Off The Shelf: Novels for teens and tweens (and some adults)

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes I think that someone sneaks into the room where I keep my review copies and adds more to the book piles without my knowledge. OK, I can’t blame gremlins: it’s my own fault that I find it difficult to resist any book that sounds fun, interesting or intriguing. I originally planned to review only two books, but somehow during the past month that number morphed to five. In fact, I was worried that I wouldn’t get the final book in time, but thankfully it arrived before I finished my reading. The novels in this review vary from literary to rom-com to fantasy, which just shows how many wonderful books featuring Jewish tweens/teens are currently being published. 

“The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen”

I was so impressed with “The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen” by Isaac Blum (Philomel Books) that I did something I rarely do: I wrote to a a friend (and a regular reader of this column) to tell her that she should read this book, rather than waiting for her to notice the novel in this review. (I was actually tempted to tell her that she had to read the book, but didn’t want to push that hard.) Not only is Hoodie a great character (OK, so I’m a sucker for characters who are sarcastic – strange because I don’t particularly like sarcastic people in real life), but the novel made me laugh out loud. What I wasn’t prepared for were the serious and moving sections, some of which left me in tears.

Hoodie, his family and other members of their Orthodox community have moved to the small town of Tregaron. They aren’t welcomed and the proposed high rise apartment building Hoodie’s father was supposed to build has been put on hold because the mayor and town council changed the zoning restrictions. That was done to prevent more Orthodox Jews from moving into the area because many older citizens feel that the influx of newcomers will radically change the nature of the town. The two groups already don’t mix: the Jewish community has opened its own school and relations are fraught. When Hoodie finds himself attracted to a girl who isn’t Jewish, tensions rise. It doesn’t help that Hoodie is the only boy in a family of sisters or that he’s not academically inclined. Meeting and talking to a girl outside the community is a disgrace, not helped by the fact that she is the daughter of the mayor. Hoodie is ostracized until an unexpected event affects both sides of the town. 

Although “The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen” does note some of the problems that can occur in an close-knit community, it is not anti-religion. In fact, the greatest words of wisdom come from an elder of the community: words that will show readers the true meaning of what it means to be religious. The book is perfect for book clubs and discussion groups because it offers much to ponder. That’s one reason why I told my friend she should read this: I can’t wait to talk to her about it. 

“Black Bird, Blue Road”

When the publicity person for Sofiya Pasternack contacted me months ago with the information that she had a new book out, I immediately jumped at getting an advance review copy. I enjoyed and reviewed her first two books; how could a fan of fantasy not like books that combined dragons and Judaism? (To read those reviews, visit Off the Shelf: Music, dragons, alternate worlds and time travel and Off the Shelf: The adventure continues.) There are no dragons in her latest work, “Black Road, Blue Bird” (Versify), but there are some other wonderful creatures, including a demon, half-demon and a fascinating version of the Angel of Death.

Ziva and her twin brother, Pesah, live before modern medicine, which means there is no cure for the leprosy that is slowly killing Pesah. The two siblings are searching for a way to save him, something their parents refuse to believe is possible. After Ziva learns that they are planning on sending Pesah to a city for lepers, the two siblings run away, hoping to find a doctor in one of the larger cities who might help Pesah. But their plans change when they encounter Almas, a half-demon, whom Ziva accidentally frees from his current masters. Almas tells them that he knows of a place where people never die and agrees to lead the siblings there. But they have very little time: Pesah had a vision that the Angel of Death will take him on Rosh Hashanah, which is only a few days away.

The introduction to each section of “Black Road, Blue Bird” is intriguing and the story is well done. Ziva is a great character: spunky, caring and kind. The pages turned quickly and the ending turns out not exactly as might be expected in a teen novel (at least when I was that age), but which rings true. I’m already looking forward to Pasternack’s next work.

