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New Children’s Book About Women Who Changed the World Leaves Out the Jews

Emma Lazarus, Elena Kagan, Gloria Steinem and others need not apply

Marjorie Ingall
May 11, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Emma LazarusWikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Emma LazarusWikimedia Commons

Shout out to Tablet and Jewcy contributor Emily Schneider, a writer and educator in New York City who writes about children’s literature at her blog, Imaginary Elevators. Not long ago, in children’s literature journal The Horn Book, Emily pointed out something irksome. A new book about young women activists, Susan Hood’s gorgeously illustrated Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World, is entirely Jew-free.

As Emily notes, “Shaking Things Up includes black women, Hispanic women, Christian women, Asian women, and one Muslim woman, and their ethnic, racial, and religious identities are woven into the narratives of their courage and creativity.” So what are we, chopped liver? It’s especially ironic that even Hood’s World War II heroes are goyim. On the one hand, sure, it’s nifty to learn about Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne, French-speaking British sisters who fought against Nazism—Eileen was a wireless operator in Paris sending secret Morse code messages to London, and Jacqueline was an undercover agent assisting the French Resistance who was captured by and escaped from the Gestapo. Who knew? And Caldecott-medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall contributes a gorgeous illustration, in muted tones, of Jacqueline parachuting into enemy territory while toting the tools of her spy trade (a small shovel to bury the parachute, food, a compass, a flashlight, a pistol, fake identity papers). But what knowledgeable Jewish person can look at this image and, as Emily points out, not immediately think of Hannah Senesh, the paratrooper for the British Air Force who was tortured to reveal Allied wireless codes (she didn’t) and then executed by Hungarian authorities? There’s a Brooklyn Jewish Day School named after her, for goodness sake! She wrote the lyrics to the classic mournful Hebrew song “Eli, Eli”! Granted, the Nearnes were apparently better at spying than Senesh, who was captured within hours of entering Hungary from Yugoslavia, but still! In this #ownvoices era, when disadvantaged writers and artists are clamoring for the opportunity to tell their own stories, to make the book’s single Holocaust-adjacent story be a story of non-Jews saving powerless people (including, presumably, Jews) is a hero narrative we don’t need. Jewish women were heroes as well as victims. How about one of the young women who blew up a gas chamber in Auschwitz, killing several Nazis? Or what about Zivia Libetkin, who founded and led a Jewish fighting organization from within the Warsaw ghetto? When Hood, in her afterword, describes the Nearnes as “testaments to the courage of young women who resisted the horrors of Nazism in World War II,” how can that not make Jewish girls feel written out of their own story?

The folks profiled in this book are absolutely worth reading about: Molly Williams, the first known female firefighter in the United States; paleontologist Mary Anning; investigative journalist Nellie Bly; swimmer and swimsuit inventor Annette Kellerman; first Latina librarian at the NYPL and children’s author Pura Belpre; artist Frida Kahlo (not Jewish, fyi); food activist Frances Moore Lappe; civil rights pioneer Ruby Bridges; astronaut Mae Jemison; architect Maya Lin; cancer researcher Angela Zhang; and girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai as well as the Nearnes. Hood’s poems are sometimes striking, sometimes merely serviceable. (Nellie Bly: “A fearless writer of her day,/she righted wrongs along the way”). But I love the diverse crew of illustrators represented here, with so many different backgrounds and ethnicities and art styles. Some have even worked on children’s books about Jews! The astoundingly talented LeUyen Pham, who illustrated the spread on Angela Zhang, also did the art for The Boy Who Loved Math, a delight of a picture book by Deborah Heiligman about mathematician Paul Erdos. Melissa Sweet, who did the spread on Frances Moore Lappe, also created the multimedia art for the ravishing Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, about teenage labor activist Clara Lemlich. (Who, uh, hey, COULD HAVE BEEN IN YOUR BOOK, SUSAN HOOD). Both the aforementioned books were among Tablet’s favorite picture books of 2013, by the way.

Emily suggests some other Jews who might have made appearances here, including Emma Lazarus, Lillian Wald, Elena Kagan, Rosalind Franklin, Sarah Bernhardt, Gloria Steinem, Lee Krasner, Molly Picon, Alicia Markova, and Judy Chicago. You and I could surely name more. (How about a twofer, since there are no lesbian or trans activists in the book either: Jewish orchestra conductor and Nazi and LGBT Resistance activist Frieda Belinfante, or fine artist and lesbian anti-Nazi activist Gertrude Sandmann, who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Berlin?)

We live in weird times, with anti-Semitism skyrocketing and neo-Nazis calling for Jewish murder while cultural gatekeepers – yes, lots of them Jewish – keep leaving Jews out of their lists of targeted minorities who should be celebrated…and named.

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.