I am no stranger to not finding myself in literature. Probably many of you reading this feel the same. That’s why every year I make resolutions about reading diversely and then fail, because it’s really, really hard to find stuff that’s not about upper middle class WASPs. Really hard. Not only do you have to look extra hard because big publishers barely publicize their non WASPy books and because the small publishers that actually publish stuff by/about PoC/LGBT/disability/etc don’t have money to promote their books. Then there’s also the whole part where if you’re a reader, you probably want to read books you actually find interesting, and I for one am really tired of reading about, say, slaves or segregation or border crossing. Like, really tired. I am much more interested in finding more Eleanor & Park, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Sloppy Firsts, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks that just happens to acknowledge that there are blerds in the world. Also, maybe there would be someone bisexual in it or someone with a hearing aid who also wears a hijab.
I would also like to see formulaic series fiction that’s neither Gossip Girl nor whatever the name of urban high school hi/lo series is. I would like for someone to write the next Cheetah Girls and for someone else to write really horribly derivative versions of The Summer Prince that could never stand up to the original’s literary quality but would at least try to be derivative and crappy in a new way. I want Americans to write contemporary versions of the Western fairy tales we all consider to be real fairy tales in the way they already do, but for people of color to be in them. I want there to be Jewish and Muslim characters in books who don’t just celebrate Hanukkah/have grandparents who were Holocaust survivors or experience racism in a post-9/11 world. (While we’re at it, I would also like everyone to be aware of the existence of Helen Oyeyemi and Danzy Senna, and for Danielle Evans and Alaya Dawn Johnson to write more books posthaste.)
It’s been established that this is way, way too much to ask, because editors will say they want it but not go out of their ways to find it or cultivate it and won’t spend their money on it above or instead of what they spend on tried and true #whitegirlproblems. But I want it anyway, and I will whine until we get it, because WE (all readers, regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc) deserve it. And we want it, even those of us who don’t know we want it. As a kid, I had no idea how much as I missing out on learning about my own world because I didn’t see it in the books I read. I was always a reader and yet I never enjoyed English classes until, like, grad school, and I’m guessing a great deal of my displeasure and boredom and annoyance and disengagement stemmed from not seeing anything I knew about the world except the same thing that was beaten into me by every dead white guy we read: the world is not a place that finds you interesting, because the world is not a place that has you in it. So I didn’t find anything about “literature” interesting, and I also didn’t have the vocabulary or the capacity to find my own world interesting. That has changed as I’ve gotten older and more educated and more exposed to things, not to mention more willing to seek out learning experiences when I’m not offered the ones I want in my traditional learning environments, but that doesn’t make my experience fair.
Now. While I don’t want to praise publishers too much for this, lest they take that to mean that they’re doing just fine on all accounts, I did find that in 2013, there was a sprinkling of great stuff when it comes to diversity…in the form of books that used Jewish philosophy and mythology without so much as a smidgen of potato latkes or Auschwitz tattoos.
So here are four books you should know about: Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski, The Path of Names by Ari Goelman, Starglass by Phoebe North, and Starbreak by the same (okay, so that last one is a sequel that won’t be out until July, but Edelweiss). What I like about them is how I can describe them in all kinds of fun ways and just add “and Judaism” to the end of my description, like this:
The Path of Names: Summer camp and a labyrinth and a crotchety caretaker who might be mystical. And Judaism.
Starglass and Starbreak: Space opera and Giver-style societal expectations and Firefly and sex+ and Heinlein. And Judaism.
Hey, isn’t it neat that books about non-WASPs can still be Just Books? See what I did there? I described books in terms that describe books and didn’t start with “A Jewish character does X,” because that is the exact way you convince people that only books about upper middle class WASPs are universal.
Really, for purposes of reader’s advisory, what I wrote above should be enough to get people to want to read them. I mean, without the “and Judaism” part, except for those special kids for whom I know it’s an extra perk to see that their cultural background is in a book. But in general? HELLO, I compared a book to Firefly. Do you need more than that?
Okay, fine. A bit more. The first two of these books, which are more middle grade, really got me to feel like I was reading as a kid again. This was exciting first because I felt like I got to be a part of an in-club, the way I did (and still do) whenever my science teacher would make a Yiddish joke and I was the only one in the classroom who understood it or a couple friends and I would nod knowingly to each other, acknowledging we would all be missing school next Tuesday for Yom Kippur. WASPs are in the in-group all the time, and every kid, even one who isn’t a member of the group who owns the world, deserves to sometimes feel like they’re in on a secret or they’re expert at something. For Jewish kids, The Path of Names will definitely fit that bill. It is also really indicative of a certain upper middle class Jewish experience in America that is really, really common – Jew camp. So it’s Scholastic being like, “oh yeah, this is actually not weird or a niche audience. We are just acknowledging a large group of people who live in the United States.”
Starglass and Starbreak also have that in-group feel. Set in the future aboard a spaceship, names have clear Ashkenazic roots, and the spaceship itself, the Asherah, has a Hebrew name, as do other job positions, phrases, etc. Even if you don’t know what they mean, you would probably recognize the Hebrew-ness of them, as I did, since I don’t know any more Hebrew than I need to pray and say please and thank you, but I can still read and pronounce it properly, for the most part. What’s interesting about these books, aside from the sex positivity (but seriously, touching because IT FEELS GOOD and no moralizing or am-I-ready or anything is amazing and almost never present in YA, especially when it stars girls), is how much the premise, like, hides Jewish history in plain sight. An exodus of people leaving a hostile place for a new one they can only hope will be great. Getting to know each other and confirming at least some physical and mental attraction even in the case of arranged marriage (Judaism, while far from perfect, has a few really awesome rules governing sexuality as far as pleasure, mutual benefit, and respect are concerned). Every couple having two children, one of each sex. Lighting candles on Friday nights, automatically saying things like “mazel tov” when the occasion requires, etc, even when you don’t know why you’re doing it.
Actually, that last one is super interesting, because it makes me read the whole community as crypto-Jews. After the Spanish Inquisition, some Jewish families publicly “converted” while secretly retaining their Jewish faith or at least some traditions. And as generations went on, some families that had emigrated to the Americas and had basically assimilated completely into Catholic, Latin American culture still retained traditions without necessarily knowing what or why they were. I’ve heard stories about how one member of each generation (generally a woman, because Judaism is matriarchal) would be entrusted with the knowledge that the family was Jewish and would be given the family menorah or what have you. I can totally see how that is reflected in Phoebe North’s series.
Oh, speaking of the Spanish Inquisition: Hammer of Witches. That’s when it takes place, and that alone makes it kind of unique. Can you tell me about other YA or MG that has that setting? And that actually presents 15th century Spain as a multicultural place whose architecture, culture, bogeymen, folklore, and all mixed Jewish, Muslim, and Christian stuff together? Because that’s what Spain was, by the way. This book does that. Also, bonus: traditional Taíno culture and mythology. There is magic, because it’s a good ol’ adventure story, but instead of another Welsh fairy or European dragon, there are golems and hamehs and stuff. Again, something will say a lot to a kid who recognizes them and that will just be “oh, cool, not your usual boring thing” to someone else. You see how there is no losing there? There is actually no losing there.
I hope I have succeeded in making you a little bit excited about the fact that a book can be Jewish and not say either of the dirty H-words (y’know, “Holocaust” and “Hanukkah”) and not alienate the “normal people” that publishing thinks are the only ones who read, buy, or influence books. Also, they are just interesting and worthy of further study, but this post is too long.