Thinking About Jewish Children’s Literature in a Time of Antisemitism
*I gave this speech at a small group brunch at my home synagogue. I’m sharing it here for those who couldn’t make it or were interested.
Good morning. My name is Katherine Locke and I’m the author of The Girl with the Red Balloon, a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book, and my first book for teen readers.
This wasn’t an easy speech to write, which is a weird thing to say because I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about this subject. In part, it’s because what I’m going to talk about today isn’t easy. I want to talk about writing Jewish children’s literature in a time of rising anti-Semitism. I want to talk about the difference between writing for Jewish children, and writing for non-Jewish children. I want to talk about the stories we choose to buy and support and give to children. And I want to talk about the importance of diverse, inclusive Jewish stories. Sometimes the things I may say may make you bristle. I’m going to talk honestly about anti-Semitism in children’s literature. I am going to talk honestly about why I want to expand Jewish children’s literature beyond the Holocaust. I am very passionate about this — it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about not only because I am a Jewish writer writing for children, but because I’m a Jewish person reading the news, and talking to non-Jewish people, and thinking about the way children think and learn.
Before we begin, I want to define children’s literature as I’ll use it throughout this presentation.
Children’s literature’s target audience spans from birth through 18 years old. While adults sometimes read young adult stories, that is, fiction for 13–18 year olds, children’s literature is typically written for child readers, and with child protagonists.
Now that that’s out of the way, I am going to tell you a story.
This story is a true story.
In 2015, I read about a book that had just been a finalist for one of top awards an adult romance book can win. The book was called For Such a Time by Kate Breslin and it was published by a Christian publisher. In short, the book is a retelling of the Book of Esther in which a Nazi camp commander saves a Jewish woman from Dachau and takes her to Theresienstadt. There they fall in love and through a magically appearing Bible, find Jesus and save Jews who escape by rubbing the ashes of dead Jews on their skin to blend in with the night. In the end, the Jewish woman converts to Christianity because that’s her redemption arc.
I talked loudly and publicly on the internet about my horror at this novel being published, much less being a finalist for an award. A lot of good discussion came out of the book — I met some other Jewish writers, I was able to parse some of my own feelings around being blonde and blue-eyed and Jewish, and we Jewish writers and bloggers dissected publicly the trend of Christian inspirational publishers to “save” people who do not need or want “saving.”
But for talking about anti-Semitism on the internet, I saw the first inklings of what we saw come out in full force in 2016 and 2017. Nazis. Dozens of them. They called me slurs. They told me they wished they could put me in an oven. They photoshopped me into photos from the Holocaust, from mass graves to crematoriums. They sent me pictures of raped and mutilated women. When I blocked them on Twitter and Tumblr, they emailed me. For about two weeks, it was endless. Even when I wasn’t talking about the book, they were there.
I thought 2015 was as bad as the Nazis would get.
I was, unfortunately, very wrong, as we all know.
In 2017, I read a book called The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die by Randall Platt. It is, ostensibly, the story about a girl named Abra Goldstein in 1939 Poland who decides to go by Arab, for reasons that are never quite clear. She leaves her Jewish family and becomes a street urchin, essentially. The author failed in some basic research about 1930s Europe — Abra is apparently in Vienna, Austria during Kristallnacht and never mentions it, for instance, much less the shocking idea of Jewish parents sending their eldest daughter to a goy boarding school in Vienna in 1936 — but also in basic understanding about Jewish people. Abra sings herself to sleep using Silent Night, for example, writes limericks in Hebrew that rhyme in English, believes twelve Jews died for her sins, kills to protect a Nazi, admires the way the Nazis invade Warsaw, thinks the ghetto gets in her way of her illegal street trade, and the only person she warns to get out of Warsaw and financially assists to do that is a non-Jewish Polish woman. She never warns her Jewish family, including her disabled sister, before they’re moved to the ghetto. All in all, Abra never feels Jewish. Instead, she feels like a girl on the verge of joining Hitler Youth, if she didn’t have so many issues with authority. Because of the lack of research and adherence to historical fact, while dealing with the Holocaust, the book’s faults become anti-Semitic.
I do not believe either of these authors are Nazis. I think both of them should meet some more Jewish people and maybe never write a book about the Holocaust again, but I don’t believe either of these authors are Nazis.
But they wrote anti-Semitic books in a time of rising anti-Semitism. And in doing so, they’ve let down their readers, both Jewish and not Jewish. While I find the romance book deeply distasteful and offensive, the book for children hit me in a whole new level. We are doing a profound disservice to children, both Jewish and not-Jewish, when we produce poorly edited and poorly researched books about real life events. And in the case of the Holocaust, a failure to properly impart the facts or to deliberate re-interpret them, lie, or omit reinforces anti-Semitic structures and worldviews and actively supports anti-semitism.
In the two years between For Such a Time and The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, I thought a great deal about the types of Jewish stories in the world, who was writing them, and who the narrative was for.
This is important. When we do not control our own narratives, then they’re controlled for us. Someone is always writing. Someone is always speaking. Someone is on Fox News. Someone is on Twitter, tweeting away.
