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Bringing a Diverse and Complex World to Young Readers

There’s a movement to make children’s books more embracing of underrepresented groups. Where should Jews fit in?

Marjorie Ingall
October 15, 2015
Photo Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia
Photo Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia
Photo Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia
Photo Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia

Once upon a time, I heard a very serious novelist who writes for grownups comment that because she was struggling with writer’s block, she thought she’d knock out a quick children’s book. The snotty implication was that children’s books are simpler, shallower, less than. This is stupid. Children’s and young adult books are more important than grownup books. They teach not only vocabulary words and literary conventions, but also that stories can transport us. Books teach kids about the world, about their own value in it, about feelings and kindness and empathy for others. It’s just as hard and rare to write a brilliant book for young people as it is to write one for older people.

As you have no doubt gathered, I will happily jabber about children’s books until the cows come home. So, last week I was delighted to be in Baltimore to attend Kidlitcon, a children’s and young-adult literature conference sponsored by the Kidlitosphere , a community of librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators, and enthusiasts who blog about children’s and young-adult literature.

My favorite panel was about intersectionality, the study of the intersections between different systems of discrimination. My spellchecker does not think intersectionality is a word, and I suspect many of my readers don’t either. It’s a term coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, who teaches at the UCLA and Columbia Schools of Law; intersectionality is a sociological theory that says we have to look at how a lot of different sources of identity—gender, race, religion, class, ability, sexual identity—are interwoven. It’s a theory that makes sense in a complicated, non-binary world. Me, I’ve experienced bias and prejudice because I’m a woman, I’m over 40, I’m fat, and I’m Jewish. But I also enjoy the privileges of being white, straight, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, and in possession of a Harvard degree.

There’s a campaign under way in the children’s literature world to ensure that books for kids reflect this kind of complexity. The We Need Diverse Books movement insists that all kinds of stories, about all kinds of people, should be told. Kids are not only capable of understanding that the world is a complicated place, but also deserving of smart storytelling that addresses many different worlds: the small world they know, the wider world they don’t, and the worlds in other realms—Narnia, the Potterverse, Camazotz, Neverland, Cittàgazze, Middle Earth—that don’t exist.

There are compelling reasons to ask kids to think bigger. Studies tell us that even 3-year-old white kids prefer to befriend other white kids. That’s troubling. We white parents like to say we’re colorblind, or that kids don’t see race, or that kids are too young to understand difference; research shows we’re flat-out wrong. When kids start learning at an early age that there’s life beyond their own block and outside their own history, they become better and more flexible thinkers and better and more open-hearted citizens. White kids should learn about non-white kids. Straight kids should read about gay kids. Boys should read about girls. A wide variety of perspectives is good for everyone. And the best people to tell diverse stories are those who’ve lived them: writers of diverse backgrounds.

But as someone who writes about Jewish life, I wonder how we Jews fit into the picture. We are a religious minority in America. But let’s not kid ourselves: We also constitute great, sweeping swaths of the publishing industry. (I am reliably informed by Internet commenters that Jews run the media. We don’t. But we sure have a lot of jobs in it.) Can we really claim our stories are underrepresented if we are the gatekeepers? Yes, we have suffered terrible discrimination, genocide, and bias. But today, in America, the majority of Jews are doing pretty damn well.

And I worry that we white Jews want to claim special super-persecuted status we don’t deserve. We want to cling to an outdated notion of how we’ve suffered the most. As I’ve written before, the Holocaust is absolutely central to American Jewish identity, perhaps at the expense of the long-term health of our people. So many Jewish books for kids are about this one event. We are a people with a 6,000-year history that spans multiple continents. Where are all the books about that history? And where are the books about contemporary American Jewish kids’ lives? Where are the books informed by Sephardic history and food and stories, the speculative fiction imbued with Jewish texts and folklore, the historical novels set against the backdrop of the labor movement or the early motion picture industry or the Communist witch hunts?

And why do we keep forgetting that not all Jews are white? Where are their stories?

Finally, where’s the joy? How do we go about making kids feel engaged by Jewish history, community, and values if their Jewish literature is restricted to picture books about holidays (with a few simplistic stories from the book of Genesis sprinkled hither and yon like sesame seeds on a bagel) and middle-grade and young-adult novels about the Holocaust? Teaching kids as they grow up that their identity is all about loss and misery is no way to set a foundation for future engagement.

Part of the problem, of course, is that many of us don’t know much about Judaism. I’ve read so many Jewish books that get fundamental things wrong. A picture book about Passover in which the Seder plate is brought out like a platter after everyone’s already seated around the table. (No. The ritual object isn’t served up like a Christmas ham.) A middle-grade novel that describes Lower East Side turn-of-the-century butcher signs written in Hebrew. (Nope. Yiddish.) A book depicting an ultra-Orthodox community that has a Hasidic character going on a Birthright trip. (What?)

