A teacher I know put together a really wonderful and culturally diverse children’s reading list. To represent Jews, she included two Chanukah books, both of which take place a long time ago and feature old men on the covers. Compared to the books on her list representing other cultures, these feel narrow and not the same kind of positive representation. Should I say something?
Looking for Positive Representation
I think the last time I wrote a column about Jewish children’s books was back in 2017, and I quoted an article I love called “Why Jewish Children’s Books are So Bad.” While there has been a lot of progress in the quality of Jewish children’s books, it’s all too easy to reduce your options to books that only take place in Eastern Europe, only show homogenous families celebrating Chanukah, or only show animals eating matzah (why oh why this last one is such a common theme will never make sense to me).
You should say something to this well-meaning teacher. Compliment her on the list. Express your appreciation of her commitment to exposing her students to different cultures, and to providing books in her classroom that allow her diverse group of students to see themselves reflected in their books. Then tell her, kindly, that the Jewish books she chose don’t reflect the reality of contemporary life for American Jews, and that you’d like to offer some suggestions that may be more relatable to children in 2020.
You can send her to pjlibrary’s website, which has an extensive list of Jewish children’s books for all ages and on all topics. This may be useful just to let the teacher know about the breadth of options, but she still may have a hard time discerning which books would be better than her current choices, and it may not be obvious which are contemporary and relevant and avoid reducing Jews to our most well-known winter holiday.
Your feedback will be the most helpful if you offer her a handful of recommendations, and while I know that offering my own list will itself be potentially problematic, here goes:
“The Cholent Brigade” by Michael Herman shows kids celebrating Shabbat and helping a neighbor.
“Jackie and Jesse and Joni and Jae” by Chris Barash is a Rosh Hashanah story that teaches about forgiveness and empathy.
“The Bagel King” by Andrew Larsen and Sandy Nichols does rely on some stereotypes of older Jews (and Jews eating bagels), but it’s also a lovely story about families and community.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having a Chanukah book as part of a classroom’s multicultural offerings. A lot of people do know about Chanukah, and it provides an entry point for potentially learning more and relating to other aspects of Jewish life. I recommend either of these:
“Sadie’s Almost Marvelous Menorah” by Jamie Korngold is about kids at school, resiliency and creativity.
“Potatoes at Turtle Rock” by Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman is about families and creating new traditions.
Finally, whether you say this to your teacher friend or not, I want to say this to anyone reading: The importance of reading books featuring diverse characters is hugely important for children’s development and education. But also, at this moment of national conversation about systemic racism and racial injustice, focusing on books with positive Black characters needs to be a priority.
I would sooner have this teacher’s list include more books with racial diversity than include any Jewish books at all, especially if the Jewish books are 1) not good examples of contemporary Jewish life, and 2) only feature white characters. Fortunately, there are plenty of options other than the Jewish books this teacher had already chosen, and since it sounds like her other book choices are great, her students should be in good hands.