Happy Mid-Hanukkah! First off, I’d like to clarify that the title of this post is a tad misleading. The 8 books below are not really about Hanukkah explicitly. They are simply a wide-swath selection of books that represent the YA Jewish experience, or might be of interest to Jewish teens for various reasons. You could potentially give them as gifts for Hanukkah! But that’s about where the association ends. Whitney has been doing a great series of posts about YA books and religion, so consider this one a piggyback.
As a Jewish person, my ears always prick up when the books I’m reading have something to do with the faith, history, or modern experience of Jews. Especially because even though I wasn’t the only Jewish kid in my classes at school, I was usually one of very few — maybe 2 or 3 of us. As a result, it will always be somewhat of a novelty for me to have Judaism in common with others. I find that YA books sometimes contain just a passing mention of the fact that the protagonist is Jewish, as in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and that fact doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the story. Even when this happens, I still take note of it. Sometimes Judaism is the focal point of the whole book. Either way, I enjoy having that identifiable dimension. Wanting to see yourself reflected in literature, or finding commonalities with the characters we read about, remains important at any age whether you’re 15 or 50. Conversely, some books featuring Jewish teens portray experiences that are very foreign to a Jew such as myself. For instance, growing up Orthodox is almost totally unfamiliar to me, but within these portrayals there is still that kernel of sameness that I find fascinating. So, without further ado, here are some good books to consider for yourself, or for that Jewish teen in your life. Book summaries provided by their respective publishers.
Sons of the 613 by Mike Rubens [2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee]
Isaac’s parents have abandoned him for a trip to Italy in the final days before his bar mitzvah. And even worse, his hotheaded older brother, Josh, has been left in charge. When Josh declares that there is more to becoming a man than memorization, the mad “quest” begins for Isaac. From jumping off cliffs and riding motorcycles, to standing-up to school bullies and surviving the potentially fatal Final Challenge, Josh puts Isaac through a punishing gauntlet that only an older brother could dream up.
The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff [“>Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults for 2005]
It’s 1977. Jacob Green, a Jewish kid from suburban New Jersey, sits on the stairs during his family’s housewarming party, waiting for his father, Abram — charming host, everyone’s best friend, and amateur emcee — to introduce him to the crowd. Housewarming parties, Annie Hall parties, and bar mitzvah parties punctuate Jacob’s childhood and require command performances by all the Green family members. But when the confetti settles and the drapes are drawn, the affable Abram Green becomes an egotistical tyrant whose emotional rages rupture the lives of his family.
Intentions by 2010 Printz Honoree Deborah Heiligman
After fifteen-year-old Rachel overhears her rabbi committing infidelity, she must come to terms with the fact that adults make mistakes, too — and that she is old enough to be held responsible for her own mistakes.
The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt [2011 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults]
When his popular older brother Boaz returns from a three-year tour of duty in an incomprehensible war, Levi, who wearies of being compared to his superstar brother, instantly realizes that Boaz has been dramatically changed by his experiences.
Without Tess by Marcella Pixley [2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee]
Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened to her sister.
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
Eliza Naumann, a seemingly unremarkable nine-year-old, expects never to fit into her gifted family, but when Eliza sweeps her school and district spelling bees in quick succession, her father Saul takes it as a sign that she is destined for greatness.
How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch [Great Graphic Novels for Teens 2011]
Longing to fight dragons over taking the advice of various family members, spunky ten-year-old Mirka Herschberg hones her skills in her Orthodox Jewish community before accepting a challenge from a witch to defeat a giant troll.
Curveball: The Year I lost my Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick 2012 Quick Pick for Young Adults nominee]
After an injury ends former star pitcher Peter Friedman’s athletic dreams, he concentrates on photography, which leads him to a girlfriend, new fame as a high school sports photographer, and a deeper relationship with the beloved grandfather who, when he realizes he is becoming senile, gives Pete all of his professional camera gear.
Bonus Book, or a Shamash if you will. Presumably for a teen who enjoys all things culinary!
Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking by Arthur Schwartz
Arthur Schwartz knows how Jewish food warms the heart and delights the soul, whether it’s talking about it, shopping for it, cooking it, or, above all, eating it. Jewish Home Cooking presents authentic yet contemporary versions of traditional Ashkenazi foods.
I know there have got to be a TON of others out there. Do you have any favorites that feature Jewishness either prominently or subtly?
— Amy Pelman, currently reading The Princesses of Iowa by Molly M. Backes and listening to The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson