Celebrating Jewish Literature: Nonfiction, Fiction and Fantasy for tweens

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I don’t know if it’s because there were so few books for Jewish tweens published when I was young, but I love reading books for this age group. Not only are numerous books being published, but the works are really impressive in depth and breadth. Since I’ve enjoyed them so much, I think other adults might feel the same. Maybe parents or grandparents and tweens can form their own book clubs and discuss these works and others. What if synagogues offered book clubs for tweens? With the right leader, they might be a huge success. 

“Alias Anna”

Once in a while it’s to my advantage not to have paid close attention to the PR about a book. Otherwise, I might not have read the wonderful “Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis” by Susan Hood with Greg Dawson (Harper). First, I didn’t realize it was nonfiction. (I thought it was a novel based on a true story.) Second, I was unaware it was written in poetry, something that might have led me to pass on asking for a review copy. But I’m glad I did because “Alias Anna” is not only beautifully written, but it also packs a powerful punch. 

In easy-to-read prose poetry, this biography tells the moving story of Zhanna Arshanskaya, a young and brilliant musician, who lived in Ukraine with her parents and her equally talented sister, Frina. The poetry is written in the third person, but the authors also include short comments on events using Zhanna’s own words. This commentary adds even more depth to the story. The authors use a variety of styles, with my favorite chapter being the poem “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Once read in the traditional way (top to bottom), the reader is encouraged to read the poem the opposite way, beginning at the bottom. It’s brilliantly done and offers insight into Stalin’s life.

Life is not perfect for Zhanna’s family in a Ukraine governed by the U.S.S.R., but things quickly take a turn for the worse when the Nazis conquer the country. Her family and the other Jews in their town are gathered and taken on what is clearly a death march. Zhanna’s father bribes a guard to allow her to escape, telling his daughter the most important thing is to survive. She does so by changing her name and hiding in plain sight, playing music for the Nazi oppressors who have no idea she is Jewish. 

Even knowing from the beginning that Zhanna lived through the war didn’t lessen the suspense, which kept me quickly turning pages. What’s fascinating is that Zhanna never elaborated on what occurred until her granddaughter sent her a letter (which is featured in the prologue) asking about her story for a school project. Readers will be grateful she did.

“A Visit to Moscow”

Does the graphic novel “A Visit to Moscow” (West Margin Press) portray a true story? The writing credits say it is an adaptation by Anna Olswanger from a story told by Rabbi Rafael Grossman (West Margin Press). In an afterward by Grossman’s son, he notes that this is a story his father told when he spoke about his visit to the Soviet Union in 1965. The purpose for the trip was to learn whether reports that the Jewish community was being persecuted were true.

Grossman travels as part of a group of rabbis. Their itinerary is severely restricted and they are told not to leave the hotel without their tour guide. However, Grossman pretends to have a headache and skips one of the tours. Instead, he heads to an address given to him by a Russian woman living the U.S. who is worried about her brother. The man who opens the door is very suspicious because he had no way of knowing if Grossman is a rabbi or a member of the KGB seeking to trap him. When he is finally let into the apartment, Grossman discovers a secret, one that makes a lasting impression on him.

To tell more of the story would spoil the surprise, but it is extremely well done. The excellent illustrations by Yevgenia Nayberg use color to create a mood that informs the story, generating far greater emotion than one might expect from the sparse number of details included. The book ends with factual information about the plight of Soviet Jews that helps place the story into perspective. Since Grossman has passed away, Olswanger is unsure how much of the tale is fact and how much is fiction. However, she hopes to eventually find the Soviet family featured and learn the truth. That story would also be a fascinating one to read. 

“Wayward Creatures”

Two very different families are featured in “Wayward Creatures” by Dayna Lorentz (Clarion Books). That is not an unusual sentence for me to write in a review, but in this case the difference is greater than normal: the families featured are from two different species – coyote and human. Each chapter features a first-person narrator – either Rill, a young coyote, or the half-Jewish 12-year-old Gabe – both of whom are having a difficult time. In Rill’s case, it’s because her parents expect her to watch over her younger siblings, even though they are refusing to learn to hunt and expect Rill to feed them. Gabe’s problems began when his father lost his job and are compounded by the fact his two closest friends have been ignoring him now that they are in junior high. His parents and sister don’t seem to notice he has any problems, probably because no one is paying much attention to him. When Gabe sets off some fireworks to impress his former friends, he starts a forest fire, one that injuries Riff and leaves her helpless.

