THE BOOK OF LIFE - The 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Awards, Revealed
2:59AM Jan 23, 2022
Emily Barth Isler
[COLD OPEN] Every other year, the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee names one person or entity as the Body of Work winner. This year, we are proud to give that honor to Jane Yolen. Jane has written over 400 books on numerous subjects, including several with Jewish themes. Her books have been selected as honor and notable books by the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, and her middle grade novel The Devil's Arithmetic won both the National Jewish Book Award and the 1988 Sydney Taylor Book Award. Congratulations, Jane Yolen!
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly, I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. The Sydney Taylor Book Awards are presented to the best Jewish children's and teen books by the Association of Jewish Libraries each year. At the beginning of January, I published my completely unofficial 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award shortlist of recent Jewish books for kids that I thought were deserving of attention. I'm pleased to say that the awards committee also liked many of my picks. As you'll find out when you hear today's interview with the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee Chair, Martha Seif Simpson. Listen to Martha to find out who won, and then check out my shortlist to add a few more excellent titles to your reading list. I'll link to all of these reading recommendations and the Sydney Taylor Award official info at BookofLifepodcast.com. And now, the envelope please!
Martha Simpson, welcome to The Book of Life.
Well, thank you. This is my first time talking to you on this podcast. So I'm excited!
Very happy to have you here. I'm so excited because you are about to reveal the winners of the 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Awards. First, could you give us a little bit of background about the Sydney Taylor Book Award?
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually, and it recognizes outstanding Jewish books for children and teens in three categories, picture books, middle grade books, and young adult books. There are gold medals for the winners, silver medals for honor books, and we also recognize notable books. It's named for Sydney Taylor, who was the author of the much beloved All of a Kind Family series. And it's sponsored by Jo Taylor Marshall, who is Sydney Taylor's daughter.
Excellent. So let's start with the gold medalists for all three age categories, and then we'll move on to honors and notables.
Tell us please, what book was the winner in the younger readers category?
Okay, our picture book is The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin.
So, I'm a little bit choked up, because I know how excited Susan Kusel will be. As listeners know, she's a very good friend of mine, she's been on the show, we actually did a podcast episode about The Passover Guests with Susan and Sean. And so I am so thrilled for her, and so excited because it is a wonderful book. It is a good choice!
Thank you! Susan's involvement in AJL has nothing whatsoever to do with it, She won fair and square. There was a lot of competition, but that's what our committee decided on.
Excellent. And tell us a little bit, for those who haven't seen the book and didn't hear the earlier interview with Susan and Sean, just tell us a bit about the book.
Well, it's a retelling of a story based on I.L. Peretz's The Magician. It takes place in Washington DC during the Depression and it has beautiful pictures in the style of Marc Chagall, a famous Jewish artist. We just love the way Susan retold it in her own way.
Let's hear about the winner in the older readers category.
For the middle grades, How to Find What You're Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani.
And tell us a little bit about that book. It has such a mysterious title. What are we looking for? What are we not looking for?
Well, it takes place in 1967. It's a very turbulent time, with Martin Luther King and civil rights and the case about interracial marriage. And in this book, Ariel Goldberg is trying to cope with her oldest sister's elopement. She wants to marry a man from India and because of that she's estranged from her family. It's narrated in the second person which is very unusual. And the book just stood out to us because it did so many things right and covered so many different issues for kids to get a really good flavor of the time period and for the Jewish values in the book.
Again, solid, solid choice. And now please tell us about the young adult winner.
The young adult winner is The City Beautiful by Aidan Polydoros. The year is at 1893. The Chicago World's Fair is happening. Alter Rosen, a Romanian immigrant, notices that there seem to be a lot of young Jewish men immigrants that are dying. One of his close friends dies. And his friend inhabits him as a dybbuk and Alter has to find the murderer before the dybbuk consumes him. It's a murder mystery. There's some fantasy in there; there's historical fiction. It all melds together beautifully. It's a wonderful book.
I've been hearing a lot of buzz about The City Beautiful, partly because it has very strong LGBT content as well.
Yes, yes, it does.
Awesome. There were also eight silver medalists, Sydney Taylor Honor Books, and ten notable books selected by the committee across the three age categories.
Yes, the Honor books in the picture book category, there are three of them. Nicky and Vera, A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued, written and illustrated by Peter Sis; Dear Mr. Dickens, written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe; and The Christmas Mitzvah, written by Jeff Gottesfeld and illustrated by Michelle Laurentia Agatha.
