Children's Literature in the United States
It is hard to imagine the world of children’s books without Jewish women writers.
It is hard to imagine the world of children’s books without Jewish women writers. Gone would be Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth (1967) and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) as conceived by Elaine L. Konigsburg. Barbara Cohen’s famous Joe, The Carp in the Bathtub (1972), never would have splashed happily unaware that A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Passover was almost upon him. Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family (1951) would not have introduced hundreds of thousands of children to the lives of five little girls in a Jewish immigrant family in New York. Hundreds of characters and situations familiar to and beloved by children around the world would not exist.
The majority of Jewish women writers are noted for their many books of broad general interest (E.L. Konigsburg, Katherine Lasky, Johanna Hurwitz, Marilyn Sachs, Barbara Cohen, Sonia Levitin, Charlotte Zolotow), but few have not produced at least one or two books springing specifically from their own Jewish sensibilities and experiences. A select group has devoted itself entirely to topics dealing directly with Judaism. Others have placed some of their most universally popular stories, whether emphasizing school adventures, social and ethical development issues, early childhood concerns, or family relationships, into settings where the families, attitudes, customs, and concerns are either peripherally or implicitly Jewish.
IN THE BEGINNING: 1930 TO 1960
American children’s literature as a separate literary category is a recent phenomenon. American women writers began to produce generally preachy and/or sentimental works for young people in the eighteenth century, following upon previous moralistic, religious, and educational tracts, but no known American Jewish women writers for children emerged until the great waves of nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigration had quieted.
Jewish children in Europe historically had been introduced directly to text study and had learned their religion through practice and community. But in America in the early 1930s and on through the 1950s, writers like Sadie Rose Weilerstein, Lillian Freehof, Deborah Pessin, Mamie Gamoran, Shulamith Ish-Kishor, and Elma Ehrlich Levinger produced biblical retellings, family fiction, legends, and nonfiction primarily designed to teach Judaism in this far different environment. Weilerstein’s Adventures of K’tonton (1935), the tale of a thumb-size boy and his doting observant parents, and Gamoran’s Hillel’s Happy Holidays (1939), also a family-based holiday guide, while recently thought of questionable literary merit, succeeded in accomplishing their apparent goal: coating Jewish knowledge with honey to help the learning go down. Ish-Kishor (1896–1977) was particularly proficient and prolific in producing Judaica for children, but her finest work was not to come until the 1960s, when A Boy of Old Prague (1963), a powerful historical novel about antisemitism in the 1600s, was named an American Library Association Notable Book. Later, Our Eddie (1969), a moving novel about a sensitive boy and his difficult father, won the 1969 Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Children’s Book Award and was a 1970 Newbery Honor Book.
Beginning in the 1950s, some writers, such as Libby Mindlin Klaperman (1921–1982), who wrote primarily pedagogical works for Jewish educational publishers, also put out a few biographies or histories with general publishers. Others, like Dorothy Karp Kripke, author of the Let’s Talk About series, remained focused on Jewish teaching tools. As the decade progressed, however, more children’s books by Jewish women were published as broad-appeal trade books. A groundbreaking series in this pivotal time was the work of an author almost by accident, Sydney Taylor (1904–1978).
An actor and professional dancer with Martha Graham’s company, Taylor had recorded the adventures of her family of five sisters for her daughter. Later, her husband, reading about a contest being conducted by Follett, submitted the manuscript without her knowledge. To her surprise, it won publication as All-of-a-Kind Family (1951), garnering awards and launching her on a new career. The several books containing the adventures of this warm New York immigrant family are still popular among children today. The last book in the series, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family (1978), focusing on the eldest daughter as she faces difficult choices about her future, was published the year of Taylor’s death. In 1979, AJL honored her posthumously for her body of work and renamed their annual Children’s Book Award the Sydney Taylor Award in her memory.
