THE BOOK OF LIFE - The 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Awards
11:32PM Jan 26, 2020
[COLD OPEN] It's part of our continued conversation about windows and mirrors and sliding doors. I think reading Jewish stories gives people an opportunity to gain some empathy to see, with Holocaust stories, the things that we have gone through and survived, to read a contemporary story and realize that someone is not as different as you think they might be, I think is important.
[THEME MUSIC, INTRO] This is the Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. It's book award season! The Sydney Taylor Book Award recognizes the best Jewish kidlit each year. I spoke with Rebecca Levitan, the chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, as she revealed the 2020 winners of the award. Be sure to visit BookofLifePodcast.com for links to everything you ever wanted to know about Sydney Taylor Book Award, including the full list of this year's winning titles.
Rebecca Levitan, welcome to The Book of Life Podcast.
I am so excited because you are about to reveal to us the winners of the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Awards. But first, please give us a little bit of background about the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
Well, the Sydney Taylor Book Award is an award given by the Association of Jewish libraries for quality children's literature that authentically portrays the Jewish experience. This award is actually just over 50 years old now. It's given in the name of Sydney Taylor, who's the one who wrote the All-of-a-Kind Family books, which many, many, many readers out there have read and identified their Jewishness with it. And so it's exciting to give it in that name. It's sponsored by Jo Taylor Marshall, who is Sydney Taylor's daughter, and who's just an absolute delight. She's really wonderful. We give a Picture Book Award, a Middle Grade Book Award and a Young Adult, along with honors and a notable list.
Okay, good. Last year for the first time, the Sydney Taylor Awards were announced at the high profile Youth Media Awards event at the American Library Association midwinter meeting, along with really well known awards, like the Caldecott and the Newbery. So what was that like?
It was a huge thrill. It was amazing to be in this enormous, enormous room. All these People were so excited to see all these books being awarded, the cheering... it was extremely emotional. And then afterwards to go around to the publishers to give them the seals for their books and to have the publishers be super excited about it and other people complimenting us on, you know, great choices. It was so amazing. And then so many teachers and librarians sit there and watch the the cast of it and start ordering right then.
So you mean that people across the country or I guess across the world are watching the webcast of the announcement, and then immediately just started ordering the books?
Yeah, I know so many teachers and librarians who do that, or start requesting them from the library so that their students can see it. It's really cool.
So having the Sydney Taylor award included in the early announcements is making a difference to the success of these titles.
It really is, it actually increased their sales by like 300% compared to previous winners.
It was huge for those books and for our profile.
Awesome. So we have the three age group categories. Let's start talking about the gold medalists for all three categories and then we can move on to the honors and the notables. Okay, what book was the winner in the younger readers category?
So I'm really excited about this one. Our winner for the younger readers is The Book Rescuer by Sue Macy and illustrated by Stacy Innerst. The tagline is How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come. And it's told in a very easygoing, storytelling manner, like it feels like your uncle or your aunt or somebody is sitting down telling you this story of how the Yiddish Book Center got started.
That's so awesome. I just interviewed Sue Macy for an episode of The Book of Life. So that's wondful, and she was great. Let's move on. Tell us about the winner in the older readers category.
The winner for the middle grade category is White Bird by RJ Palacio, A Wonder Story. It's really exciting because this is also a graphic novel. It's a really touching story about a girl hiding during the Nazi occupation of France. It's beautifully illustrated, really well written, and really, really compelling.
Now, I know there's been a lot of buzz about that book. But at the same time, I know some people will groan and say "not another Holocaust book." So can you explain a little bit about why you think Holocaust books so frequently win Sydney Taylor Book Awards?
I think part of it is the cycle of publishing, that publishing sees that Holocaust books do well, so they're more invested to continue putting out Holocaust books. It makes me want to kind of shake publishers and be like, we shouldn't forget, but also, we survived. We made it past there. There are people thriving in their Judaism now and we should be publishing those stories. But also, it's so so important to keep reading these Holocaust stories and to keep talking about it. And, you know, we're 70 years out from it, which is a lifetime. But if we look out the window today, there's a march going on in New York protesting antisemitism, so it's really not that far away. And so to keep reading these stories, and to keep remembering, I think is super, super important.
Tell us about the winner in the teen readers category.
