I love Judy Blume. Like, LOVE. Like many of you, I read every one of her books. I credit her with being one of the first writers to paint a true and funny picture of life, love, and the dark, twisted machinations of adolescence — and she did so Jewishly.
In addition to telling it like it is, Blume did something else for me, personally: She ignited my dream of writing books — specifically, books with Jewish girls as main characters. Or, she made it so that it never occurred to me not to write about them.
Many years after I hunkered down at bedtime with Blume’s Margaret Simon, Sheila Tubman, and Sally J. Freedman, I wrote a chapter book series for Scholastic, Starring Jules. I set it smack in the middle of the Upper West Side and I gave my protagonist a Jewish name, Jules Bloom (sound familiar?). I gave her a Grandma Gilda who lived in Florida, and a neurotic, scientific best friend, Teddy Lichtenstein. I stopped short of giving her an afterschool Hebrew school program and Shabbat candles to light, but my intentions were good.
More recently, however, with anti-Semitism on the rise and with fewer Jews affiliated in meaningful ways, I upped the ante. Instead of creating aesthetically Jewish characters — Jewish by neighborhood, last name, and culture — I made my latest main character explicitly Jewish. In Izzy Kline has Butterflies and The Cure for Cold Feet, Izzy, as part of the twists and turns of her tween life, talks about Hanukkah and summer camp; she feels connected to the chuppah at her gay grandfathers’ wedding and the tallis the rabbi wraps around them during the ceremony.
Izzy is a lot of things, like so many girls are: she is strong, and emotional, and bright, and funny, and, also, Jewish. Being Jewish isn’t the main thing Izzy is, but it plays a role. And it’s important to me, as a writer, to get it right; to make her experience as authentic as nearly every other fictional kid who has a Christmas tree or goes to church.
In the world of children’s literature, we talk a lot about windows and mirrors. It can be empowering to see ourselves and to see our experiences reflected back at us — especially when we are outside the mainstream. Likewise, when we present someone else’s reality to a reader who has never met such a person or heard such a word, we open a window to something new; we create empathy and solidarity.
The following seven authors — all women — are writing books for middle graders that feature strong, Jewish main characters. If you’re looking for an exceptional “window/mirror” reading experience for an elementary school-aged kid, be sure to check them out.
Nora Raleigh Baskin
Baskin has included Jewish characters in many of her books, including her first, What Every Girl Knows Except Me — in which motherless Gabby Weiss yearns for a stepmother to help her with girl things — as well as in The Truth about My Bat Mitzvah, wherein 12-year-old Caroline grapples with her Jewish identity. Most recently, Baskin wrote Nine,Ten: A September 11 Story, a book highly acclaimed for its portrayal of four middle-schoolers in the run-up to the events of 9/11, one of whom, Naomi, is Jewish. Baskin’s books are all written with heart and deep empathy, plus lots of attention to those little details that make all of us both the same and different, all at once.
Sarah Darer Littman
Litman has also explored Jewish characters, especially in Confessions of a Closet Catholic, which won the Sydney Taylor Book Award (an annual prize from Association of Jewish Libraries). The novel introduces readers to the charming 11-year-old Justine Silver who searches for her identity in the midst of crisis and change, with some serious charm and wit.
Perl has a way of working Judaism and even some Yiddish into her charming books, which include When Life Gives You OJ and Aces Wild — both featuring the delightful almost-11-year-old, Zelly Fried. Most recently, she has gifted us All Three Stooges, about the friendship of two boys in the midst of some turmoil during their bar mitzvah year. It’s a book about grief that manages to be uplifting and laugh-out-loud funny in all the right places. Read it!
Debbie Reed Fischer
In This is NOT the Abby Show, Fischer introduces us to the gifted Abby who, among her many talents, also has ADHD. When she lands in summer school, she learns to communicate better and she realizes that the best friends are the ones who accept you and love you as you are. Abby is funny and spunky and, yeah, also Jewish. Obviously.
In The Whole Story of Half a Girl, half-Jewish, half-Indian Sonia is thrust out of her private school and into the public school system, where her mixed heritage makes for lots of speculation and uncomfortable questions. Sonia’s story navigates the usual adolescent fish-out-of-water fare with extra insight, humor, and heart.
Lucky Broken Girl is gorgeous historical fiction that sheds light on the Cuban-Jewish immigrant experience. It’s told through the fixed eyes of a girl who has fled Castro, only to land herself in a body cast. Lucky for us, we get to see the world through Ruthie’s fierce and compassionate lens. This one is special.
Shovan’s first novel,The Last Class of Emerson Elementary, was written in verse. It features a broad, diverse cast of characters, one one of whom explores her Jewish identity through poetry. Her latest novel, Takedown, features a strong —as in pin-someone-to-the mat strong —female main character, Mikalya, who has to prove she can be the heir to her dad’s wrestling legacy. However, it is through her training partner, Lev, who is Jewish, that we get to see a fleshed out portrait of a Jewish athlete. Supported by a diverse cast, this is new, different novel about bravely forging a new path.