After writing a number of sailing stories, in the early 1950s Nora Benjamin Kubie, inspired by living in an area rich in American history and by reading about Jewish involvement in the Revolution, wrote Joel (1952), one of the few children’s novels presenting young Jews as active in the birth of this country. Later, Kubie went to Israel and began writing nonfiction works on the country and its archaeology, as well as Jewish children’s historical fiction, including the award-winning King Solomon’s Navy (1954).
The late 1950s saw only a few mainstream books about Jewish American boys and girls, among them Mina Lewiton’s Rachel and Herman (1957), Leota Harris Keir’s Freckle Face Frankel (1959), and Sydney Taylor’s family novels.
THE ERA OF ISRAEL, UNREST, AND UNDERSTANDING: THE 1960s AND 1970s
Jewish women wrote many children’s books during this period and built important reputations in the field.
Molly Cone , well known for her highly praised Mishmash (1962) series about a large and lovable dog, and for numerous other popular works for children and young adults, also produced important specifically Jewish materials: a holiday series for Crowell Publishing; a classic collection of original tales, Who Knows Ten: Children’s Tales of the Ten Commandments (1965), and a series of storybooks called Hear O Israel (1972–1973), for the Union of Hebrew Congregations; and several trade-published books about Israel including The House in the Tree: A Story of Israel (1968), You Can’t Make Me If I Don’t Want To (1971), and Dance Around the Fire (1974). Cone won an AJL award for her contributions to children’s literature (1972) and continued to write both general and Jewish fiction and nonfiction, including a work on Jewish identity and several on nature and ecology published in the 1990s.
In addition to novels and picture books, Malka Drucker (b. 1945) wrote a distinguished holiday series, winning recognition from the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People in 1982. Miriam Chaikin (b. 1928), winner of the Sydney Taylor Award for Body of Work (1984), produced a lively group of books on the holidays, as well as a popular series of Molly books, readable stories with strong moral underpinnings, and, later, a number of cautionary tales about a lovable Orthodox boy named Yossi. Both the Molly and the Yossi stories brought the concept of middos books, books that teach overtly Jewish ethical lessons, into trade publication and distribution by making them enjoyable and relatively free of didacticism.
Immigrants are always making transitions, feeling out of place, learning to fit in, processing new experiences. So are children. Chaya Burstein with her Rifka books (Rifka Grows Up, 1977), Marietta Moskin with Waiting for Mama (1975), Anita Heyman with Exit from Home, (1977) and Carol Snyder with Ike and Mama and the Block Wedding (1979), all award winners, wrote hopefully about immigration near the beginning of the century, picturing a promising New Land. Rose Blue (b. 1931), whose work includes books on black children and Grandma Didn’t Wave Back (1972), about old age and nursing homes, later wrote on a more sober note about contemporary transplanted Soviet Jewish immigrants in Cold Rain on the Water (1979). Her story ends sadly, lacking the sentimental nostalgia often present in tales about those who came earlier.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish women writers, perhaps caught up in the increasing mood of social protest, ethnic pride, and emancipation for women, seemed to be writing more powerful juveniles about Israel, about immigration, about assimilation, and about the Jewish American child in the broader society. Pluralism became a reality in children’s literature, often made salable through the medium of folktale. Not all families were perfect, and the “problem novel” dealing with death, divorce, drugs, and disillusionment did not leave Jewish families inviolate. Even those novels dealing with the past, harkening back to immigrant days, were more honest about confronting the problems involved in the transition. Marilyn Sachs’s Call Me Ruth (1982) won an AJL Award by showing a young girl’s desperate effort to become Americanized. As she tries to emulate her WASP teacher and disown her Yiddish-speaking union firebrand mother, we see the exploitation of immigrant workers, the courage of sweatshop organizers, and the tension caused in families where New World children and Old World parents have different goals and values.
