Jewish Studies Jewish American Children's Literature
by
Dainy Bernstein
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0242

Introduction

All four terms in the field of American Jewish children’s literature are much debated by scholars. Should the corpus include only books originally published in America? Is a book Jewish because of the author, the characters, the themes, or something else? Should the corpus include any texts children read, or only texts produced specifically for children? Are pedagogical materials part of “literature?” All of these questions persist and inform how each scholar approaches the field. The first original English-language Jewish children’s books published in America were textbooks and curricular material, beginning with Think and Thank by Samuel Cooper, published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) in 1890. Prior to that, Jewish Sunday schools in the early nineteenth century used modified Christian texts, and books imported from England, Europe, and Palestine were available in Yiddish, Hebrew, or English translations. The years between 1890 and 1930 saw intense production of educational children’s materials by Jewish presses including JPS, the Bloch Publishing Company, and Behrman House. The 1935 publication of Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s The Adventures of K’tonton: A Jewish Tom Thumb from the National Women’s League marked a turn from educational texts to stories about contemporary American Jewish children, and the 1951 publication of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family from the Follett Publishing Company marked the beginning of books with Jewish characters and themes from non-Jewish American presses. Over the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Jewish publishers continued to produce texts for children, and Jewish representation in books marketed to all children continued to grow. Global networks and PJ Library’s free book program begun in 2005 influenced texts on offer to contemporary American Jewish children, as did the development of a robust Haredi children’s publishing industry around 1980. In line with scholarship on children’s literature more broadly, the first conversations about Jewish children’s books appeared in journals for educators and librarians, moving into discussions of literary criticism in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the major themes in contemporary scholarship of Jewish children’s literature are the Holocaust; gender roles; antisemitism; and diversity within Jewish representation along axes of race, ethnicity, and practice. Many sources useful for studying this corpus are larger studies of American Judaism or American Jewish literature with only one or two chapters on children’s literature. This trend is shifting now, however, and the field is growing in breadth and depth.

Reference Resources

No definitive study or anthology of Jewish American children’s literature exists as yet, but guides and reviews written for parents, librarians, and educators can take their place as an overview of the texts in this corpus. When read critically in conjunction with each other, these guides can provide a foundation for thinking about the texts produced for Jewish American children as well as the ideas and values of the adults who oversee the production and dissemination of these texts. Four texts geared to librarians, parents, and educators—Davis 1981, Posner 1986, Silver 2008, and Silver 2010—are organized differently and are useful for cross-referencing and tracking trends in different decades. Rapp 2014 introduces an archive corresponding to the children’s texts in Sarna 1989 discussed under Identity: Jewish and American, and Pinchuk 2018 is a comprehensive guide to the Sydney Taylor Book Award, both presenting titles selected via criteria differing from the guides for parents, educators, and librarians. Reviews in The Jewish Book Annual and The Jewish Observer reflect opinions of these texts at the time of their release. Lists of more recent titles include Association of Jewish Libraries 2018 and Association of Jewish Libraries 2021, as well as many guides from a variety of sources updated each year.

  • Association of Jewish Libraries. Love Your Neighbor. 2018.

    Multiple themed lists designed to help educators and librarians counteract rising antisemitism.

  • Association of Jewish Libraries. 100 Jewish Children’s Books for the Family Bookshelf. 2021.

    List of classic and contemporary picture books and middle grade books.

  • Davis, Enid. A Comprehensive Guide to Children’s Literature with a Jewish Theme. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

    Organized by theme. Casts a wider net than later guides with more nonfiction titles as well as toys and multimedia resources. The introduction considers flaws of the corpus as well as its value, pointing out the lack of diversity among Jews represented in the texts. Includes indexing by title, author, and subject, as well as appendices of library-building methods and a directory of book publishers.

  • The Jewish Book Annual. 1942–1999.

    From the Jewish Book Council. Most issues include lists and descriptions of children’s books published in the prior years. Many issues also include essays reflecting on the industry. Archive freely available online.

  • The Jewish Observer. 1963–2009.

    From Agudath Israel of America. Infrequent but important reviews of select children’s titles. Frequent advertisements for new children’s materials, including books, song and story tapes, and toys. Archive freely available online.

  • Pinchuk, Chava, ed. The Sydney Taylor Book Award: A Guide to the Winners, Honor Books and Notables: 50th Anniversary Edition: 1968–2018. Teaneck, NJ: Association of Jewish Libraries, 2018.

    Begins with introductions to the history and mission of the award, the criteria used in selecting and scoring eligible books, and Sydney Taylor herself. The majority of the book is a list of every winner, honor book, and notable book, including a brief synopsis for each. The index includes major topics appearing in multiple books.

  • Posner, Marcia. Jewish Children’s Books: How to Choose Them, How to Use Them. New York: Department of Jewish Education, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, 1986.

    Organized by age level and topic. Includes chapters about criteria for choosing books for children, including the child’s reading level and evaluation of Jewish values.

  • Rapp, Andrea. “The Shavzin-Carsch Collection of Historic Jewish Children’s Literature.” Judaica Librarianship 18 (2014): 154–166.

    DOI: 10.14263/2330-2976.1031

    An introduction to the archive at the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio. Includes a survey of the state of Jewish children’s historical materials and the obstacles to producing a comprehensive survey of the topic.

  • Silver, Linda R. The Jewish Values Finder: A Guide to Values in Jewish Children’s Literature. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2008.

    Organized by values and character traits, listed according to age level. Includes an introduction to Jewish American children’s publishing, list of active Jewish publishers, and indexing by author, title, and subject. Haredi titles are included.

  • Silver, Linda R. Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens: A JPS Guide. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010.

    Organized by topic with an introduction to each topic and detailed entries for each book. Includes an introduction to Jewish American children’s publishing, lists of National Jewish Book Award and Sydney Taylor Book Award winners, and indexing by reading level, title, author, illustrator, and subject.

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