But more importantly, someone is always listening. And that is a malleable mind.
When the kerfluffle over For Such a Time happened online, I asked people on Twitter to answer two questions.
1. When did you learn about the Holocaust?
2. What was your first book about the Holocaust?
For Jewish people, with rare exceptions, they cannot remember a time when they did not know about the Holocaust. They can’t remember their first book on it, but it was usually Yellow Daffodil, or The Secret Seder, both fictional. For non-Jewish people, with rare exceptions and most notably Europeans were the exception, their first knowledge of the Holocaust came somewhere between 4th and 6th grade, and usually through reading Number the Stars a fictional book about a non-Jewish girl who sees her Jewish friend escape Denmark. In a few cases, they read The Diary of Anne Frank, but interestingly not in history class. They read it in English class, alongside fiction.
Antisemitism relies on fiction. We know this because the Nazis used fiction to their benefit, warping libraries, existing literature, writers, and literary culture to support their white nationalist anti-Semitic world view.
When we recommend and buy books about the Holocaust, we need to think about who the book centers. Who wrote the book? What was their approach? And who is the book for? All too frequently, we are recommending, rewarding with high advances from the publishing end and sales and awards from the consumer end, books that do not center the victims of the Holocaust and who are not written by people who may have unique viewpoints. This isn’t to say that a non-Jewish writer cannot write a book about the Holocaust that centers a Jewish character and is well-researched. Or that books, like the Book Thief, can’t be great works of literature and not about the Holocaust despite the fact that they’re often classified as being Holocaust literature. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.
But specifically in the text, I want us as consumers, especially as adults who put books into the hands of children, think about what the message of the book is. Who is important in this story? Who has agency in this story?
And while we’re thinking about the books about the Holocaust we’re putting into the hands of children, both Jewish and not-Jewish, I want to think about the non-Holocaust Jewish books we’re putting in the hands of children, both Jewish and not-Jewish.
We do a fantastic job publishing and giving children under the age of ten books about Judaism that are more expansive than the Holocaust. There are books introducing children to Jewish holidays, Hebrew, culture, and Israel. But something happens in publishing around the same time a kid hits double-digit age: we stop giving them books that promote an expansive view of Judaism.
For those who do not know, the Sydney Taylor Awards are given every year by the Association of Jewish Libraries.
Here are the statistics from the 2018 Sydney Taylor Awards, including the notable books:
For Younger Readers, none of the eight books are about the Holocaust or touch the Holocaust in any way.
For Older Readers, seven of the nine books are about the Holocaust or touch the Holocaust.
For Teen Readers, six of the seven books are about or touch the Holocaust in some way.
It’s like suddenly, a kid’s able to start to comprehend the Holocaust, and that becomes the only story we give them. That worries me. I don’t want to decrease the number of Holocaust books we publish — and in fact, I’m really invested in writing more Holocaust stories by Jewish authors about Jewish characters, and more Holocaust stories by disabled people about disabled victims, and same for Romani. But I do want to increase the number of Jewish children’s stories that are not about the Holocaust.
Remember what I said about anti-Semitism thriving in fiction? Who tells our stories? Who controls the narrative?
When the Holocaust is the only story that is told about us to non-Jewish readers, we risk becoming numbers, victims, and statistics. For many non-Jewish readers, as I said before, the first time they learn about the Holocaust is either through fiction or alongside fiction. I wonder how that’s getting stored in their head — and I wonder how we are getting stored in their head.
When the Holocaust is the only story we tell to Jewish children after a certain age, it risks becoming an all-consuming part of their identity.
There’s a theory in children’s literature, first espoused by Rudine Sims Bishop in 1990, about ‘mirrors, windows, and sliding doors.’ She was specifically talking about the number of non-white children in the United States reading what then was almost entirely white children’s literature, and what remains a very white category. There’s been a focused effort to change that, especially in the last five years thanks to the advocacy of We Need Diverse Books. But in that article, Bishop wrote, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
I think this is important. And as vital, as crucial as it is to continue to publish and read and share the stories about the Holocaust, especially as my generation and the generation behind me, Generation Z, will be the last to know survivors, I want to make sure we have Jewish children’s literature that shows us surviving and thriving and positively. I want Jewish children to feel valued. So that no matter what anyone tweets in general or at them, they know who they are, both in their individual identity and as a member of the Jewish community.
In Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, Elizabeth Rosner writes, “How does atrocity defy memory and simultaneously demand to be remembered? How do we collectively mark and honor it — while addressing its inevitably convoluted aftermath? As we examine the inheritance of trauma within the mosaic of human history, is it ever possible to move beyond it?”
It’s the central thesis of her book — and I highly recommend the book. It’s a stunning work of non-fiction mixed with memoir and biography of her father who survived the Holocaust — but that paragraph is also something I spend a lot of time thinking about as an author. To me, one of the best ways to honor and mark the Holocaust, carrying it with us without letting it become a second fire that consumes us, is by writing Jewish stories in all facets of life. I want to see science fiction and fantasy with Jewish characters. I want to see more Jewish young adult characters on the big screen. I want to see contemporary middle grade fiction for kids to include Bar and Bat Mitzvah preparation and drama. I want to see Jewish kids having romances. I want to read an adult romance about a rabbinical student. I want Judaism to be the point of these stories, and not the point of these stories, and I want it to be everywhere.