Barbara Cohen’s first published work was the classic Carp in the Bathtub, but Cohen (1932–1992) also became known for her insightful intermediate and young adult novels about alienation, resolution, Jewish identity, and survival. King of the Seventh Grade (1982) is about a rebellious boy, son of an intermarriage, who finally chooses to become a Jew and celebrate his bar mitzva. Thank You Jackie Robinson (1974), My Name Is Rosie (1978), and The Innkeeper’s Daughter (1979) are loosely based on the lonely lives Cohen and her siblings led as children of a Jewish innkeeper in a small antisemitic town. As in Bitter Herbs and Honey (1976), the story of a young girl whose ambitions for herself are far different from those of her immigrant parents, the struggle is one against constraints, with resultant anger and guilt, all emotions universally recognizable to any child. Cohen’s interests included Israel, folklore, and social concerns. The Secret Grove (1985) is told by a grown Israeli soldier sadly remembering when, as a boy, he shared a moment of friendship and an orange with an Arab boy who may now be his enemy. In Unicorns in the Rain (1980), Cohen forecast an increasingly armed society and set it in a mythic environment based on the story of Noah; in The Long Way Home (1990), Cohen confronted honestly the fears raised in a family of girls when the mother develops breast cancer.
After publishing an earlier historical novel, The King’s Persons (1963), under her own name, Joanne Greenberg (b. 1932) who is also an adult novelist, used the pseudonym Hannah Green to confront harsh realities in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), a controversial and startling work for young adults about her own adolescent mental problems. A later, also largely autobiographical children’s novel, which stunned readers by departing from previous stereotypes of the Jewish family as being warmly nurturing, was Summer of My German Soldier (1973) by Bette Greene (b. 1934). This World War II story of an abusive Jewish family in Arkansas, whose unhappy daughter finds her only friends in an escaped German POW and a supportive housekeeper, created quite a backlash but was critically acknowledged and has remained popular with young readers who feel equally isolated and misunderstood. Following a sequel, Greene wrote other, far lighter works set in the South but without Jewish content.
Hila Colman began her writing career in 1957 and has written prolifically ever since, primarily for adolescents. She explored the runaway generation of the 1960s (Claudia, Where Are You?, 1969), troubled mother-daughter relations (Sometimes I Don’t Love My Mother, 1977), and remarriage and its difficulties (Weekend Sisters, 1985). The daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family, Colman based two novels, Rachel’s Legacy (1978) and Ellie’s Inheritance (1979), loosely on her own mother’s rise from immigrant child to successful clothing designer and businesswoman, her early death, and its effect on the family’s fortunes and her daughter’s development.
Norma Klein (1938–1989) and Gloria D. Miklowitz (b. 1927) also dealt with modern life’s issues honestly. Klein, the daughter of a Freudian psychoanalyst, found many of her books regarded as very unconventional, especially her first novel, Mom, the Wolf Man and Me (1972), in which the main character’s mother is unmarried. The book, written for middle-aged readers, was forced into the young adult category by the irregularity of this situation, but Klein nonetheless felt lucky and said she was sure she and many of her contemporaries, such as Judy Blume, were published only due to the delayed influence of the 1960s when openness and boldness were encouraged. Klein’s work, like that of many other Jewish women writers, while not often overtly Jewish in content, is informed by an urban sensibility reflecting authorial worldviews.
Gloria Miklowitz first published in 1964 for younger children. By the late 1970s, she was writing for young adults, exploring such difficult subjects as rape in Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea? (1979). Racism, nuclear holocaust, AIDS, abuse, and religious cults are among the topics she has tackled in highly readable novels. Of particular Jewish interest is Close to the Edge (1983), the story of a half-Jewish girl in a wealthy Los Angeles family whose inner emptiness makes a mockery of her “golden girl” image until, while grudgingly playing piano at a Jewish senior center at Venice Beach, she begins to learn about courage, resiliency, and love from the old Jews she meets there.
