Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Children of the Book

Part II: As Hanukkah approaches, a look at the year’s best Jewish books for older kids

Print Email
Some favorite chapter books from 2010. (Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)
Related Content

Children of the Book

As Hanukkah approaches, a look at the year’s best Jewish picture books

Let’s look at the year’s best chapter books and graphic novels. Bear in mind that I’m not G’veret Newbery; I don’t require that books be “distinguished.” They just have to be good and enticing to young readers.

I was shocked at how much I liked An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank, by Elaine Marie Alphin. It’s rigorously researched and very, very gripping. One spring day in Atlanta in 1913, 13-year-old Mary Phagan put on a pretty violet dress and went to pick up her paycheck at the National Pencil Company. She intended to go from there to the Confederate Memorial Day parade. She never made it. Her body was found in the factory basement, a cord around her throat, her dress pushed up past her knees. Leo Frank, the pencil factory’s supervisor, who was seen as a rich, dirty Yankee Jewish interloper, was convicted of the crime in a rigged trial. When Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment, a crowd of furious citizens kidnapped Frank from prison and lynched him. The miscarriage of justice led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. Alphin’s book, chock-full of photos and newspaper clippings, tells the story in an immensely readable way, like a horrifying, absorbing mystery novel. Alphin presents evidence about who really committed the crime, offers a picture of post-Reconstruction-era Southern bigotry, and names the prominent citizens who led the lynching party. For budding true-crime readers, this book would be a terrific Hanukkah gift. It’s my pick for both the Newbery Award (it actually is distinguished!) and the National Jewish Book Award. (Recommended for ages 12 to adult.)

The Song of the Whales

The Song of the Whales, by Uri Orlev, translated by Hillel Halkin, is equally distinguished but will appeal to very a different audience. It’s a mystical, fairy-tale-like novel about Michael, a soulful 11-year-old boy who moves to Jerusalem from Long Island and develops a close bond with his grandfather. Michael soon discovers that his grandfather has a secret power—traveling through dreams. The two start taking fantastic voyages together, repairing broken dreams by infusing a bit of hope into them, taking beautiful dreams that have “faded like old carpets” and restoring them. As his grandfather becomes frailer, Michael shifts from merely holding his Grandpa’s dream tools to becoming the lead dreamwalker himself. When my daughter Josie, 9, finished this sweet, sad, minimalist tale, she said haltingly, “It’s beautiful, but I think it’s very metaphorical?” Indeed. (Ages 10 to adult.)

The Year of Goodbyes

I was very taken with The Year of Goodbyes, by Debbie Levy, another slim book. This one should appeal to youthful poetry lovers and reluctant readers. There’s a lot of white space on the page, and the voice is approachable; it’s not at all intimidating. It begins:

I write these words

on the very first page

of my brand-new book,

my wordless


blank-new book

with sturdy brown covers,

like heels of bread

spread with smooth butter pages inside.

It goes on to tell the story of Levy’s mother, Jutta, a privileged young girl in Germany in the 1930s. Levy’s jumping-off point is her mother’s actual poesiealbum, a sort of scrapbook kept by young girls. Levy shares some of the album’s inscriptions, drawings, and stickers, layering them upon her own verses about her mother’s life, told in the first person. Through Jutta’s life and friendships, we see the restrictions on German Jews grow. Jutta obviously survives—after all, we know that her daughter is writing her story—so kids who are terrified of Holocaust narratives should be able to handle this one. At the end of the book, we learn what happened to Jutta after she escaped the Nazis by sailing to America on the Queen Mary. We see family photos and learn the fates of Jutta’s friends. Part of me thinks the book would have worked better as a web site—a clickable version of the physical pages of the poesiealbum, looking as it really looked. Ms. Levy, perhaps an iPad app? (Ages 9 to adult.)

