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Arts & Culture Jewish Kids’ Books Move Beyond Biblical Stories and the Holocaust

Kibitzers, dreamers, medieval travelers and dybbuks are among the wide array of heroes, heroines and mystical villains in this season’s crop of Jewish children’s books, as publishers expand their offerings beyond holiday books and biblical retellings. And, as Carolyn Starman Hessel of Jewish Book World points, out, the roster of publishers is evolving as much as the books they publish. According to her estimate, about 160 new Jewish children’s titles were published last year, by a growing number of mainstream and religious publishers.

This reflects a national growth among religious-themed books.

Ilene Cooper, the children’s book editor of Booklist, a trade magazine published by the American Library Association, says that several years ago, Booklist began publishing an annual spotlight on religion books. “It was hard then to come up with enough books to fill the list,” she says, but not anymore.

While she agrees that the situation is improving, Natalie Blitt says some publishers are still not convinced that Jewish children’s books will sell. Blitt is director of the relatively new nonprofit organization Sippurim, which has put together an extensive online database of Jewish children’s books.

One of Blitt’s concerns is the concentration, among books set in Israel, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Though some strong books on other topics have made it to market in recent years — such as “Real Time” by Pnina Moed Kass, which has been optioned for movie rights, and “Running on Eggs” by Anna Levine — she is hopeful that upcoming books such as “Light Years” by Tamar Stein, and “The Weight of the Sky” by Lisa Sandell, a novel told in verse about an American high-school student who visits Israel, will widen the lens through which teens view Israel.

“But where is the Madeline of Jewish books?” she wonders, which gives a flavor for Israeli culture and life in the same way that the wildly popular series about a young Parisian girl conveys an image of France. Without the attention of the Jewish press and without enough publicity, Jewish-themed books will not sell well enough and publishers will remain skeptical, Blitt cautions.

Cooper points to several books that received rave reviews from Booklist as examples of illustrated books that reach beyond traditional holiday stories: “The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela,” by renowned award-winning writer and artist Uri Shulevitz, tells the little-known story of the voyages of a medieval Spanish Jewish traveler, and “Sholom’s Treasure” by Erica Silverman, a past winner of the Sydney Taylor award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries, is illustrated by Caldecott award winner Mordicai Gerstein.

However, Cooper bemoans the lack of contemporary stories. “There’s still a lot more old-fashioned clothing than modern clothes in most Jewish children’s books.”

Starman Hessel hopes for a book that will grab attention, the equivalent of a Jewish Harry Potter. She also echoes a recurring complaint of Jewish children’s writers and educators who note the abundance of new Holocaust books for children. “Why should Judaism be seen only through that lens?” she asks.

Another unmet market, Cooper and Starman Hessel agree, is the increasing number of children in interfaith families.

“We get phone calls from non-Jewish mothers in interfaith families who are looking for books for their children,” Starman Hessel says.

As a children’s author, Cooper targeted this market with “Sam I Am,” a young-adult Chanukah novel published last year, where the young boy Sam grapples with questions of religious identity.

Changing reader needs are having a major impact on traditional religious publishing, says Scott Blumenthal, the editor at Behrman House, which publishes Jewish educational material for use in religious schools.

Behrman House is responding to the demands of Jewish parents who want more classroom time for religious education programs because their kids have busier after-school schedules.

“Our challenge is to speak to the kids in as concise and engaging manner as we can with kid friendly editorial content, lively design, art and illustration — something that’s going to not feel like more school.”

The growth and change in the marketplace have caught the attention of a growing number of Jewish children’s writers and artists who want to break into the competitive field. Blumenthal is one of several prominent editors — including Judye Groner of Kar-Ben publishers, a division of Lerner Books — who will participate in what is becoming an increasingly substantial conference for Jewish children’s writers and artists, sponsored in part by the Jewish Book Council, on Nov. 20 in Manhattan.

When the conference was first held seven years ago there were two speakers and about a dozen attendees, Anna Olswanger, an author who runs a Web site for Jewish writers and artists, writes in an e-mail. This year, there are nine speakers and almost 100 participants, she says.

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