What's Hot? What's Not? A Look at This Year's Young Adult Literature


Every June, a gang of librarians gets together to talk trash. They talk treasure, too. They gab about the previous year in Jewish children’s publishing, and they face up to the good, the bad, and the ugly. The place is the Association of Jewish Libraries Convention and the event is the “What’s Hot? What’s Not?” panel discussion of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

In its quest to find the best Jewish children’s books of the year, the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee reviews over a hundred brand-new books each year. The committee members, all librarians who work in Jewish settings, come from a variety of perspectives, ranging from Reform to Orthodox, and they hail from such diverse settings as Maryland, Florida, and Texas. The opinions of this diverse group can differ widely, so the results of their research are shared in a panel format to allow people to hear the pros and cons about the newest Jewish titles.

Books published during 2004 will be discussed at the “What’s Hot? What’s Not?” session in Oakland, CA in June, 2005. Let’s take a sneak peak at what committee members are saying about the newest Jewish literature for older kids and teens.

Tell It To Naomi
By Daniel Ehrenhaft
32 pages. Delacorte Books for Young Readers. $7.95.
Ages 12 and up

Daniel Ehrenhaft’s contemporary novel Tell It To Naomi features an awkward teen who, through a strange twist of events, pretends to be a female advice columnist (“Naomi”) for his school newspaper, until the whole scheme crumbles catastrophically. The protagonist, David Rosen, is Jewish. While the committee agreed that the book was entertaining, they differed on the ever-difficult question of whether it is “Jewish enough.” On the “Hot” side, we learn that “Dave and his family are identifiably Jewish with numerous references to Judaism, and the passing of time is marked by the Jewish holidays. While Dave’s Jewish identity does not play an important role in the story, readers, both male and female, looking for a light and entertaining read about a regular kid who happens to be Jewish, will certainly enjoy Tell It To Naomi.” We also hear that “It is the kind of book that many Jewish librarians have been looking for, in that it is the story of contemporary American Jews that is not about immigration, the Holocaust or anti-semitism.” On the “Not” side, however, a reviewer argues that “we get no sense that Judaism provides a framework for how [Dave] lives his life. We don’t know if Judaism informs his decisions or if it has been important in creating his values.”

The Harmonica
By Tony Johnston
Illustrated by Ron Mazellan
32 pages. Charlesbridge Publishing. $15.95.
Ages 9 to 12

The Harmonica by Tony Johnston is a Holocaust story told in picture book format but intended for older readers. Based on a true story, it is the tale of how music helped a boy survive the concentration camp experience both physically, by earning him extra bread, and emotionally, by giving hope to those around him. Johnston’s text is accompanied by paintings by Ron Mazellan. Our “Hot” reviewer considers the book a “celebration of love and life and hope…. Every word is carefully chosen, and the story reads like a prose poem. The illustrations are breathtaking. This well-constructed book is an inspiring tale of human resilience, with an appeal that will reach both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. A must for any Holocaust collection.” At the same time, our “Not” reviewer thinks the illustrations are “bleak and dark,” and that “from the very first line… the overwhelming sadness of the book grips the reader. [Johnston’s] somber writing style seems more for adults will not attract young readers.”

The Dog of Knots
By Kathy Walden Kaplan
131 pages. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. $15.
Ages 9 to 12

The Dog of Knotsby Kathy Walden Kaplan depicts a young girl’s life in 1970’s Israel, at the time of the Yom Kippur War. A stray dog with matted fur (a “dog of knots”) becomes a focal point that helps bond neighbors together. Mood and plot work together to create a slice of life vision of modern Israel. On the “Hot” side, a reviewer considers the book to be a “quiet, beautifully written novel…. All readers will enjoy the magic and mystery behind the ‘dog of knots’ and admire and appreciate Mayim’s courage and compassion.” On the “Not” side, we hear that “this book feels as though it has lost something in translation, except that it was written in English by an author from Reston, VA! The story is not really about the dog, and not really about the war. It’s not really about anything. It’s as if the author was trying to write an Israeli version of Because of Winn-Dixie. However, this dog has no personality, and the human characters are not much better.”

The Thought of High Windows
By Lynne Kositsky
176 pages. Kids Can Press. $15.95.
Ages 11 to 14

Lynne Kositsky’s The Thought of High Windows is another Holocaust story, also based on true events. Esther and other Jewish teens are moved from Germany to Belgium and France under the protection of the Red Cross. The book details the ever-worsening conditions under which the characters must cope with the trials of war and adolescence. On the “Hot” side, the book is described as “very compelling” and “intensely moving.” A reviewer says the story is “strong in writing style, character development, description and dramatic tension. It also introduces an element not found in other books--the relationship between ‘old Jews’ and ‘new Jews.’ The tension between these two groups was very important at the time of setting of this book.” On the “Not” side, a reviewer thinks teens “are unlikely to be impressed with the slow moving pace and unresolved issues in the story.” An even harsher criticism says “Esther dislikes herself so much that it is hard for the reader to like her. While the novel describes a valid experience of the war, ‘there is no there there.’ The group of children never bond or have any particularly unique experiences. Esther does not grow significantly, remaining self-pitying to the end.”

Nothing Here But Stones
By Nancy Oswald
224 pages. Henry Holt. $16.95.
Ages 9 to 12

Nothing Here But Stones by Nancy Oswald tells the true story of the Cotopaxi farming colony set up in 19th century Colorado by Russian Jewish immigrants. Eleven-year-old Emma narrates the harsh realities of life in a strange new land. Our “Hot” reviewer calls the book “uplifting.” We are also told that “this finely crafted book is a useful addition as we celebrate 350 years of American Judaism, and is important for telling us about this time in life and this group of little-known pioneers.” Our “Not” reviewer says that “characters are one-dimensional, and the slow-moving story simply has no spark.” Worse yet, one reviewer finds the book to be riddled with errors, including “a Jewish character who regularly prays on his knees, which is a Christian prayer position.”

As you can see, debate is always lively at the “What’s Hot? What’s Not?” panel, which is one of the most popular convention sessions each year. This small sampling proves the old adage “two Jews, three opinions,” but in this case, they are all educated opinions, and well worth hearing!