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania, by Haya Leah Molnar, is a more challenging read. When the story opens, Eva is a much-loved 6-year-old living in a cramped multigenerational household of sniping, snarking relatives in 1950s Bucharest. Her formerly wealthy, staunchly anti-Communist family is suffering under Romania’s Communist regime. Terrible things have happened during the war, but little Eva can’t quite figure out what. The secret police are everywhere. Family secrets are, too. When Eva’s family applies to emigrate to Israel, she begins to learn about her relatives’ history and her own Judaism. The ending—will the family make it out of Europe?—is suspenseful and dramatic. But the memoir has plenty of humor, too. Don’t be put off by the unappealing cover and dry, school-sounding subtitle; this is an engaging read as well as a thoughtful one. But because it looks forbidding, and the first few pages may be confusing, I’d only give it to kids who already love to read. (Ages 15 to adult.)


Ashes, by Kathryn Lasky, a Newbery Honor winner, also suffers from a slow beginning, but it gathers steam fast. It’s the story of 13-year-old Gaby, a pretty, book-loving non-Jew in 1930s Germany. Her father is an astrophysicist at the University of Berlin, a colleague and friend of Albert Einstein; her mom’s best pal, Baba, is a fabulous Jewish society columnist. Gaby’s life seems sweet—luscious descriptions of parties, society events, and fabulous outfits will delight fashion-loving girls—but the Nazis are gaining power, and anti-Fascist intellectuals like her family are disparagingly called “White Jews.” Einstein’s work is derided as “Jewish physics,” and Gaby’s beloved, chic literature teacher isn’t who she seems. Adults may see some of the plot twists coming, but kids won’t. Each chapter begins with a well-chosen, pointed quote from an author Gaby loves—Jack London, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Heinrich Heine—authors whose books are burned by the Nazis at the book’s climax. Jewish kids need to know that not all Germans were Nazis, and this very readable book is a good way to teach them. (Ages 10 to adult.)


I did not want to like Once, by Morris Gleitzman. I hated the cover line: “Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.” More important, Once sounded to me like a rehash of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book I loathed. Children (and adults) do not need faux-naif, manipulative, emotionally inauthentic Holocaust books. But I was wrong. Felix, a Jewish boy in Poland in 1942, isn’t an idiot. He’s in denial. As the book goes on and the horrors mount, Felix’s denial evaporates. Storytelling has been his shield and survival strategy. As he loses that ability to tell himself truth-deflecting stories, you feel sick. The pacing of this book is incredible—Gleitzman is known in his native Australia for writing funny, goofy, contemporary children’s books—and the book’s short paragraphs and use of humor will make it enticing to boys and non-book-lovers. But be forewarned, this was the only book on my list that made me cry. The Nazis’ brutality is explicit and disgusting; this should not be any child’s first Holocaust novel. (Start with Number the Stars instead.) Once, which is influenced by the story of Janusz Korczak, offers no false hope. (Ages 11 to 15.)


You may have noticed: This list contains a lot of Holocaust books, though I know many young readers would prefer books about the world they know, where the dramas involve cute boys, popularity, and finding oneself in a land of pop culture and plenty. Inconvenient, by Margie Gelbwasser, will engross those readers. Alyssa, 15, feels herself growing away from her best friend, Lara, who’s desperate to be part of the popular crowd. While Lara sucks up to the cool kids, Alyssa wants to get closer to Keith, her running partner on the school track team. What makes the story intriguing from a Jewish perspective is that Lara and Alyssa are Russian Jews whose families have emigrated to New Jersey. In their culture, alcohol is part of every gathering. Russians are used to laughing off hangovers, but Alyssa’s mom’s drinking is spiraling out of control. In this closed culture, where the belief in not airing your dirty laundry in front of the goyim also applies to the non-Russian Jewish community, Alyssa feels ashamed and isolated. Inconvenient isn’t perfect—Keith is the dreamiest boy ever, and Alyssa’s dad is underwritten—but the romance is very romantic (conservative parents should know that there’s some explicit fooling around), and the ending is perfect. (Ages 13 to 17.)

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

Perfect throughout is Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch. It’s a very weird, confidently drawn graphic novel about an 11-year-old Orthodox girl who fervently wants to fight dragons. Mirka Herschberg lives in a tight-knit community in an unknown time and place where boys have payos and married women cover their hair, but where the woods are full of trolls and witches and humungous crazed pigs. I love that the stepmother in this book is good instead of evil, and I love that Deutsch really knows how to tell a story in his chosen medium. Characters burst free of their panels; the interplay of image and text is flawless; the entire book is kinetic and action-filled, but thoughtful too. A must for graphic-novel fans. (Ages 8 to 13.)

