Today’s Jewish child will find a bonanza of titles in upcoming months with stories of celebration, adventure, history, and mystery that highlight Jewish values. The number of titles aimed at Jewish children has been expanding steadily in recent years, and two new Jewish children’s publishers have launched this year, both promising characters from Ashkenazi (Eastern European ancestry) and Sephardi (Mediterranean and North African ancestry) cultures and people from around the globe.
Joni Sussman, publisher of Kar-Ben, a division of Lerner focused exclusively on Jewish children’s books, attributes the growth in Jewish children’s book publishing to PJ Library, a philanthropy launched in 2005 to provide free books for children in Jewish households and libraries in the U.S. and abroad. So far, it has mailed more than 12 million books to 620,000 subscribers.
Lili Rosenstreich, founder of Kalaniot, a new imprint of Endless Mountains Publishing, is hoping for a copublishing deal with PJ Library. Kalaniot (Hebrew for “wild poppies”) launched this month with its first title, the Hanukkah book The Littlest Candle, written by rabbis Kerry and Jesse Olitzky and illustrated by Jen Kostman. Little Flicker, the small candle with a big heart, “personifies what it means to have humility and a moral compass at a time when many of us big-time adults aren’t doing so great,” Rosenstreich says. Three more titles are planned for spring 2021.
Brianna Caplan Sayres launched Intergalactic Afikoman in February with the Passover tale Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space, followed by Such a Library—a spoof on an old Yiddish folk tale featuring a librarian named Miss Understood. On her upcoming calendar are DIJ—Do It Jewish: Use Your Jewish Creativity! (Dec.), written by Barbara Bietz and illustrated by Daria Grinevich; Fighting Climate Change Is a Mitzvah, focusing on young Jewish activists, by Sayres (Mar.); and Bubbe & Bart’s Matzoh Ball Mayhem (Aug.), starring a grandmother, her puppy, and some flying food, by Bonnie Grubman with illustrations by Deborah Melmon.
Intergalactic Afikoman (a reference to the piece of matzah traditionally hidden during Passover seders for children to find) strives for what its mission statement calls “out-of-this-world Jewish books for today’s Jewish kids.” Slated for publication in 2022, Frankenstein’s Matzoh by K. Marcus features a nonbinary descendent of the fictional Victor Frankenstein who, “through immigration, intermarriage, and imagination,” is a modern Jewish kid trying to win the school science fair. Sayres is undaunted by that descriptive mouthful. “It’s fine with me if this goes over some kids’ heads,” she says. “I’m putting out the books I want to see and my kids want to see.”
A more seasoned participant in the Jewish kids book landscape, Menucha Publishers launched its children’s list in 2011 to bring Orthodox families to the forefront, says editor-in-chief Esther Heller. Three in four of Menucha’s 50 annual titles are for children.
“We’re not trying to be trendy or on the cutting edge of issues of our times,” Heller says. “We want to stick with good books that feature stories of Jews from all over the world.”
Highlights from Menucha’s calendar include: Don’t Thank Me (out now), a lighthearted look at gratitude and grandparents by Rebecca Perlowitz with illustrations by Jim Starr; Layla’s Sugarland Winter (Dec.), the second book in a mystery series by Faygie Holt, author of several Menucha middle grade titles starring girls; and Yitzy Aims High (out now) by veteran Jewish children’s author Ann Kofsky, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas, featuring a boy and an older man in a wheelchair who help each other in an act of faith.
Kar-Ben, which was founded in 1972 and bought by Lerner Publishing Group in 2001, will be releasing 24 new books by August 2021, adding to a backlist of more than 400 titles. Sussman, who took the reins nearly 20 years ago, calls Kar-Ben a “mainstream house showing the entire spectrum of the rich culture of American Jewry.”
“We are very focused on allowing Jewish kids to see all kinds of Jews’ lives and practices,” she says. “We have male and female rabbis. We have Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, Jews of color, same-sex Jewish weddings, and we still pay attention to history and holiday books.”
A sampling from Kar-Ben’s upcoming calendar includes books with humor, history, and Jewish values, such as Does Your Dog Speak Hebrew? A Book of Animal Sounds (out now), a board book by Ellen Bari and illustrator Holly Clifton-Brown, which compares the words children use for animals in Israel and in the U.S. Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place (out now) by writer Barbara Lowell and graphic designer Valentina Toro tells the story of the courageous Dutch woman who helped hide the Frank family from the Nazis and saved Anne’s diary after the Franks were captured. Another story based on true events, The Singer and the Scientist (Apr. 2021) by Lisa Rose, tells how scientist Albert Einstein, living in Princeton in 1937, hosted the stellar Black opera singer Marian Anderson when no hotel would take her in after a concert.
Even Kar-Ben is a newcomer compared to Behrman House, a nearly century-old family-owned publisher of resources for Jewish education and celebration. Behrman formally launched the Apples & Honey Press imprint in 2015 with the motto “children’s books warmed by Jewish wisdom.” But Behrman had been publishing children’s books for years before the imprint and has added titles to the PJ Library, says Behrman partner Vicki Weber.
“We think kids are pretty sophisticated,” Weber says. “They learn from things that are fun and that are touching.” Apples & Honey’s upcoming list of nine titles is populated with zany creatures, cross-cultural tales, pathbreaking women both real and imagined, and Bible tales with a twist. SharkBot Shalom by Jenna Waldman, illustrated by Sharon Davie, tells of a “robot shark who literally recharges on Shabbat,” says Weber. Pumpkin Pie for Sigd (Aug. 2021) by Tzivia Macleod, illustrated by Denise Damanti, features the Ethiopian Jewish fall holiday of Sigd. Bestselling author Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrator Margeaux Lucas offer the story of Judy Kaplan, the first girl to receive a bat mitzvah (the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony) in the U.S., in Judy Led the Way (out now).
But you don’t have to be a Jewish publisher to launch a Jewish title that goes beyond Hanukkah food and games. New York University Press is among those bringing modern readers another perspective on Judaism with a compendium of Yiddish children’s stories and poems titled Honey on the Page, A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature (Oct.), edited and translated by Miriam Udel and illustrated by Paula Cohen, which features fables, family sagas, and more.