post-Reconstruction-era Southern bigotry, and names the prominent citizens who led the lynching party. For budding true-crime readers, this book would be a terrific Hanukkah gift. It’s my pick for both the Newbery Award (it actually is distinguished!) and the National Jewish Book Award. (Recommended for ages 12 to adult.)
The Song of the Whales, by Uri Orlev, translated by Hillel Halkin, is equally distinguished but will appeal to very a different audience. It’s a mystical, fairy-tale-like novel about Michael, a soulful 11-year-old boy who moves to Jerusalem from Long Island and develops a close bond with his grandfather. Michael soon discovers that his grandfather has a secret power—traveling through dreams. The two start taking fantastic voyages together, repairing broken dreams by infusing a bit of hope into them, taking beautiful dreams that have “faded like old carpets” and restoring them. As his grandfather becomes frailer, Michael shifts from merely holding his Grandpa’s dream tools to becoming the lead dreamwalker himself. When my daughter Josie, 9, finished this sweet, sad, minimalist tale, she said haltingly, “It’s beautiful, but I think it’s very metaphorical?” Indeed. (Ages 10 to adult.)
I was very taken with The Year of Goodbyes, by Debbie Levy, another slim book. This one should appeal to youthful poetry lovers and reluctant readers. There’s a lot of white space on the page, and the voice is approachable; it’s not at all intimidating. It begins:
I write these words
on the very first page
of my brand-new book,
with sturdy brown covers,
like heels of bread
spread with smooth butter pages inside.
It goes on to tell the story of Levy’s mother, Jutta, a privileged young girl in Germany in the 1930s. Levy’s jumping-off point is her mother’s actual poesiealbum, a sort of scrapbook kept by young girls. Levy shares some of the album’s inscriptions, drawings, and stickers, layering them upon her own verses about her mother’s life, told in the first person. Through Jutta’s life and friendships, we see the restrictions on German Jews grow. Jutta obviously survives—after all, we know that her daughter is writing her story—so kids who are terrified of Holocaust narratives should be able to handle this one. At the end of the book, we learn what happened to Jutta after she escaped the Nazis by sailing to America on the Queen Mary. We see family photos and learn the fates of Jutta’s friends. Part of me thinks the book would have worked better as a web site—a clickable version of the physical pages of the poesiealbum, looking as it really looked. Ms. Levy, perhaps an iPad app? (Ages 9 to adult.)
Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania, by Haya Leah Molnar, is a more challenging read. When the story opens, Eva is a much-loved 6-year-old living in a cramped multigenerational household of sniping, snarking relatives in 1950s Bucharest. Her formerly wealthy, staunchly anti-Communist family is suffering under Romania’s Communist regime. Terrible things have happened during the war, but little Eva can’t quite figure out what. The secret police are everywhere. Family secrets are, too. When Eva’s family applies to emigrate to Israel, she begins to learn about her relatives’ history and her own Judaism. The ending—will the family make it out of Europe?—is suspenseful and dramatic. But the memoir has plenty of humor, too. Don’t be put off by the unappealing cover and dry, school-sounding subtitle; this is an engaging read as well as a thoughtful one. But because it looks forbidding, and the first few pages may be confusing, I’d only give it to kids who already love to read. (Ages 15 to adult.)
Ashes, by Kathryn Lasky, a Newbery Honor winner, also suffers from a slow beginning, but it gathers steam fast. It’s the story of 13-year-old Gaby, a pretty, book-loving non-Jew in 1930s Germany. Her father is an astrophysicist at the University of Berlin, a colleague and friend of Albert Einstein; her mom’s best pal, Baba, is a fabulous Jewish society columnist. Gaby’s life seems sweet—luscious descriptions of parties, society events, and fabulous outfits will delight fashion-loving girls—but the Nazis are gaining power, and anti-Fascist intellectuals like her family are disparagingly called “White Jews.” Einstein’s work is derided as “Jewish physics,” and Gaby’s beloved, chic literature teacher isn’t who she seems. Adults may see some of the plot twists coming, but kids won’t. Each chapter begins with a well-chosen, pointed quote from an author Gaby loves—Jack London, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Heinrich Heine—authors whose books are burned by the Nazis at the book’s climax. Jewish kids need to know that not all Germans were Nazis, and this very readable book is a good way to teach them. (Ages 10 to adult.)
I did not want to like Once, by Morris Gleitzman. I hated the cover line: “Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.” More important, Once sounded to me like a rehash of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book I loathed. Children (and adults) do not need faux-naif, manipulative, emotionally inauthentic Holocaust books. But I was wrong. Felix, a Jewish boy in Poland in 1942, isn’t an idiot. He’s in denial. As the book goes on and the horrors mount, Felix’s denial evaporates. Storytelling has been his shield and survival strategy. As he loses that ability to tell himself truth-deflecting stories, you feel sick. The pacing of this book is incredible—Gleitzman is known in his native Australia for writing funny, goofy, contemporary children’s books—and the book’s short paragraphs and use of humor will make it enticing to boys and non-book-lovers. But be forewarned, this was the only book on my list that made me cry. The Nazis’ brutality is explicit and disgusting; this should not be any child’s first Holocaust novel. (Start with Number the Stars instead.) Once, which is influenced by the story of Janusz Korczak, offers no false hope. (Ages 11 to 15.)
You may have noticed: This list contains a lot of Holocaust books, though I know many young readers would prefer books about the world they know, where the dramas involve cute boys, popularity, and finding oneself in a land of pop culture and plenty. Inconvenient, by Margie Gelbwasser, will engross those readers. Alyssa, 15, feels herself growing away from her best friend, Lara, who’s desperate to be part of the popular crowd. While Lara sucks up to the cool kids, Alyssa wants to get closer to Keith, her running partner on the school track team. What makes the story intriguing from a Jewish perspective is that Lara and Alyssa are Russian Jews whose families have emigrated to New Jersey. In their culture, alcohol is part of every gathering. Russians are used to laughing off hangovers, but Alyssa’s mom’s drinking is spiraling out of control. In this closed culture, where the belief in not airing your dirty laundry in front of the goyim also applies to the non-Russian Jewish community, Alyssa feels ashamed and isolated. Inconvenient isn’t perfect—Keith is the dreamiest boy ever, and Alyssa’s dad is underwritten—but the romance is very romantic (conservative parents should know that there’s some explicit fooling around), and the ending is perfect. (Ages 13 to 17.)
Perfect throughout is Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch. It’s a very weird, confidently drawn graphic novel about an 11-year-old Orthodox girl who fervently wants to fight dragons. Mirka Herschberg lives in a tight-knit community in an unknown time and place where boys have payos and married women cover their hair, but where the woods are full of trolls and witches and humungous crazed pigs. I love that the stepmother in this book is good instead of evil, and I love that Deutsch really knows how to tell a story in his chosen medium. Characters burst free of their panels; the interplay of image and text is flawless; the entire book is kinetic and action-filled, but thoughtful too. A must for graphic-novel fans. (Ages 8 to 13.)
There you go. Shop well, and Happy Hanukkah.