These three Jewish children’s books are judged the year’s best

BOSTON (JTA) — Books on Hebrew becoming the language of Israel, three generations of refugees and an Auschwitz librarian are the top winners of the 2018 Sydney Taylor Book Awards for children’s literature presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

“The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew,” by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Karla Gudeon (Charlesbridge), was awarded the gold medal for younger readers by the association. The vibrantly illustrated picture book tells the unusual story of how Hebrew was transformed from the ancient, holy language of prayer to the modern-day language of the State of Israel.

“Refugee,” by Alan Gratz (Scholastic Press), won the top medal for older readers. “The Librarian of Auschwitz”, by Antonio Iturbe and translated by Lilit Thwaites (Godwin Books/Henry Holt/Macmillan), won for teen readers.

The awards, announced Wednesday, are given in recognition of books that “exemplify high literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience,” the AJL said in a statement.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Taylor awards, named in honor of the author of the “All-of-a-Kind Family” series about a Jewish immigrant family in the early 20th century. The first winner of the award, in 1968, was Esther Hautzig for “The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia.”

“The Language of Angels” and “Refugee” also were among the winners of the 67th Annual National Jewish Book Award announced the same day by the Jewish Book Council.

For the first time since 2004, the Sydney Taylor committee handed out its Body of Work Award, giving the rare honor to Harold Grinspoon and PJ Library, the Jewish family-literacy program that sends free books on Jewish values and culture to families with children from age 6 months to 8 years old.

“This program has revolutionized the field of Jewish children’s literature,” AJL said in a statement, adding that it also has significantly increased the publication of Jewish children’s books through its large purchasing power.

“The Language of Angels” is based on the life of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is credited with leading the revival of modern Hebrew and compiling its first dictionary. Michelson, who also wrote “Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy,” tells the story through the eyes of Eliezer’s young son, who as a child is not allowed to speak Yiddish, the language spoken by his friends. He finds ways to get creative and playful with his new Hebrew words.

Gudeon’s illustrations, embellished with floating Hebrew letters, dance off the page and bring newly invented Hebrew words like bicycle and ice cream to life.

In “Refugee,” a New York Times best-seller that garnered starred reviews, Gratz constructs a timely novel based on three children across generations and continents whose lives are upturned and threatened when their families flee persecution and the violence of war. Josef is a Jewish refugee fleeing German in 1939; Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994 whose family flees their homeland by raft; Mahmoud is a Syrian boy whose family sets out from war-torn country toward Europe.

“The Librarian of Auschwitz” is based on the true story of Dita Kraus, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who was tasked with protecting a handful of Jewish books in the Auschwitz concentration camp where she was a prisoner.

Eight silver medalists also were recognized including “Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam (Kar-Ben),” adapted by Fawzia Gilan-Williams and illustrated by Chiara Fedele, in the category for younger readers. The story, written by a Muslim woman, was a PJ Library book selection. Gilan-Williams may be the first Muslim woman writer to win the Sydney Taylor award, according to Susan Kusel, chair of the award committee.

The awards will be presented in June at the AJL’s annual conference, to be held this year in Boston.