A number of other writers began to write during this period, producing many books and building their careers throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are Sue Alexander, whose Nadia the Willful (1983) is a timeless story of loss, grief, and healing; Judy Blume; Charlotte Herman, author of The Difference of Ari Stein (1976), Our Snowman Had Olive Eyes (1977), and What Happened to Heather Hopkowitz (1981); Johanna Hurwitz, author of Once I Was a Plum Tree (1980) and many other works; and Norma Fox Mazer, whose output was considerable during the 1970s and whose novel After the Rain (1987) deals sensitively with a young girl’s relationship with her grandfather. The question of Jewish identity and assimilation is central to many of these works, and grandparents figure largely in a number of the books listed here, emphasizing the importance of traditions and of family ties, however imperfect.
Judith Viorst (b. 1931), best known for poetry and journalism, also wrote many children’s books filled with warm understanding and humor. Among the best known are The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (1971), a classic picture book about the death of a beloved pet, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (1972). Other poets who became well known for a large body of children’s books were Maxine Kumin, who occasionally wrote with Anne Sexton, and Myra Cohn Livingston, whose output included volumes of poetry selected and/or composed for children, anthologies, and critical texts such as The Child as Poet: Myth of Reality. Livingston won numerous awards for her contributions to making poetry an important part of children’s education and literature and was an outstanding educator at UCLA for many years.
HOLOCAUST AND SURVIVAL
The 1970s saw a great many works on the Holocaust by American writers, Jewish and non-Jewish, many by writers born in Europe who escaped either just before or just after World War II, eventually becoming naturalized Americans. Among the latter was Esther Rudomin Hautzig (b. 1930) whose award-winning The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia (1968) tells of her Polish family’s arrest by the Soviets and exile to the Altai region of Siberia, where they survived for six years while the Nazis destroyed the family left behind. Hautzig’s works include other books of Jewish interest, among them A Gift for Mama (1981), Remember Who You Are: Stories About Being Jewish (1990), and Riches (1992).
Sonia Levitin (b. 1934) published Journey to America in 1970, basing it on her family’s flight from Berlin when she was three and their subsequent lives as refugees. While she avoids heavy-handedness and many of her picture books and novels contain humor or are folkloric in mood, early exposure to danger and separation influenced the author’s concerns and often have led her to deal with serious subjects such as war, aging, love, sacrifice, and freedom. Honors have been given Levitin for such varied work as Journey to America, the western No-Return Trail (1978), the murder mystery Incident at Loring Grove (1988), and The Return (1988), about a young Ethiopian Jewish girl’s trek to Israel. Ironically, among Levitin’s numerous awards was the Catholic Children’s Book Prize in Germany.
Doris Orgel (b. 1929) began her career retelling European tales for children. Her original work includes poetry, picture books, middle-grade fiction, and young adult novels. One of her best-known works, however, is The Devil in Vienna (1978), an AJL Award winner inspired by her own family’s flight from Vienna in the late 1930s. In it, the friendship between two girls is tested as Lieselotte’s family becomes rabidly Nazi and Jewish Inge’s family frantically tries to escape. A Disney TV film titled Friendship in Vienna was based on this book.
Johanna De Leeuw Reiss (b. 1932), born in Holland, wrote two fictional books, The Upstairs Room (1972) and The Journey Back (1976), based on the years she and her sister spent hidden from the Nazis by a Christian couple in their farmhouse and on what happened to them after they were freed. Reiss’s vivid recollections of these experiences, told through the eyes of a ten-year-old child, won acclaim from both Jewish and secular organizations. Marietta Moskin also lived in Holland, but began writing while interred in camps; her Holocaust novel I Am Rosemarie (1972) reflected her wartime experiences.
American-born Marilyn Sachs (b. 1927), a prolific and much-prized author, is known for her realistic family novels and accurate depiction of the travails of childhood and adolescence. Many of her family stories are set in New York in a Jewish milieu, and her first book, Amy Moves In (1964), waited ten years for publication until the time was ripe for its honest portrayal of an imperfect family. Socially conscious in her life and much of her work, Sachs based her Call Me Ruth (1982) on an actual textile workers’ strike; Thunderbird (1985) protests against nuclear weapons; and At the Sound of the Beep (1990) deals with the homeless. Her Holocaust novel A Pocket Full of Seeds (1973) was based on the life of a friend and tells of a young French girl who spends the war hidden in a boarding school.