A very different depiction of life in an Orthodox community is Hush, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. It’s terrific, but so harrowing I don’t think it’s for everyone.

There you go. Shop well, and Happy Hanukkah.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Matt Zvi says:

Great reviews, I thoroughly enjoyed this section!

Marcia says:

As usual, thoughtful reviews! I disagree about “Hush” – which I got after reading your review several weeks ago.
“Hush” should be required reading (or for discussion) with girls AND boys. They (and their friends/family) should know how to recognize abuse (or “acting out” as a way of coping with the secrecy and shame associated with that abuse). Children must feel empowered to confront abusers or seek help from trusted family members, friends or teachers.
And when that trust is not merited, children need to know that it is not their fault, that there are always alternatives to self-blame, and encouraged to seek safety elsewhere.
Those who would deny the problem or try to cover it up are as guilty of perpetrating such evil as those who victimize innocent children in the first place.
“Hush” is valuable beyond the Orthodox community. It is an important addition to human awareness.

Alvin M. Sugarman says:

The Leo Frank story reveals the harshest evils of a chapter of American anti-semitism. My dad was a contemporary of Leo Frank, and the memory of this event was seared into his memory and every one of Atlanta’s Jews. I hope that children and adults will read this book.

A. Schmidt says:

The librarian at my school observes that unfortunately, the easiest Jewish children’s books to get published are the Holocaust ones. Many of them are good, but it’s very easy to overload kids. If you don’t want to buy another Holocaust-themed book, and you’re looking for a book that will appeal to thoughtfully Jewish boys ages 10 and up, it’s depressingly slim pickings. My sons have enjoyed All-Star Season and The Adventures of Jeremy Levi–the latter, unfortunately, out of print but well worth looking for. (I loved it too, and I’m the mom.)

Lizzie says:

The author of Hereville runs an interesting feminist, anti-racist, anti-sizeist, etc. blog at, too.

Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your website? My blog site is in the exact same niche as yours and my users would genuinely benefit from a lot of the information you present here. Please let me know if this alright with you. Regards!

Hi, Marlo — I don’t always read the comments. If you’re reading this: According to the laws of fair use you’re welcome quote my reviews — thanks for asking. Just please link back to Tablet rather than lifting the whole piece for your own site. Thanks.

[url=]casino[/url] [url=]free casino[/url] [url=]sex toys[/url] [url=]casino online[/url] [url=]Cheap Calls[/url]

Great write-up, I am regular visitor of oneˇ¦s website, maintain up the excellent operate, and It’s going to be a regular visitor for a lengthy time.

Valuable details and superb style you got here! I would like to thank you for sharing your thoughts and time into the stuff you post!! Thumbs up

I’ve said that least 1479172 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Just admit it! Just pleasing! Your publishing manner is charming and the way you dealt the topic with grace is valued. I am intrigued, I assume you are an expert on this subject. I’m subscribing to your upcoming updates from now on.

I’ve said that least 1173520 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

We have noticed that on earth the present day, flash games are definitely the most advanced trend for children of any age. Often times it could be extremely hard to drag the kids from the online games. If you’d like the best of each of those worlds, there’s a lot of academic computer games just for little ones. Great article Children of the Book – by Marjorie Ingall – Tablet Magazine – A New Read on Jewish Life.

I have been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the web will be much more useful than ever before.

There is shed Ten pounds in a month, how to reduce excess, completely weight loss programs approaches to loose fat near our site.

Through my observation, shopping for electronics online may be easily expensive, nevertheless there are some how-to\\\’s that you can use to obtain the best bargains. There are often ways to locate discount promotions that could make one to have the best technology products at the cheapest prices. Interesting blog post.

Elaine Marie Alphin’s book is a fraud, if you want to learn what really happened, visit


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Children of the Book

Part II: As Hanukkah approaches, a look at the year’s best Jewish books for older kids

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview