For PJ Library, it’s not enough to send 200,000 books to Jewish children every month in the United States and Canada. Equal care must be paid to identifying the books to send, and making sure the quality and content reflect the program’s goals and values.
The book selection process is intense as the committee considers its choices, conscious that today’s Jewish families aren’t homogeneous. Some have little or no formal Jewish learning, some attend a synagogue and celebrate Jewish holidays, and others may be unfamiliar with Jewish practice altogether. In some families, there may be one or two Jewish parents, who may or may not have the reference points or emotional touchstones that many assume to be universal to the Jewish experience.
According to Meredith Lewis, director of content and engagement at PJ Library, 40 percent of PJ Library’s family households have at least one family member who didn’t grow up Jewish. “For them, the nostalgia for chicken soup or the Lower East Side doesn’t resonate,” she said. So PJ Library takes great pains to publish and distribute books that, among other things, are multilingual and cover the issue of disability, “to make sure it’s all accessible,” she said.
The committee works with authors, agents, publishers and editors, using many titles that are already in circulation, but also occasionally working with agents and authors to develop PJ Library-imprinted books.
“We do accept manuscripts, sometimes from publishers and sometimes directly from authors earlier in their careers,” Lewis said, noting that PJ Library will work with these authors whether or not they have an agent through their PJ Publishing imprint that’s mostly for specialty and board books.
Titles are considered based on age appropriateness, including how engaging the message, text and illustrations are for a particular age group and their parents. Texts also must stand up to multiple readings and contain a strong message of Jewish values. Books may reflect historical Jewish life, contemporary Jewish life or some valuable aspect of the Jewish experience. Because PJ Library’s audience is young children, it doesn’t distribute reference books, books that deal with the Holocaust or books that deal with the death or end of life of a loved one.
Some of the diverse titles PJ Library offers include “10 Things I Can Do to Help My World.” The content focuses on environmental actions from energy conservation (turning off lights when they’re not being used) and using both sides of a piece of paper, to helping encourage children to do their part in saving the planet.
In “All Kinds of Strong,” Sadie Rose, a little girl who can’t run fast or lift heavy things, realizes that there are many kinds of strength, and she discovers her own.
“Across the Alley” features two kids who are neighbors and whose family members expect certain things of them, even though they want to do other things.
Some books in the PJ Library lineup have won prestigious children’s book awards, while others are classics that will be familiar to older readers, like Sydney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family” series and Barbara Cohen’s “The Carp in the Bathtub.” While there are many (many) Hanukkah books, there are also more unusual titles, like Debbie Levy’s “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark.”
Whatever the topic, the hope is that a PJ Library book will animate family conversations around Jewish topics and encourage them to consider making Jewish choices.
PJ Library in Los Angeles Community Connector Jennifer Stempel said that one of her son’s favorite PJ Library titles is called “Todah.”
“Last fall, one of our community events was giving thanks to the local fire department. We got to have a tour of the fire station. The firemen read the book to the kids as a call-and-response: ‘I’m thankful for this, todah,’ they’d say, and the crowd replied, ‘Todah.’ Now when I read it, he says ‘Mommy, todah.’ And ‘todah’ is the firefighters’ new favorite word.”