Judith Kerr’s family left Germany in time; their story is told in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) and continued in The Other Way Round (1975) and A Small Person Far Away (1978).
Jane Yolen, noted for works of fantasy, describes the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as experienced by a contemporary child in her powerful award-winning time-travel novel The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988). Briar Rose (1992) is another Yolen story with Jewish meaning underlying the fantasy. Olga Levy Drucker’s Kindertransport (1992), Aranka Siegal’s Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939–1944 (1981), and Isabella Leitner’s The Big Lie: A True Story (1992) are all successful in depicting this difficult topic for young readers.
Overviews of the period include A Nightmare in History (1987) by Miriam Chaikin and Smoke and Ashes (1988) by Barbara Rogasky.
PICTURE BOOKS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
Barbara Cohen, before writing novels, in 1972 penned The Carp in the Bathtub, an ageless “don’t eat my pet for the holiday” picture book, which has appeared in over four hundred collections and pedagogical anthologies. Subsequently, Cohen produced outstanding picture books on biblical themes (The Binding of Isaac, 1978), holidays (Yussel’s Prayer, 1981; Here Come the Holiday held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (on the 15th day in Jerusalem) to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian empire from a plot to eradicate them.Purim Players!, 1984), and Israel (The Secret Grove, 1985), winning the 1981 Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award. Molly’s Pilgrim (1983), a Thanksgiving story about Russian immigrants, relates the American holiday to the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth and was made into a short live-action film, which won an Academy Award in 1985. Make a Wish, Molly (1993) was published posthumously.
Charlotte Zolotow (b. 1915), author and editor, is one of the best known Jewish women writers who do not write on specifically Jewish themes. She made her mark exploring in picture books the universal world of children’s lives and emotions. One theme important in Zolotow’s work is that of family generations and heritage. Gentle works like The Sky Was Blue (1963) and This Quiet Lady (1992) show that although people change through time, feelings remain the same. In her classic My Grandson Lew (1974), she broke ground as one of the first authors to address, in picture books, the forbidden topic of death. Zolotow tells of a small boy, wakened by memories of his dead grandfather, relieving his grief by talking about his sense of loss with his mother. Another important topic she broached was that of sex-role rigidity. In William’s Doll (1972), William’s father and friends believe that liking to play with dolls is just for girls; his wise grandmother knows better.
Miriam Cohen (b. 1926) is best known for writing warmly reassuring works such as Will I Have a Friend? (1967) and The New Teacher (1972), both illustrated by Lillian Hoban.
Other Jewish women contributed greatly to the world of picture books, both as writers and as illustrators. Artist-writer Marilyn Hirsh (1944–1988) was best known for her books on Jewish themes, especially folktales, village life, the adventures of Jewish immigrant children, and Jewish holidays. She produced over thirty books, some of them Indian folktales while in India in the Peace Corps, and in 1980 won the first Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award given by AJL. Among her best-known titles are Where Is Yonkele? (1969) and Could Anything Be Worse? (1974); she also illustrated books by other authors, such as David Adler’s The House on the Roof (1976).
Deborah Brodsky (b. 1941) contributed her bold visions and dramatic text to a number of picture books of Jewish import, including Jonah (1977), Secret Places (1979), and a stunning picture book for older children, The Golem (1975), a powerful study of the famous Jewish legendary protector gone amok.
Karla Kuskin (b. 1932) has been writing and illustrating her own works, as well as providing art for other writers, since her first book, Roar and More, in 1956. Known for rhythmic verse and drawings that appeal to a child’s sense of humor, her body of work includes only two works that might be thought specifically of Jewish import: The Animals and the Ark (1958) and Jerusalem, Shining Still (1987), a work illustrated by David Frampton’s woodcuts and designed to make the city’s history accessible to all children. Marc Simont illustrated her well-received The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1982), called “a symphony in words and pictures,” in which 105 orchestra members bathe, shave, dry their hair, and go forth from their homes to meet and make beautiful music.