So of course, everyone knows that Peter Sis does amazing work. And I'm also happy to hear that my friends and past podcast guests have won honors. Nancy Churnin was on the show in 2019, talking about some of her other biographies on Irving Berlin and also a combined biography of Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who were actually born in the same year. And then I spoke to Jeff Gottesfeld a few years ago about No Steps Behind which was a remarkable true story about a Jewish woman who helped incorporate women's rights into the Japanese Constitution. And then Jeff was also on the show just this past December to talk about The Christmas Mitzvah. Let's hear about the middle grade Honors.
In the middle grade category, we had two Honor books. The Genius Under the Table, written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, and Linked by Gordon Korman.
I loved Linked! I thought it was a really powerful depiction of how Holocaust education can work or can not work. And then Eugene Yelchin is just amazing. I had him on the podcast way back in 2013, when he wrote Breaking Stalin's Nose, and Genius Under the Table is, like, genius. It's just so real and so funny, and also heartbreaking. And of course, it's his own life story. Okay, how about YA?
There were three honor books in the young adult category. The Last Words We Said by Leah Scheier, The Summer of Lost Letters by Hannah Reynolds, and Whistle, A New Gotham City Hero, written by E. Lockhart and illustrated by Manuel Preitano.
I haven't read Summer of Lost Letters, but The Last Words We Said really impressed me. I don't think I've ever before seen modern Orthodox characters depicted with so much nuance, or even depicted at all in a book that came from a mainstream press. It's just really unique to see these characters depicted for a non orthodox audience. And I think it was done so skillfully. And then about Whistle, regular listeners know how excited I was to get a new Jewish superhero because I interviewed E. Lockhart about it in November 2021. So let's hear about the notable books now.
Okay. In the picture book category, there were three notable books. Red and Green and Blue and White, written by Lee Wind and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky; The People's Painter, How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art, written by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Evan Turk; and A Queen to the Rescue, The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah, written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg.
Wow, Nancy Churnin got two books recognized in the same year, proving once again that she is the biography queen! And then Lee Wind was on the show before in December when I asked him and Jeff Gottesfeld to come together to talk about their holiday books because The Christmas Mitzvah and Red and Green and Blue and White were both such great stories of Jews and Christians standing up for each other. Lee Wind was also a guest in the past talking about queer kidlit. And then The People's Painter was another really strong biography and I loved how Evan Turk's art really paid tribute to the style of Ben Shahn. Tell us about middle grade notables now.
In the middle grade category, we had three notable books, Benny Feldman's All-Star Klezmer Band by Allison and Wayne Marks; Sorry For Your Loss by Joanne Levy; and The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron.
So of those three, I want to mention that I felt that Sorry For Your Loss was an important book showing Jewish customs surrounding death, but also really a heartwarming story about dealing with grief. And I've invited Joanne Levy coming up in the very next episode in a group interview along with other authors who address grief. So we've got Tyler Feder, who won the Sydney Taylor Book Award last year for Dancing at the Pity Party, and also Emily Barth Isler who wrote Aftermath, and they joined Joanne and me to discuss books for kids that deal with grief. How about YA?
We had four young adult notable books, The Light of Days, The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos, young readers edition, by Judy Batalion; The Seventh Handmaiden by Judith Pransky, which also happens to be the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award winner; Boy from Buchenwald by Robert Waisman and Susan McClelland; and Why We Fly by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal.
What a wonderful list! These are all such great books, and I'm so excited for everybody to run out and read them right away. Are there any trends or themes that you are noticing among all of this year's books?
Yeah, actually, there are. It was kind of funny. The picture book, honor books, and notable books all happen to be based on true stories. And that wasn't intentional. They just happen to turn out that way.
Yeah, it's interesting. We did have several trends or themes that I noticed this year. I noticed there's a lot of stories about strong women and girls. We had several biographies and nonfiction books in all three age categories that featured women who were leaders, or exceptionally brave. And we also have a lot of fiction about girls and women who are learning to find their own way, take charge of their lives. Another trend that we noticed was a lot more diversity. We had several books with LGBTQ characters, and some with neurodiverse characters, and some characters of mixed races and ethnic backgrounds. We also had books that span the full spectrum of Judaism, from characters who are secular Jews, to characters who are extremely observant, and sometimes all within the same book. Another trend I noticed this year was one that we saw last year as well, books about cooking or baking, and this year, we had a lot of books that included recipes. Kind of an interesting one: we had several books with kids or teens who were brought up as either Christians or with no religion at all, and then they suddenly found out they were Jewish. But the strangest trend that we had this year was dead grandmothers. Weird, right?
Sometimes the grandmother died before the book began. And sometimes she was like the focal point of the family and everybody loved her and then she died. But either way, the grandmother's death set off what was going on in the main character's life, and a lot of time that involved cooking or baking.