The chapters alternate between Riff and Gabe, and both are extremely well done. The sections where Gabe discovers the damage he’s done and how to control his temper felt convincing. The sections about restorative justice – a program in which Gabe is enrolled so he won’t go to jail – were interesting and thought provoking. (The author offers more information about the program at the end of the book.) Riff’s narrative is fun because she is such an appealing character, something I would never have said about a coyote before reading this novel. 

This is an excellent work for tweens from troubled families to help them better understand their emotions. The book is not preachy; the author makes Gabe and Riff’s learning feel real and natural. As an adult, I found the book delightful and enjoyed spending time with both characters, although there was something special in getting to know the sweet and charming Riff.

“The Button Box”

What’s the best way to learn about history? Time travel, of course! That’s what happens to Jewish Ava and her Muslim cousin Nadeem in “The Button Box” by Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani-Williams (Kar-Ben). The two cousins, who spend afternoons with their Granny Buena, have had a bad day: a bully has mistreated them because of their religions. To take their mind off what happened, Granny tells them a story of one of their ancestors, Ester ibn Evram, who lived in Sabtah, Morocco. She also shows them a button from her fancy button box – a button that once belonged to Prince Abdur Rahman the first, a Muslim leader who, with the Jews in his community, made Spain the center of arts and science in the eighth century. 

But before finishing her story, Granny feels the need for a nap, leaving the button box with the cousins. When they decide to sew Rahman’s button onto Ava’s sweatshirt, something very strange happens: darkness descends and they suddenly find themselves in Sabtah. The two quickly become involved with an intrigue that could either save Ester and the prince, or change the course of history.

“The Button Box” blends adventure and history, and is perfect for young readers who enjoy novels with time travel. Ava and Nadeem are appealing characters, and the fact that neither is perfect adds to their charm. The book concludes with an author’s note about Sephardic Jews, Muslims and which characters are based on fact and which are fictional. 

“The Lost Ryu“

How could I resist a book that features a Yiddish speaking dragon? Even though Cheshire, as the dragon is called, doesn’t play a major role in Emi Watanabe Cohen’s “The Lost Ryu“ (Levine Querido), I love the fact that each character has their own small dragon (called ry ) who talks to them. The main character, 10-year-old Kohei Fujiwara, has never seen the big dragons that existed during World War II, which ended 20 years before the novel begins. Kohei’s family life is not easy: he and his mother live with his grandfather, a cranky old man who drinks and throws things.

Kohei’s mother expects him to befriend their new neighbor, Isolde, a half-Jewish and half-Japanese girl his age who has just moved to Japan from the United States with her parents. Kohei has no desire to be her friend. Instead, he’s concerned about his grandfather: Kohei blames his grandfather’s behavior on the fact he no longer has his own dragon. Kohei then decides to travel to where new dragons are hatched so he can bring his grandfather one, even though it is a long trip and his mother would forbid him from doing so if she knew. Although Kohei hasn’t wanted to be friends with Isolde, she has befriended him and decided he will not travel alone. The adventures they have and the truth he discovers about his late father during the trip changes his life.

Although Kohei is a complex and interesting character, Jewish readers will be interested in Isolde’s background. Her Jewish father was sent to America by his family in order to escape the Nazis. Her Japanese mother’s parents had been placed in a detention camp in the U.S. She wonders if she belongs anywhere: in the U.S., she’s considered Japanese; in Japan, she is considered American. When Kohei makes fun of Cheshire for speaking Yiddish, a language he believes no one speaks, she quickly notes that a language dies only when the people who spoke it die, referencing the Holocaust without actually saying the word.

But “The Lost Ryu“ ultimately belongs to Kohei, who learns a difficult truth about war and human nature. However, any lesson taught by dragons will appeal to readers who wish that dragons were real. They may also envy Kohei and Isolde for having a dragon of their own.