The Association of American Publishers last year ranked Children’s/Young Adult (YA) books as the fastest-growing category in publishing. While YA novels are geared toward teenagers, adults also read them. Themes in YA novels skew toward friendship, romance, fantasy, coming-of-age, and the challenges of dealing with problems in families and society. We’ve seen many new YA titles that have Jewish characters and themes, including these:
MINNA: Any book that begins with the dedication of a children’s library is bound to catch my eye. “The Summer We Found the Baby” by Amy Hest is told from the alternating viewpoints of 11-year-old Julie Sweet, her six-year-old sister Martha, and their friend, 12-year-old Bruno Ben-Eli, whose older brother, Ben is serving in World War II. Set in Long Island, the sisters spot the baby in a basket and take her home, while Bruno suspects them of kidnapping. The mystery of the baby’s identity (and an encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt) move this story along.
AMY: Social media takes center stage in Marissa Kanter’s debut novel, “What I like About You.” Halle Leavitt is a wildly successful teenage blogger who writes book reviews accompanied by pictures of cupcakes she bakes to accompany the reviews. She has an online boyfriend, Nash, a comic artist who has never seen her. When Halle’s beloved grandmother dies, the family is deeply saddened. Halle’s parents are documentary filmmakers who go to Israel to make a film, and Halle moves in with her grandfather. In their shared grief, they begin to observe Jewish rituals more frequently. One day Halle goes to the local library and sees Nash. How she deals with this clash of virtual reality and real life makes this book a very contemporary story.
MINNA: “Letters from Cuba” by Ruth Behar is based on the author’s family history. All four of the author’s grandparents immigrated to Cuba from Poland and Turkey before World War II. The author was born in Havana, but immigrated to New York as a young child. Esther, the heroine of her story, follows her father from Poland to Cuba, leaving behind the rest of the family. Esther writes letters to her sister, as she and her father race to earn enough money to bring the family over before the rise of Nazism makes it too late. Even young readers will see parallels with immigrants today who also face discrimination and economic hardship.
AMY: “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells” by Gail Carson Levine is outstanding historical fiction, set in late 15th century Spain. Paloma, known as “Loma,” is a Jewish teen whose grandfather is a respected elder of the Jewish community. She travels with him throughout the country and is eyewitness to the persecution of Jews and the ever-present threat of the Inquisition. The precariousness of their lives is likened to walking on a ceiling made of eggshells. Through Loma, the author gives a detailed view of daily life and customs of that time.
MINNA: “No Steps Behind” by Jeff Gottesfeld tells the story of how Beate Sirota Gordon, a Jewish native of Vienna who spent most of her childhood in Japan, returned to Japan after college in California and helped write the Japanese Constitution in 1946. Gordon’s fluent Japanese and her insistence on including women’s rights in the document made her a hero to the people of Japan. The book includes colorful illust rations, some Japanese words and proverbs, a timeline of events, and detailed notes from the author.
AMY: Lois Ruby tackles an important subject in “Red Menace.” Set in Kansas in 1953, the novel features Marty Rafner, a typical baseball-loving boy. His parents are both academics: father Irwin is an anthropologist, and mother Rosalie is a poet and activist. Marty is concerned when he notices the FBI conducting surveillance of his family, who are suspected of being Communists. He is also worried about the upcoming execution of the Rosenbergs. As Marty prepares to become a bar mitzvah, he wonders how the values he has learned seem to conflict with the way the country is heading.
MINNA: Kathy Kacer, the Canadian author of numerous Holocaust books for young readers, is the daughter of Survivors. “Louder Than Words,” which is based on the true story of Nina Pukas, named one of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, is the third volume of her Heroes Quartet series. Set in the Ukraine in 1941, the three Sternik sisters are left in the care of a new housekeeper, Nina, when their mother goes to work. The Nazi invasion changes everything and Nina’s heroic actions make all the difference. The final book in the series will be published in 2021.
AMY: “It’s My Life” by Stacie Ramey highlights a subject not often seen in YA novels. Jenna is 16 years old and has Cerebral Palsy (CP). Her parents want her to undergo another painful operation for the CP, but Jenna is resisting. She is excited when a boy she used to have a crush on, who had moved away, returns to town, but she isn’t sure how honest about her condition she should be with him. Ramey makes clear the daily struggles of someone with CP.