I noticed that there are a lot of books that have to do with activism.
Yes, a lot of people being upstanders, doing something to promote justice, whether it's Ben Shahn and his paintings, or Why We Fly with the cheerleaders, the girls taking a knee. A lot of books we saw this year did talk about social activism in one way or another.
Yeah, I think that's a wonderful trend. I'm very excited about that, because there's a long tradition of activism within the Jewish community. And so that's great to see it reflected in the literature.
In the past several years, the winning authors and illustrators have been part of a Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour, which is kind of like a book tour, except they appear on blogs instead of live in bookstores. Can you tell us about this year's blog tour?
Well Yeah, this year's blog tour is in the second week of February, so that would make it February 7 through 11th. At this time, we're still lining up the bloggers who will be interviewing the authors and illustrators. And we're really looking forward to it. It should be very exciting!
Great! The official announcement of the winners is on January 24, along with ALA's winners, the Caldecott, the Newbery and all of the other wonderful awards. I also want to let everybody know that on Sunday, January 30 2022, at 12:30pm Eastern Time, the Association of Jewish Libraries is holding an After Party on Zoom. We will have an AJL event to celebrate the Sydney Taylor Book Award winners, and we're going to have Jo Taylor Marshall, the daughter of Sydney Taylor, author of All the Kind Family, and Jo, as you mentioned, is the sponsor of the Book Award in memory of her mother. So she's going to be our guest of honor, and she's going to share some fun backstory with us about her mother and the All of a Kind Family books. So you can find the link to register for this free zoom event at BookofLifepodcast.com. If listeners want to find out more about the Sydney Taylor Book Award, or get a list of the winners that they can print and take with them and go order the books, where can they find that?
Yes, if people want to find out more about the Sydney Taylor Book Awards, they can go to SydneyTaylorbookawards.org. And click on that and you'll be able to go directly to information about all the books that we mentioned.
So now it's tikkun olam time. What action would you like to call listeners to take to help heal the world?
So doing good deeds, being an upstander, or taking action in justice, those were all themes that were in a lot of the books that we recognized this year. But you don't have to do something big. So I think if you can just reach out to someone who is some kind of an outsider, or they may not know a lot of people or they just might need someone to talk to, you might be able to brighten their day. And you might make a friend at the same time. Because showing kindness, it's such a simple thing. Anyone can do it, but we don't really see enough of it.
Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Yes, I do want to thank our committee members. We had insightful, knowledgeable people who are a pleasure to work with this year. And their names are Aviva Rosenberg, Judy Ehrenstein, Toby Harris, Carla Kozak, Talya Sokoll, and Kay Weisman. And I'd also like to thank Past Chair Rebecca Levitan, with whom I consulted on a regular basis. I want to thank her for mentoring me through my first year as the committee chair. Actually, I also want to thank you, Heidi, and the other people who helped compile that list of Jewish books that were published in 2021. And to everybody that contributed to the Sydney Taylor Shmooze; I really enjoyed reading everybody's reviews.
Well, you're very welcome. And thank you for mentioning the Sydney Taylor Shmooze. So, as listeners may remember, that is a mock award blog that I run along with Susan Kusel, who already got a shout out today, and Chava Pinchuk. Like me they are both past chairs of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. So together we run this mock award blog, and we get reviews out there year round for all of the books that are eligible for the Sydney Taylor Book Award, so I hope people will continue reading those reviews. And if you are someone who likes to write reviews, you can even volunteer and become a reviewer for us. So Martha, thank you so much. I'm so excited to learn about this brand new crop of winners. They're such great books and thank you for being here with me today.
Thank you for interviewing me. I look forward to getting all the reactions and seeing how everybody else enjoys this looks that we picked.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] Hi, this is Tyler Feder, author of Dancing at the Pity Party.
This is Joanne Levy, author of Sorry For Your Loss.
And this is Emily Barth Isler, author of Aftermath. We'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast, and we'd like to dedicate our episode to anyone struggling with loss.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473 or bookoflife email@example.com. Check out our Book of Life podcast Facebook page or our Facebook discussion group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too @bookoflifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon. Additional support comes from the Association of Jewish Libraries, which also sponsors our sister podcast, Nice Jewish Books, a show about Jewish fiction for adults. You'll 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!
[MUSIC, PROMO] Hi, this is Sheryl Stahl over at The Book of Life's sister podcast, Nice Jewish Books. In my latest episode, I'm going to be speaking with Rachel Beanland about secrets. Can they bring people together or do they tear people apart? We'll discuss how secrets work in her latest book, Florence Adler Swims Forever. Join me over at Jewishlibraries.org/niceJewishbooks.