As a synagogue librarian and Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, I am very happy that the diverse selections of the Cybils judges include quite a few books of Jewish content. By now we’ve all heard the “windows and mirrors” maxim, that authentic literature about any minority provides insight for outsiders and validation for members. Jews have a long (and ongoing) history of facing extreme prejudice, so it is especially important to have quality books that help readers empathize with and understand this ethnic group.
I’ve limited this list to ten titles but I’m pleased to note that there are many more Cybils selections with Jewish content (please see my blog, The Book of Life, for a full list). All are literature of the best quality, and many have won multiple awards, including the Sydney Taylor Book Award for the best in Jewish children’s and YA literature, and the National Jewish Book Award from the Jewish Book Council. The titles cover a wide range of (sometimes overlapping) genres, including biography and memoir, graphic novels, poetry, history, and contemporary realistic fiction.
–Heidi Estrin, The Book of Life
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (2012 YA fiction winner)
Funny, snarky, and poignant, this novel is about an unlikely friendship between antisocial Greg, his foul-mouthed filmmaking partner Earl, and terminally ill Rachel. Greg is Jewish, and this comes through in both positive and negative ways as it affects his viewpoint. As in life, Greg’s Judaism is a key element of his personality, but there’s much more to the picture. A feature film based on the book was released in 2015.
Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier, art by Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo (2014 Finalist · Elementary/Middle-Grade Graphic Novels)
Safely contained by a modern frame story, a grandmother shares her memories of surviving the Holocaust with her young granddaughter. The difficult material is handled sensitively, not shying away from the harsh reality but keeping the tone gentle. This graphic novel was the 2015 winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish literature (Older Readers Category) and a 2015 Batchelder Award honor book for books in translation.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch (2011 Finalist · Elementary/Middle-Grade Graphic Novels)
Mirka is a brave and independent girl who wants nothing more than to fight dragons. She also happens to be an Orthodox Jew. This unique sci-fi/fantasy graphic novel combines adventure with a respect for religious tradition, and was the winner of the 2011 Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish literature (Older Readers Category). The sequel, Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite, was a Cybils 2013 Winner (Elementary/Middle-Grade Graphic Novels) and was also named a 2013 Sydney Taylor Notable Book. The third book, Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish was a 2016 Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category, but did not receive Cybils recognition.
Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart (2014 Middle Grade Fiction finalist)
Jewish middle schooler Benjamin Epstein deals with his family’s financial troubles by entering a contest sponsored by the Royal-T toilet paper company. A school bully and Zeyde Jake’s Alzheimer’s further complicate Ben’s life. Full of heart and humor, this book was named a 2015 Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Jewish literature in the Older Readers Category.
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (2013 Elementary/Middle Grade NF finalist)
Paul Erdos was a mathematical genius who thought about little else (he had trouble doing ordinary things like cooking or driving). This lively picture book biography provides a fascinating portrait of the man and makes math attractive too. The afterword discusses Erdos’ Jewish background.
Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark by Deborah Hopkinson (2015 Finalist · Young Adult Nonfiction)
When Germany took over Denmark during WWII, heroic citizens resisted the Nazi occupation by becoming spies, saboteurs, and rescuers. An incredible 95% of the Jewish population of Denmark survived the war because their neighbors stood up for what was right. This title was a 2016 Sydney Taylor Notable Book in the Teen Readers Category.
Self-Portrait With Seven Fingers: The Life of Marc Chagall in Verse by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen (2011 Finalist · Poetry)
Poems by two skilled writers accompany fourteen vivid reproductions of Chagall’s artwork, highlighting his life experiences and lending insight to his work. Marc Chagall was a Russian Jew and his religion was an important factor in his art. The title comes from a Yiddish expression: to do something with seven fingers means to do it well.
The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler’s List by Leon Leyson (2013 Finalist · Young Adult Nonfiction, memoir)
Leyson was the youngest member of Schindler’s List, which saved his life and the lives of his mother, father, and two of his four siblings. This hopeful memoir won the 2014 Christopher Award for books that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit,” and was named a 2014 Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Jewish literature in the Older Readers Category.
Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Molnar (2010 Finalist · Non-Fiction – middle/teen [2006-2012])
Protected from harsh realities by a loving extended family in post-war Romania, Molnar did not discover that she was Jewish until the age of seven, when her family applied to emigrate to Israel. This fascinating memoir includes black and white family photos. This title was a 2010 National Jewish Book Award winner and was named a 2011 Sydney Taylor Notable Book in the Teen Readers Category.
Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott (2015 Finalist · Poetry)
Based on a true story, this novel in verse tells of two friends in Auschwitz, who share a paper heart as a birthday card in a small but hopeful act of defiance. This title won the 2016 Christopher Award for books that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.”