And how do you portray the life of a contemporary, acculturated white Jewish kid if being Jewish just isn’t a huge part of her life? Go through my annual Tablet lists of the Best Jewish Children’s Books of the Year; you can probably see I’m sweating to find non-Holocaust books to adore. I’d like to blame self-hating Jewish editors and publishers for slamming doors in Jewish authors’ faces and autocratically deciding that Jewish books won’t sell, but I’m betting a lot of the problem is that Jews aren’t writing many good Jewish books.

So, how do we figure out who we are in a time of transition for the Jewish community? As we go, so go our children’s books. The answer is not for us white Jews to ask, as the characters do in the musical Avenue Q, “Whose life sucks more?” Being white—even if we’re Jewish—means we have white privilege. (Intersectionality!) We can’t simply shrug off that privilege like an uncomfortable coat, as a misguided way to express solidarity with our black neighbors who are being killed by racist gun nuts for wearing a hoodie in a white neighborhood, shot by cops despite being 12, or dying mysteriously in a prison cell after being arrested for not signaling while changing lanes.

We may feel lost in today’s America and our own shifting place in it, but to announce: “In America’s racist social construct, Jews are very much white people, but we must never again think of ourselves that way—it’s time for us to opt out of that racist paradigm, because we are Jews”… oh honey, no. The thing about white privilege is we don’t get to opt out. We can and should be allies, but we also have to stay in our own lane. Look, I had pennies thrown at me when I walked to Jewish day school in Providence in the 1980s. I worry about wearing my Magen David necklace on the subway. I felt sick when one of my kid’s classmates exclaimed to her, “You’re Jewish? I thought you were normal.” But as a mother, I don’t have to worry that my child will be murdered for turning his back on a policeman. That’s privilege.

My high-school friend Patrick Daniels pointed me to a powerful, beautifully written Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Berg of Beth Am in Baltimore, where Patrick now lives. It’s a must-read. Berg points out that white Americans love to quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, but the dream imagery was a nechemta, a homiletical note of consolation designed to comfort listeners and keep them from despair. King also talked in that speech about how America had failed black people and defaulted on its promises. As people who’ve also been subjugated and tyrannized, we need to think about the whole sermon, not just the uplifting part. We need to think about the words we say at the Passover Seder: “We used to be slaves; now we are free.” As Berg writes, “For those of us who are both Jewish and white, we’re faced with a unique conundrum: How do we synthesize our pain and our privilege?” It’s the same conundrum Jewish children’s books should be wrestling with, the way Jacob wrestled with the angel.

There’s fodder, too, in American Jews’ knotty relationship with Israel. We’re so divided now, with right-wingers expressing “my country, right or wrong” feelings, and lefties backing frantically away from any discussion of Israel as if from a vampire. Hawks accuse doves, in America and in Israel, of being naïve morons, and doves choose to be ignorant of the land’s history and of Israel’s right to exist in safety. The New York Times (The New York Times!) runs an insane article, later half-assedly amended, questioning Israel’s legitimate, factual historical claim to its holiest spot, and Jewish college students and musicians are expected to sign loyalty pledges because they might, I don’t know, suddenly kill all the Arabs on campus or at the reggae festival? There’s been a huge increase in anti-Semitic incidents worldwide because to the anti-Semites coming out of the woodwork, Jews=Israel. Gawker, our new nexus of Millennial Israel hate, runs a roundup of Palestinian deaths without even mentioning the hip new trend of terrorist stabbings of Jews. (Including a child.) This stuff is horrid and twisty to think about, which is also why it’s worth struggling with … and writing and reading about.

We need to go deep. I loved Starglass and Proxy and Brave Girl and Rifka Takes a Bow and Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust, and I loved Fleabrain Loves Franny and Chik Chak Shabbat, and I loved Zayde Comes to Live and the Hereville books and The Whole Story of Half a Girl, because these books are quirky and individual and nuanced and thoughtful; they reflect our betwixt-and-between place in America and in kidlit right now.

And no matter what our kids are reading, we should talk to them about how we can be like the shamash on a menorah: a helper candle. T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call to Human Rights, has a great list of rules for Jewish engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement that also serves as a good general outline for talking to children about difference and engaging in other communities’ social justice movements. Read it here. The highlights: Show up, practice listening instead of talking (which can be challenging for our mouthy people), do the work within our internal communities, explode the myth that all Jews are white (or if we’re using T’ruah’s list as a template, that we’re all straight and cisgender and wealthy and lacking in any disability whatsoever that our shuls and schools should address), step outside your comfort zone, and “don’t hide when it gets messy.” This is good advice for readers, writers, parents, publishers—all of us.

“I’m not afraid of storms,” wrote Louisa May Alcott in Little Women, one of the foundational texts of young adult literature, “for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.