Margot Zemach (1931–1989) was primarily an illustrator, often of folktale adaptations by her husband, Harve, and many stories and tales by various well-known writers including Isaac Bashevis Singer and Yuri Suhl. However, she also adapted tales herself, the most Jewish of which was It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folktale (1976). She was winner of a Fulbright scholarship, various honors, and the Caldecott Medal in 1974.
Anita Lobel (b. 1934), Polish-born survivor of a German concentration camp, married Arnold Lobel, himself an author and illustrator of children’s books, in New York after she immigrated. Since 1965, she has written and illustrated many wonderfully theatrical picture books, as well as illustrating texts by her husband. Their joint venture On Market Street (1981) was a 1982 Caldecott Honor Book.
Sheila Greenwald (b. 1934) wrote and illustrated a number of middle-school books, many of them featuring Rosy Cole, an imaginative and trouble-prone hero whose best intentions often go awry.
Patricia Polacco (b. 1944) draws on her Russian background for many of her picture books, and her AJL Award winner The Keeping Quilt (1988) reflects her Jewish heritage as well. Cross-cultural friendship between an old Jewish woman and a young African American boy is the focus of Mrs. Katz and Tush (1992), and the support diverse neighbors gave each other when the Oakland fire struck during the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth is emphasized in Tikvah Means Hope (1994). Polacco’s work is a good example of how today’s Jewish women writers and artists transcend stereotypes and leap cultural divides in trade books.
Jane Breskin Zalben (b. 1950), watercolor artist and author of a number of novels, moved Jewish holiday books into the mainstream with Beni’s First Chanukah (1988), the first of her series for preschoolers. This book and its successors successfully adapted the popular tradition of depicting small animals in cozy family settings and made Zalben a favorite for laptime read-alouds.
An important development in 1975 was the founding of Kar-Ben Copies, Inc., a small Jewish children’s press, by two women, Judye S. Groner and Madeline Wikler, who first wrote, illustrated, published, sold, packed, and mailed the kind of Jewish-content books they wanted for their children. The publishing house they founded has become an important mainstream house, with a large backlist of universally appealing picture books, all with Jewish themes, now widely distributed by major chains.
THE 1980s and 1990s
Sandy Asher (b. 1942) published two books of Jewish import in 1980: Summer Begins, raising questions of censorship and religious freedom, and Daughters of the Law, about a young girl, a child of a survivor, trying to understand her Jewish identity in the face of her mother’s repressed memories. Barbara Girion (b. 1937), after writing several popular books for younger children in the late 1970s, moved to works for adolescents, among them several with Jewish settings. A Tangle of Roots (1979) shows how a Jewish high school girl and her father cope when the mother of the family dies; Like Everybody Else (1980) is a funny story of a bat mitzva girl whose children’s-writer mother becomes notorious after writing a very adult novel; A Handful of Stars (1981) tells of the impact of epilepsy on a high schooler; and A Very Brief Season (1984) contains short stories about the conflicts of teenaged girls during that brief time preceding adulthood.
Fran Arrick, Jan Greenberg, Johanna Hurwitz, Sheila Solomon Klass, Kathryn Lasky, Marilyn Levy, Lois Ruby, Jan Slepian, and Hilma Wolitzer are among the writers who produced a number of well-received children’s and young adult novels during this period. Their stories continue to focus on the insecurities of life, on fitting in, on the importance of family, on the difficulties inherent in human relationships, and on problems of their time. Arrick’s Chernowitz (1981) deals with antisemitism and revenge; Ruby deals with charismatic religion versus rational Judaism in Miriam’s Well (1993) and with neo-Nazi youth movements and their powerful attraction in Skin Deep (1994). Jan Slepian’s The Alfred Summer (1980) and Lester’s Turn (1981), based on her mentally retarded, epileptic, hemiplegic brother, demonstrates her frequent theme of how difficult but how important it is for people to connect with each other. Slepian often addresses the challenges of mental and physical handicaps; in Risk n’ Roses (1990), Skip, the “normal” daughter of a Jewish family, struggles with her longing to be accepted by other kids and her loyalty to her retarded sister. Susan Goldman Rubin also deals sensitively and well with a young retarded Jewish girl in Emily Good as Gold (1993), the story of Emily’s effort to become more independent of her overprotective family as she enters adolescence.