“Eight Nights of Flirting”

I regularly search for Jewish books on the web, but many still slip my notice. That’s why I was happy to receive an e-mail about “Eight Nights of Flirting” by Hannah Reynolds (Razorbill). Rom-coms can be fun to read and this one definitely is. The opening is cute: Shira Barbanel has to offer shelter to Tyler Nelson, whom she used to have a crush on, but now despises. They arrived at their families’ vacation houses before other members of their families, whose transportation has been cancelled due to a major snowstorm. The two live next door to each other and, when Tyler realizes his house has no electricity, Shira feels she has no choice but to ask him to spend the night with her. 

The two manage to be civil, but they completely disagree on the way they view the world. Plus, Shira feels as if nothing in her life has worked out: she gave up playing piano in order to practice skating. However, after not placing in competitions, she feels like a failure. She does have one plan for this winter vacation: she wants to start a relationship with someone who works for the family business, only she’s a complete failure at flirting. However, Tyler is a world-class flirt and they arrange for him to teach Shira. The results are not unexpected, especially when Shira learns the truth about the facade Tyler presents to the world. 

“Eight Nights of Flirting” is not only fun reading, but offers unexpected depth as Shira learns some important lessons. One that adults can appreciate occurs when Shira begins to enjoy playing music again: “Emotions as fizzy as our drinks coursed through me. This is what you spent your life chasing after: not work or success or genius, but whatever brought you this level of happiness and joy and comfort. This is what makes life good.” 

“Where You’ve Got to Be”

It’s not easy to be the younger sister of someone who not only has more talent than you, but far more friends. That’s the situation Nolie finds herself facing when entering sixth grade in Caroline Gertler’s “Where You’ve Got to Be” (Greenwillow Books). Her sister, Linden, who is only 14 months older than her, is a ballerina up for an important role in a Lincoln Center production of “The Nutcracker. “She’s also successfully balancing her ballet practice with school, private bat mitzvah studies and a large group of friends. Nolie, on the other hand, only has one friend and begins the school year learning even that might no longer be true: her best friend, Jessa, has a new cooler friend and wants Nolie to change her looks and personality. To counter the stress she is feeling, Nolie begins to take objects from family and friends that bring her comfort. However, this “borrowing” leads to even greater problems. The question becomes whether Nolie can make amends and find a way to accept herself as she is.

“Where You’ve Got to Be” is well done, showing not only how Nolie learns to be her authentic self, but that the sister she thinks is perfect has her own problems and stresses to overcome. The novel also shows the subtle antisemitism that affects both girls’ lives, as it becomes clear that not everyone is accepting of their religion.

“How to Excavate a Heart”

There’s nothing like not understanding the abbreviations teens use in texting to let you know you’re not young anymore. However, that didn’t stop my enjoyment of “How to Excavate a Heart” by Jake Maia Arlow” (HarperTeen). The first meeting of the college students in this rom-com was different from any other I’ve read: they first see each other when Shani’s mother hits May with her car during a snowstorm while driving Shani to Washington, DC, where Shani is spending the winter break of her freshman year on an internship. Fortunately, May is unhurt, but Shani hopes never to see her again. That doesn’t happen: one of Shani’s roommates asks her to take her dog-walking job when she goes home for Christmas. It turns out that dog is owned by May’s father. May hates the dog and wishes she were with her mother for the holidays, rather than her father. 

Shani is attracted to May, but had a terrible experience with a former friend/girlfriend during her first semester of school. She know she’s attracted to women, but is scared about what that means in physical terms. But the novel is not just about her growing relationship with May. Shani’s internship working with fossil fish at a major natural history museum makes her understand how difficult it can be to balance work with a distracting social life. She also learns more about her grandmother because the woman whose house she and several other students are staying at is owned by an elderly family friend.

“How to Excavate a Heart” does a good job showing how difficult it can be to understand not only the nature of a relationship, but what is happening in other people’s lives. Both main characters also discover the need to communicate more fully. As a bonus, the novel includes an adorable dog, one that even non-dog lovers may be able to appreciate. Readers of rom-com will find much to enjoy.