THE BOOK OF LIFE - The Puppy Test
2:27AM Dec 18, 2020
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a podcast about Jewish kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. I've got a bonus episode for you today. No interview, just me.
I want to talk to you about a Jewish video that's sweeping the nation. In December 2020 the world received a wondrous Hanukkah gift: Daveed Diggs' "Puppy for Hanukkah" video. I'm not going across the Disney Channel by playing you a sample, but I've posted the video at BookofLifepodcast.com, so if you haven't seen it yet, or if you want to refresher, pause now and go watch it. I'll wait. [WAITING MUSIC]
So, I want to talk to you about how Puppy for Hanukkah is an excellent model to follow for people who are seeking to create Jewish content for children. This is a podcast about kidlit, so in particular, I'd like to see this model applied to children's books. What does Puppy for Hanukkah do right that can also be done by authors, illustrators, editors, designers, and publishers of Jewish children's books?
The most obvious element is Jewish diversity. Front and center are three adorable child actors, all people of color. It's very refreshing to see Jewish characters of color at the center of a narrative, instead of tokenistically included in a crowd scene. An article in The Forword quotes a dad in a Jewish interracial family who responds to this video by saying, "Oh my god, we're not the others!" To translate this into the book world, it would be great to have more books about Jews with all kinds of diverse backgrounds. We've seen a lot of progress on including Jews of color alongside white Jews, especially in picture books, but we need more stories that center these characters.
I hope it's clear that I'm not saying that white Jews are no longer welcome in children's literature. Jewish books are diverse books, no matter the color of the Jewish characters, and all are worthy of representation. But at the same time, we definitely do need to offer more mirror books to Jewish kids who are not part of the white Ashkenazi default.
Another important element modeled by this video is authenticity. Puppy for Hanukkah does not fall prey to the annoying slash hilarious mistakes we call Hanukkah Fails. I'm talking about the kind of things you see in retail stores in December: matzah presented as Hanukkah food or Christmas stockings decorated with a Star of David pattern.
Puppy for Hanukkah starts by acknowledging the reality that other kids write to Santa, but goes on to proudly center the Jewish experience of the holiday season. It is unapologetically Jewish, asserting that "Hanukkah is the best fun." It not only includes an accurate representation of the holiday with klezmer music, a menorah, dreidels, and latkes with applesauce and sour cream, it even goes so far as to include the actual blessing, plus, the reality that many children learn it phonetically without understanding the Hebrew. That was certainly the case for me. Even better, the authenticity extends to the inside joke that Hanukkah gifts are often practical items like socks and sweaters.
I particularly like that the father tells the child to say the bracha, and that it's left to context to demonstrate what that word means. This shows a nice lightness of touch that doesn't bog down the flow, and it educates without feeling educational.
So again, to translate to the book world: we need children's books that are accurate and authentic in their Jewish content, that educate without feeling preachy, and that include details that will delight those in the know without excluding those less familiar with Judaism.
Puppy for Hanukkah was created by the biracial Jewish actor and musician Daveed Diggs, who is perhaps best known for originating the roles of Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton. Jill Hotchkiss, vice president of creative marketing for Disney Channels Worldwide, who pitched the idea to Daveed, is Jewish. The video credits include the names Kaplan and Rosenfeld, which definitely sound Jewish, along with Hutson and Snipes which certainly could be Jewish. I think it's safe to say that Puppy for Hanukkah was created largely by an #ownvoices team. #Ownvoices means the material was produced by the same kinds of people that it's about, in this case, meaning it's a narrative about Jews created by Jews.
I personally am not an #ownvoices purist. I think that any author can tell any story as long as they do their homework, and that even authors writing about their own culture need to do that homework, but at the same time I do feel that #ownvoices narratives can bring an extra level of authenticity to a book, and that we should be supporting marginalized peoples' efforts to tell their own stories, especially if they've been denied that opportunity in the past. Within the larger publishing world, Jewish stories are marginalized. Within the genre of Jewish literature, stories about Jews of color are marginalized. I want to see the publishing world embrace Jewish voices from all different backgrounds.
Finally, Puppy for Hanukkah is contemporary, stylish, fun, and relatable. The opening scene is very much of the moment: it shows a boy looking at his smartphone. The production values are very high -- this is a Disney video after all -- and even child star Ethan Hollingsworth, who is in the video, kvells in his own reaction video about the special effects and tells us that this song is "lit." It's fun to see the kids sneaking around looking for a puppy hiding among the gift boxes and humorous when Ethan is pelted with socks. The desire for a puppy is universally relatable and the actual puppy is heart meltingly adorable. What's not to like?
So let's tie these descriptors, contemporary, stylish, fun, and relatable, back to the book world. Historical fiction has its place, but it would be wonderful to see more stories that celebrate modern Jewish life. As to production values, we want compellingly written, strongly edited, well designed, and beautifully illustrated Jewish books for children. Jewish books are often very earnest, it would be great to offer more choices that are humorous, that are fun, and that showcase Jewish joy. And of course the goal of all storytelling is to have readers relate it to their own lives. In the case of Jewish books, this is crucial. Non Jewish readers who encounter relatable Jewish stories build their capacity for empathy and lose their prejudices. To reduce hate in this world, we urgently need relatable, authentic stories from Jewish voices and from all the voices.
So there you have it, the Puppy for Hanukkah model for creating terrific Jewish children's literature.
I'm imagining a sort of Puppy Test or Diggs Test along the lines of the Bechdel-Wallace Test that measures representation of women, or the Riz Test that evaluates the portrayal of Muslim characters. I'm in the middle of a rather Talmudic discussion about this idea over in the Jewish Kidlit Mavens group on Facebook, where it feels like the Tevye Test because we are definitely experiencing that cycle of "on the one hand, and on the other hand." Lots of good Jewish children's books won't pass this test, just as many good movies don't pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, but those that do will surely spark as much delight as Monica, the Hanukkah puppy.
This might need work, but I'd like to suggest these Puppy Test questions.
Question one: does this story avoid harmful representation of Jews?
Question two: is the Jewish content in this story accurate?
Question three: does the story center a Jewish point of view?
And, question number four: does it depict Jewish joy?
There are many fine Jewish books out there that are too serious or too complex to pass this particular test, and that's okay. But the Jewish children's books that would pass the Puppy Test are books that I personally would be very excited about.
Happy Hanukkah, everyone! I'm going to go watch the Puppy for Hanukkah video again. Bye! (I've got my Hanukkah puppy! I've got my Hanukkah puppy! I've got my Hanukkah puppy!...)
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473, or BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Book of Life Podcast Facebook page or our Facebook discussion group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too at @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, or making a one time donation to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. 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.