The year 2020 wasn’t a great one for the majority of America’s children. But the same cannot be said for this year’s crop of children’s and young adult literature. Here’s a list of excellent 2020 books that we hope will not be overlooked due to shuttered schools, libraries and bookstores. These talented authors had the poor luck of having their work published in a year where they could not travel to promote it. Readers also would not be able to see these fine books as they browsed the “new arrivals” shelves at stores and most libraries. So, take a look at what may pique the interest of that young reader on your holiday list.
- “Nicanor’s Gate” by Eric A. Kimmel.
Nicanor is thrilled when King Herod calls on him to assist in rebuilding the ruined Temple in Jerusalem. After he orders massive, beautifully intricate doors to be built, the gates are lost while being shipped from Alexandria to Jerusalem. A beautiful retelling of a Talmudic story.
- “The Generous Fish” by Jacqueline Jules.
In a wonderfully illustrated tale inspired by Jewish folklore, a giant talking fish gives away his golden scales to greedy villagers until young Reuven stands up to them to save his brightly colored friend.
- “Miriam at the River” by Jane Yolen.
Baby Moses is given a loving send-off by his big sister in this poetic retelling of the famous biblical story. Bright colors and marvelous illustrations provide a glimpse as to how this story would be seen from a sister’s point of view.
- “A Basket Full of Figs” by Ori Elon.
Who knew the co-creator of the TV show “Shtisel” wrote a children’s book? Ori Elon recreates the beautiful Midrashic tale about the importance of caring for each other along with caring for the environment as an old man plants a fig tree that he may never live to see bear fruit.
- “A Zombie Vacation” by Lisa Rose.
When a stressed-out, funny-looking zombie wants to get away for some R&R in Israel, he finds that the Dead Sea sounds very inviting in this hilarious and silly book for kids who like a gentle scare or two.
Picture Book Biographies for Older Readers:
- “Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place” by Barbara Lowell.
Miep Gies, one of the protectors of Anne Frank’s family and the one who recovered Anne’s diary, led a difficult early life, and her story has not previously been told for children. The perspective of a righteous gentile is surely an important aspect of this world-renowned story.
- “The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine” by Linda Elovitz Marshall.
Children should know the importance of vaccines and the name of Dr. Jonas Salk, who made this his life’s work. This kid-friendly book tells you about his life and also includes info about his Jewish background. He made the world a better place for all of us.
- “Itzhak: A Boy Who Loved the Violin” by Tracy Newman.
From his impoverished Tel Aviv roots as a boy who loved music and a near-fatal bout with polio, Itzhak Perlman never gave up and eventually became an internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso. His story will inspire everyone.
- “No Steps Behind: Beate Sirota Gordon’s Battle for Women’s Rights in Japan” by Jeff Gottesfeld.
A young Jewish woman who grew up in Japan in the early twentieth century returns later as a translator with THE American military and becomes a leading advocate for equal rights for all women.
- “Ruth Objects: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Doreen Rappaport.
This book is part of the award-winning “Big Words” series of wonderfully illustrated biographies for children. Kids will be fascinated by the life of teacher, lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dedicated her life to the pursuit of equality.
Middle Grade Chapter Books:
- “Chance: Escape From the Holocaust” by Uri Shulevitz.
Multi-award-winning picture-book creator Uri Shulevitz details the eight-year odyssey of how he and his Jewish family escaped the Nazis by fleeing Poland for stints in Soviet labor camps and Turkestan. The powerful illustrations, photos and poignantly remembered details make this a good choice for middle grade readers.
- “A Ceiling Made of Eggshells” by Gail Carson Levine.
Historical fiction by a Newbery-winning author about the expulsion of Jews from Spain starring a plucky Jewish heroine. Readers will learn a lot about those turbulent times along with falling in love with Loma and her adventures with her intimidating grandfather as she grows from age seven to 16.
- “Letters From Cuba” by Ruth Behar.
Acclaimed children’s author Ruth Behar based her inspiring epistolary story on her own grandmother’s immigration journey. Eleven-year-old Esther is a young Jewish girl who escapes Poland to make a new life in Cuba, then helps her father earn enough money for the rest of their family to join them by making custom dresses for many islanders.
- “Journey to America—50th Anniversary Edition” by Sonia Levitan.
A modern classic is given a new cover and preface in this fiftieth-anniversary edition of Sonia Levitan’s beloved novel based on her own experiences fleeing Germany with her family when she was a young girl in 1938. Winner of both the National Jewish Book Award and the Sydney Taylor Award.
- “Turtle Boy” by M. Evan Wolkenstein.
This strong debut novel will appeal to young readers, especially those who feel “different” from their peers. Seventh-grader Will Levine is used to being bullied because of his odd-looking chin and his desire to mostly hang out in his room with his turtles. His choice of a bar mitzvah community service project turns his life around as he learns what it means to be brave.
Young Adult Books:
- “The Way Back” by Gavriel Savit.
This National Book Award finalist is a compelling fantasy that draws inspiration from Jewish folklore, where Eastern European Jews believe in real demons. Two young people journey from their small village to the Far Country in order to save their shtetl from the curse of Death.
- “They Went Left” by Monica Hesse.
A gripping historical mystery about a young Polish heroine who sets out to find her lost younger brother after being liberated from a concentration camp in 1945, knowing that the two of them were the only survivors.
- “The Light in Hidden Places” by Sharon Cameron.
The incredible true story of Stefania Podgorska, a Polish Catholic teenager who exemplified bravery and defiance by hiding 13 Jews in her attic during WWII while Nazi officers requisitioned her house for the German army.
- “The Enigma Game” by Elizabeth Wein.
The popular author is back with an exciting new historical novel in a Scottish setting, featuring beloved characters from “Code Name Verity” and “The Pearl Thief” and introducing fifteen-year-old Louisa Adair. When a German pilot lands in Scotland under mysterious circumstances, Louisa finds an Enigma machine that translates German code.
For the Whole Family:
“Honey on the Page” translated by Miriam Udel, with forward by Jack Zipes.
This choice is multi-generational — not really for kids — since it is more of a scholarly tome, but it is still a remarkable achievement that should not be missed. Emory University scholar Miriam Udel has translated literature that first appeared long ago in Yiddish (from different countries), enabling children of today access to a delightful treasury of Yiddish children’s stories, folktales and poems. The humorous and child-friendly illustrations throughout by Paula Cohen enhance the reading, which would provide a lovely shared experience between generations.
Lisa Silverman is the former director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library located at American Jewish University.