When we show Jewish children that Jewish people are alive, and thriving, and living our best lives, we become more than the tragedy written in our bones. We become the futures we dream of. And we become everything that the Nazis, past and present, wanted to wipe from this earth. What better revenge than thriving?
And so to that end, I am also interested in reflecting a diverse view of Judaism. I want to see Jewish characters in children’s literature who are adopted, or converted, as well as those born Jewish. I want to see Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Hasidic. I want to see kids who are ethnically Jewish who have never set foot in a synagogue. I want to see kids, like me, who were born to an interfaith marriage. I want to see Jews of color. I want to see queer Jews and disabled Jews. I want to see Jews who struggle with Israeli policies and I want to see Jews who celebrate Israel. I want all types of Jews and Jewish thought in books for everyone, but especially for children. I want any Jewish child to be able to find a book that feels like home to them, and I want any Jewish child to learn that their Judaism may not look like someone else’s Judaism and that’s okay.
And when we show non-Jewish people Jewish stories, ones that they find relatable because they look like other things they’ve read, just with Jewish people, we humanize ourselves in their eyes. It’s a powerful counter-measure to anti-Semitic sentiment.
I want all of these things, but it won’t be easy to get them. Publishing, as an industry, tends to treat the Holocaust as the Only Important Jewish Story. I hope you can hear those capital letters as I read them off this paper. And when they say that the only important Jewish story is the one where we die, or were victims who survived and were forever changed, what does that say about us? About them? They’re the gatekeepers and they’re running a business and we need to convince them that there is a market for these books, the ones that go beyond the Holocaust. And I want there to be an emphasis in publishing on buying Jewish stories from Jewish writers, both Holocaust and non-Holocaust stories. I think there is value in our voices speaking to our stories.
The best way to do it is by supporting Jewish literature by Jewish writers that exists now — publishing is very good about listening to the money. And this isn’t a plug for my own book. It’s a plug for a lot of books, because I think readers need them.
For example, this past January, Rachel Lynn Solomon’s young adult debut You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone released. It’s the story of Jewish twin sisters, one of whom inherits the Huntington’s Disease and one who doesn’t, and their changing relationship with each other and their faith as they learn their fates. I think it’s outstanding and I hope that the Sydney Taylor Award committee for 2019 recognizes it. I loved 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book, This is Just a Test by Madalyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang about a boy prepping for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah and trying to keep both his Jewish and Chinese grandmothers happy.
I’m co-editing an anthology of contemporary (that means no Holocaust!) Jewish young adult stories by Jewish authors with fellow Jewish young adult author Laura Silverman, which comes out from Knopf in Fall 2019. Our editor is Jewish, and every one of the 13 contributors is Jewish. There are four Orthodox Jewish contributors, two Jews from outside the United States (one lives in New York but is from Peru, the other lives in Mexico), at least two disabled Jewish contributors, and four LGBTQIA+ Jewish contributors. Some people didn’t grow up in synagogues, while for other contributors, a Jewish community is their entire world. I am proud of the diversity reflected in the contributors, but there’s something else happening here.
Again and again, I’m hearing from contributors as they work on their stories:
“This is the most me I’ve ever felt when writing.”
“It’s such a relief to be writing a Jewish character and not have to explain anything.”
“I cried while writing this.”
“I’ve always wanted to write a Jewish story but never felt like there’d be a home for it.”
“I am so proud of this story. The most proud I’ve ever been.”
When we create spaces for people to imagine themselves onto the page, we create spaces for people to imagine themselves off of the page.
And the louder and more hateful the world gets, the more I want Jewish child readers to have this escape, this space into which they can step without fear of anti-Semitism, where they’re heroes, and love interests, and the protagonists without having to set aside their history and their faith. In this expansive view of Jewish children’s literature, we get to have it all. We get to find the afikomen and eat it too.
In my story for that upcoming anthology, my character, Gabe, thinks to himself that it’s more than just treating others the way you want to be treated, it’s seeing others as you wish to be seen. So I want non-Jewish readers to pick up Jewish stories too. I want a non-Jewish teen reader to say, “Oh this is a story about a Jewish guy who loves Marvel movies? I love Marvel too.”
I want that window to expand that child’s worldview too because that window may be the difference between anti-Semitism taking hold, and anti-Semitism being defied. This isn’t just about sticking life preservers under every seat on the plane, creating a world of righteous gentiles, but maybe it is. Maybe it’s about creating a world for Jewish kids that isn’t defined by victimhood, and arming the non-Jewish kids with the knowledge of our humanity.
But whatever this is, I want us to define that. Not Nazis, not non-Jewish writers failing to do their homework and mining our greatest collective tragedy for money. I want Jewish kids to decide who they are, who they want to be, and I want our literature to support that.