Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three New Jewish Books

A few months ago, we had some discussion on child_lit and various blogs about why there weren't more books about Jewish kids that aren't totally focused on being Jewish. (My thoughts are that as far as I can see there isn't any dearth of such books; I can think of lots of examples. That doesn't mean there shouldn't/couldn't be more, but I don't think there's a big lack.)

Anyway, here's a coincidence: the first three ARCs I read from ALA are all about Jewish kids. And okay, it happens that they're all historical fiction, but two of them are straight-up slice-of-life books that I think will please the people who are looking for more of that.

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, by Margarita Engle (published in April), is another verse-novel, like her Newbery-Honored The Surrender Tree. It's the story of Daniel, a young German Jewish teen who escaped the Holocaust and arrived in Cuba, but without his parents; and Paloma, a Cuban girl concerned with the plight of the refugees. The characters are crystal-clear (especially in the case of secondary character of David, an older Russian Jew who has lived in Cuba for decades), and I just gobbled this book up even when I tried to savor the poetry. One thing I really appreciated about this book is that it assumes some knowledge of World War Two; Engle doesn't waste space explaining details about what's going on back in Germany. I noticed when I was waiting in line to meet Engle at ALA that many people seemed to be picking this up, perhaps more than The Surrender Tree, and I think the subject matter is perhaps more appealing--so many people are interested in Holocaust stories who might not think they'd be interested in a Spanish-American War story. I didn't think this was as compelling and finely-wrought as The Surrender Tree, but it is excellent, and maybe more accessible (and for slightly younger readers). I recommend it highly.

This tropical heat
is a weight in the sky
crushing my breath,
but I will not remove
my winter coat or my fur hat
or the itchy wool scarf
my mother knitted

or the gloves my father gave me

to keep my hands warm

that we could all

play music together
someday, in the Golden Land

called New York.

(quote is from the ARC)

Strawberry Hill by Mary Ann Hoberman (out this month) surprised me when it turned out to be a book about a Jewish girl. The back cover hooked me because it sounded like a new book of a Gone-Away Lake or Miracles on Maple Hill stripe. ("When ten-year-old Allie learnes that her family will be moving from a two-family home to their very own house, she's hesitant until she finds out they will be living on a street with the magical name of Strawberry Hill. That changes everything!") I was also surprised to open it up and discover that it's set in the Depression era. (The ARC didn't have a cover illustration.) I was hoping for something modern-day, perhaps less arch and derivative than The Penderwicks. So keep this in mind when I don't give this book a glowing review: I wanted it to be something it wasn't.

Allie's family is not very religious, but being Jewish is a part of her identity that becomes more important when she makes friends in her new neighborhood with a popular Catholic girl (Catholics don't come off well in this book) and a Jewish girl who is an outcast. She encounters anti-Semitism for the first time, but it isn't central to the story. Strawberry Hill is a mild and gentle book that will probably please some young readers (and will definitely please their parents), but it lacks the magic of classic we-move-to-a-new-place-and-everything-is-awesome books. But I know those books have generally been pretty WASPy, and this is a nice contrast.

The Importance of Wings by Robin Friedman (out this month) is altogether different, and quite interesting. It's set in the 1980s, juuuust before my time; enough that the setting feels familiar to me and will feel like home to my oldest sister. This book is rough, but, I think, unique, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. For one thing, I thought with that title this would be a teen angst story about finding your own wings. No, the wings in the title refer solely to feathered hair. Nice.

Thirteen-year-old Roxanne, who immigrated to New Jersey with her family from Israel when she was a little girl, is the star here, and I love her. Roxanne and her little sister spend a lot of time watching TV--Wonder Woman and The Brady Bunch, chiefly. Look, I spent plenty of time playing outside and reading when I was a kid, but I also watched those late-afternoon reruns, and I loved finding a character in a book who did that, too. It sounds like a dull character trait, but Friedman works it in well; the girls just seem REAL.

The story begins when another Israeli girl moves in next door, and this girl, Liat, is a bit larger than life and broadly drawn--but then, that's part of the story, too; Roxanne often compares her to Wonder Woman. Liat is more involved with Israeli culture than Roxanne, who is focused on trying to be a "Real American". In her own mind, she never quite succeeds.

This is a book about growing up in the 1980s, about being an immigrant, and about being thirteen (remember the title--the most important thing in the world, to Roxanne, is feathered hair). While the writing was heavy-handed in spots, especially at the end, and the story was a bit jumpy, I felt like I was reading something new and different but real here. The Importance of Wings won't be winning any awards, and I'm not quite sure what kids will make of the 1980s setting, but this is a solid book that I think will appeal to middle school girls who are bright but aren't advanced readers.

(Except I really hate it in books when it turns out that the plain protagonist is actually really beautiful. Ahem.)


CLM said...

I always thought Ellen Conford did a good job of portraying ordinary suburban Jewish characters, but admit I am having a hard time coming up with others. Maybe in a Doris Orgel?

Wendy said...

Well, Judy Blume, of course, and almost every book about summer camp and most books that take place in New York have at least some supporting Jewish characters, etc etc.