Reimagining a Family Reading Tradition

When I started writing Jewish children’s books, over 20 years ago, my own children were small and there were not many books of Jewish interest to read to them other than Barbara Cohen’s Yussel’s Prayer and Molly’s Pilgrim, and the classics, All of a Kind Family and K’tonton.

While the field of Jewish children’s books has grown significantly over the past twenty years, it has – like television, radio, and other media – gone corporate. Just as Clear Channel Communications has bought a large piece of radio, so a handful of corporations now own almost all of the publishing houses. This has changed publishing so extensively that most of my 18 titles probably would not be bought today by a publisher. Today’s publishers are primarily interested in money. Books are called “products.” Manuscripts by brand-name authors and celebrities, or titles deemed marketable are what publishers buy today.

As a children’s author, people often ask me: Why aren’t there more books for other holidays besides Hanukkah and Passover? Why aren’t there more books for Jewish children that reflect the changes in today’s Jewish homes? Where are the books about divorce, single parent families, intermarried families, couples who adopt multi-racial children, gay and lesbian families? I try to explain today’s publishing market without endorsing it because I think it’s important for children to see themselves in the books they read.

A few books, like Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, reflect changes in American families. Although Newman’s books were published by a small independent press, a few larger mainstream publishers are beginning to bring out a selection of these type of books as well. And certainly there are caring editors who are looking for just the right well written, but not didactic, story that reflects families in today’s society.

Independent publishers and small presses, such as Jewish Lights and Kar-Ben, have helped pave the way. Kar-Ben started in 1975 and did so well with their 150 titles that they were acquired by the Lerner Publishing Group last year. They published titles that reflected a changing Jewish world like Ima on the Bima: My Mommy Is a Rabbi and Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School. Jewish Lights’ books include titles that highlight the roles of Jewish women, like, But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land.

Books have to sell to stay in print and to encourage publishers to invest in such family-oriented titles. New publishing ventures that would bring together people with capital, interest, and marketing and business acumen could revolutionize the field. Certainly writers would tell stories reflecting today’s diversity in the Jewish world if they knew their books would be published.

Today’s world also requires readers to be more astute, vocal, and active in the pursuit of good books. We need to hunt out already published books to read to our children and we must buy them. If you like one book by a particular author, check to see if that author has other titles. Talk to librarians, booksellers, writers, and publishers about what is needed. To fill in the gaps, why doesn’t a Jewish organization sponsor a contest for Jewish children’s stories that reflect contemporary Jewish life?

Books have always been a way to find ourselves and today’s Jewish children need new books to understand and grapple with the complexities of the world as we find it in 2003.


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