The Jews’ moniker “People of the Book” commonly refers to the study of Tanakh, but it can easily be understood in terms of the Jewish reverence for study and learning of all kinds, a reverence that is shared generationally. In fact, reverence that is shared generationally. In fact, Jews of many cultures share a centuries’ old tradition of spreading honey across a book or a board imprinted with the Hebrew alephbet to demonstrate to children the sweetness of learning, and reading to and with children continues to be important in most Jewish households. Happily, the burgeoning children’s book publishing of recent decades has made room for many wonderful titles that include Jewish content.
In 1968, the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) established the Shirley Kravitz Children’s Book Award to recognize quality contributions to Jewish children’s literature. After the death of Sydney Taylor, author of the classic children’s series All-of-a-Kind Family, the award was renamed the Sydney Taylor Book Award in1978. The award was originally reserved for books written for middle grade levels, but in 1981, categories for picture books and young adult novels were added. In addition to the winning gold medals, Honor Books are granted silver medals, and other notable titles are recognized.
The Sydney Taylor Book Awards are granted based on ten criteria, including that the book has literary merit and has positive and authentic Jewish religious or cultural content. The book must be appropriate for the intended grade level in style, vocabulary, format, and illustration, and be solidly rooted in authentic and accurate detail; particular attention is paid to titles that demonstrate the broad diversity of the Jewish experience. Textbooks, liturgy, reprints, and self-published books are ineligible.
The Klau Library purchases Sydney Taylor Award gold medal winners as soon as they announced at the American Library Association meeting each January. As we await the 2024 announcement, here is a list of the 2023 award titles we purchased last winter:
The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, by Chana Stiefle and illustrated by Susan Gal, is a picture book biography about the woman who created the Tower of Faces exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC. Stiefle and Gal recount Eliach’s escape with her family and some hidden photographs when her hometown of Eishyshok is purged by Nazi soldiers. Years later, when asked by President Jimmy Carter to contribute to a memorial for victims of the Holocaust, Eliach embarks on a 17-year mission to collect 6,000 photographs that celebrate and honor the life of her hometown.
Aviva vs. the Dybbuk, by Mari Lowe, is a complex middle- grade novel about grief, mother-daughter relationships, and growing up in a contemporary Orthodox community. After the death of her father, Aviva and her mother must move to an apartment above the mikvah her mother cares for. Aviva juggles the stresses of middle school, friends, a distanced parent, and antisemitism, all while dealing with a mischievous dybbuk that haunts the mikvah. The mysteries of the dybbuk and Aviva’s father’s death are resolved sensitively in the end.
When the Angels Left the Old Country, by Sacha Lamb, is an unusual combination of historical fiction, fantasy, and queer lit. A genderless and nameless angel and a disabled demon, Little Ash, have spent centuries as Talmudic study partners in a Polish shtetl so small it is only called Shtetl. When they learn a girl from Shtetl left for America and disappeared, they decide to search for her. The journey leads the angel and Little Ash to humans in need of their help, both en route and upon their arrival at Ellis Island and the harsh conditions of Lower East Side factory and tenement life.
Contributed by Alice Finkelstein, Head of Technical Services