As we were just talking about Holocaust stories, this is another Holocaust story. But this one takes a little bit of a different approach. The book is Someday We Will Fly by Rachel Dewoskin. And it's actually set in Shanghai during World War II, about a girl who escapes with her father and her sister and how she survives in Shanghai. And it was just really, really beautiful and really fascinating. We were very proud to put our name on this.
So I'm pleased that there is excellent high quality Holocaust literature being published; at the same time, the fact that two out of the three gold medals are Holocaust books, I think it's just a sign of something that's not quite right in the whole genre of publishing Jewish content children's books,
I can't agree more. We actually had three submissions for YA's that were contemporary romances where both protagonists were Jewish, which in of itself seems like a big win. So that was really encouraging that that's happened. I would love to see publishers invest more in contemporary stories.
There were also six silver medalists I believe, also known as Sydney Taylor Honor Books, and then eight notable books selected by the committee across the three age categories.
Why don't we have you go through all of the books getting recognized? So we have that whole list.
So in the picture book category, Honors are for Gittel's Journey and The Key from Spain. Notables are Dr. Esperanto and the Language of Hope, A Scarf for Keiko, and Parrots, Pugs and Pixie Dust. For middle grade, our Honors are Games of Deception and Anya and the Dragon. Our Notable books are Masters of Silence, A Boy Is Not a Bird, and Rachel's Roses. And then for young adult, our Honors our Dissenter on the Bench and Sick Kids in Love, and our Notable books are In the Neighborhood of True and Light in the Darkness.
And are there any that you want to call out in particular?
Oh, yes. For the middle grade readers, one of our Honor books is Anya and the Dragon by Sofia Pasternak. This is an absolutely super fun fantasy story with a Jewish girl, and she meets this dragon. So exciting and so much fun to read. And really, we got invested in, I got invested in the story so much. There's a second book coming out; really, really highly recommend Anya and the Dragon. And then the other one I want to point out for Honor books for our young adult readers, is Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz. It's a great book, it's contemporary romance about two Jewish kids, a girl with arthritis, and a boy with Cushing's disease, which is a Jewish genetic disease, and they meet and they fall in love, and they they support each other through all the hardships of being someone with a chronic illness. One of the committee members pointed out that it's so Jewish in like the bikur holim aspect. It gave a lot of insight into what it means to be someone with a chronic illness. And actually, the tagline for the book is "they don't die in this one." Which is great considering all the like, sicklit that's been out there. Right? But also just really sweet and wonderful romance and as someone who really enjoys reading romance, I really liked this one.
Yeah. For the picture book category, one of our Honor books was Gittle's Journey by Leslea Newman, an immigration story coming into the US in the late 1800s. It's so so so, so beautifully illustrated. I think I could just look at the pictures and be really happy. But the story is just really wonderful. Leslea talks in the back pages about how this came from her family's experience. I'm really excited to be honoring this book as well because we are honoring Leslea Newman with a Body of Work Award. Couldn't have picked a better person! She's got just a wonderful catalog of Jewish related books and books related to LGBTQ, which I think is super important. And I just feel very, very grateful that the committee thought that she was worthy of the Body of Work honor, and I'm excited to move forward with that.
That's great news. I know that every few years the Sydney Taylor committee chooses a Body of Work Award winner, for a career of contributions to the genre of Jewish children's literature. So that's, that's great. Leslea Newman is a terrific choice. She actually won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the past for Ketzle the Cat Who Composed.
Yes, which is such a sweet story.
And I think that that's the same illustrator is Gittel's Journey, isn't it? Amy June Bates.
Yes, Amy June Bates. Yep.
So now that illustrator has won both a gold and a silver, along with Leslea. Great! Are there any trends or themes that you're noticing in this year's crop of winners? Or even in this year's submissions?
in this year submissions? Well, there was always a handful of Anne Frank things, handful of Ruth Bader Ginsburg things. Actually one of our Honor books for young adult is Dissenter on the Bench by Victoria Ortiz, which we all agree has probably been the best RBG biography to come out. It ties her court cases with her life. It talks about her Judaism more than just, she was discriminated against and that was no fun. So that was really, really good. But on top of that, I was noticing several books that were based on Yiddish stories or Yiddish songs, so they weren't in Yiddish themselves and didn't really have a Jewish person or people doing Jewish things, and it was just based on something that was Jewish. Raisins and Almonds and Good Night Wind. And actually a really cute picture book based on It Could Always Be Worse about a little girl who wants a puppy and she has the entire apartment building bring their pets in, and all of a sudden her mom realizes that maybe one puppy is not so bad. There were also a large chunk of books about righteous Gentiles. There was Miep and the Most Famous Diary, Martin and Anne, Francesco Tirelli's Ice Cream Shop. I want to say The Book Cyclist but that's not right.