A new development in the 1990s was a resurgent interest in storytelling and the resultant popularity of Jewish tales, both individually and in collections. Among women writers well known in this area are Barbara Diamond Goldin and Peninnah Schram.
Yaffa Ganz, an Orthodox American woman now living in Israel, has written a number of excellent books on Jewish traditions and customs, as well as the Savta Simcha series, featuring a Hebrew-speaking Mary Poppins–type grandmother evocative of Israeli surroundings and humor.
Doris Faber (b. 1924), Nancy Smiler Levinson (b. 1938), and Rhonda Blumberg (b. 1917) are best known for nonfiction. Faber’s biographies and studies of politics are noteworthy; Levinson, who has also written fiction, has won awards for her historical studies; and Blumberg has won numerous accolades for her works on American historical movements and eras. Biographies on famous Israelis include Malka Drucker’s life of Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1986), Hazel Kranz’s work on Henrietta Szold (1987), and Ida Cowan’s story of spy Sarah Aaronsohn. Chaya Burstein’s A Kid’s Catalog of Israel (1988) and Barbara Sofer’s Kids Love Israel; Israel Loves Kids (1988) introduce children to various facets of Israeli history, geography, and life.
Jewish women have written for children about both general and specific concerns. For instance, in the literature of the 1970s, Israel was often a symbol, offering a sense of purpose and belonging in an era of social unrest and confusion. Suzanne Lange’s The Year (1970) and Gloria Goldreich’s Lori (1979) are examples in which restless young girls find personal growth and understanding amidst the uncertainties and pressures of living in Israel. Lillian Hoban’s I Met a Traveler (1977) also shows Israel vividly through the eyes of an eleven-year-old girl whose unconventional mother has taken her there to live. Today’s authors more often emphasize the need for peace, such as in When Will the Fighting Stop? A Child’s View of Jerusalem (1990) by Ann Morris and Lilly Rivlin and Neve Shalom-Wahat Al Salaam: Oasis of Peace (1993) by Laurie Dolphin and Ben Dolphin.
Other authors are dealing with spiritual issues, family relationships, understanding Jewish history, and the shifting place of women in Judaism and in the larger society. Most, however, are simply writing to help children understand themselves and the world in which they live. Informed by the Jewish focus on family, inspired by the need to communicate feeling, meaning, and purpose, uplifted by their inherently Jewish sense of the absurdity and irony of things, they write.
It is interesting to note that Children’s Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey (1995), an important guide to children’s literature, lists other ethnic groups (Japanese-American Children’s Books, African-American Children’s Literature, etc.), but Jewish-American children’s literature is absent as an ethnic or cultural category. We have been absorbed. No longer a minority group, our literature is considered so mainstream it need not be set out from the rest. To the extent that this indicates that children of all kinds are reading books about all kinds of children, this bodes well. American children will be aware of Judaism, sensitive to Jewish immigrants and pioneers and their place in American history. Children will read mysteries with Jewish settings and humorous books with Jewish flavor. General fiction by Jewish writers may be infused with a subtle sensibility reflecting our Jewish heritage and values.
On the other hand, writers who have focused on Jewish themes, even outstanding writers published by general trade houses, are missing from this “invitation to the finest of twentieth-century children’s literature.” Perhaps this is one reason why recent trends show fewer books with specifically Jewish settings or themes. Books with strong Jewish roots or influence may become rare commodities if Jewish women writers assimilate into the marketplace. We can only hope they will not join the mainstream at the expense of the rich heritage they have so often portrayed so well.
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How to cite this page
Frischer, Rita Berman. "Children's Literature in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/childrens-literature-in-united-states>.