The Brave Cyclist?
The Brave Cyclist, there we go, but a bunch of books that are sort of peripherally about Jews because they were about righteous Gentiles. Oh, Tthe Brave Princess and Me, which was really, really interesting about Princess Alice, who was actually Prince Philip's mother, and saved some people during the Holocaust. So there were a lot of those. And then like I said, contemporary and adult stories and a lot of casual diversity, so books that had Jews in it, but that wasn't really part of it. Those were some of the things I noticed.
Okay, good. In the past several years, the winning authors and illustrators have been part of a Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, which is like a book tour except they appear on blogs instead of live in bookstores. Will that be happening again this year?
It will be! Our Blog Tour will be happening Sunday, February 9 through Thursday, February 13, and we're very excited about it.
If listeners want to find out more about the Sydney Taylor Book Award or the Blog Tour, or get a list of winners that they can easily print out, where can they find that?
So if you're looking for more information, it's SydneyTaylorBookAwards.org.
And I just want to make sure everybody heard that, awards with an S plural, dot org. Is there anything else that you want to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Yes, I would love to thank the committee. They've worked really, really hard this year and were very, very thoughtful about what they awarded. I want to first think Sylvie Schaffer, Shoshana Flax and Rifka Yerushalmi because they are all finishing their term this year. And then I'd like to thank the rest of the committee, Marjorie Shuster, Marjorie Ingall, Rena Citrin, past chair Susan Kusel, who, without her I don't think I would have made it through this year. And of course, we'd like to thank Jo Taylor Marshall for supporting this award, and continuing to make sure that we have this for all the readers.
A year ago, on the Book of Life podcast episode announcing the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award winners, we were talking about AJL's Love Your Neighbor booklists, because at that time, the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh was pretty recent. And unfortunately, as we're speaking now in January 2020, we have had additional shootings and stabbings, vandalism and other violence. And I want listeners to know that I have set up a page at BookofLifePodcast.com linking to some ways that everyone can help. The tab at the top of the page is labeled STAND UP. Rebecca, can you talk about how the Sydney Taylor Book Awards can make a difference in helping the world?
It's part of our continued conversation about windows and mirrors and sliding doors. I think it gives readers an opportunity to gain some empathy to see, with Holocaust stories, the things that we have gone through and survived, to read a contemporary story and realize that we're not that different from anybody else. And so I think reading Jewish stories gives people an opportunity to see, like, we may go to synagogue on Saturday, we may light Hanukkah candles instead of having a Christmas tree. We may stop eating bread for a week in the spring. We still like to read Harry Potter, we still want to go spend time with our friends and family. And so to know that someone is not as different as you think they might be, I think is important.
So as you know, on The Book of Life, we always have a Tikkun Olam segment. Is there any action that you would like to invite listeners to take to help heal the world?
So I was thinking about this. And my gut reaction to this question right now is to ask listeners to wear their Judaism proudly, to walk out with a Star of David on, to not let fear cower you right now. I think if we continue to show the world that we are around and we're here to stay, and we're not about to go running, I think it's really important.
Great, and for listeners who aren't Jewish, how can they help?
Talk to your Jewish friends ask them questions about how they observe. Ask them what you can do to be helpful to them. Would it be helpful to walk with someone to synagogue? I was on Twitter earlier today and apparently in Bergenfield, New Jersey, they had a rally yesterday, which would be people like why would you have it on Saturday? They're trying to show the Jewish community there that they were in support of them walking to synagogue, and to remind people that we're all we're all in this together.
Rebecca Levitan, Mazel Tov on your wonderful work on the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you so much for having me, Heidi, this has been amazing.
[MUSIC, TEASER] Hi, this is Jeff Gottesfeld. I'm the author of No Steps Behind: Beata Sirota Gordon's Battle for Women's Rights in Japan. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life Podcast, I'd like to dedicate my episode to the proposition that the famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous.
[THEME MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473, or BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Facebook page or our Facebook discussion group Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too. There are lots of ways to support the show, through Patreon and through donations to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You can find links for all of that and more at BookofLifePodcast.com. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading.