March 20, 2019

Coming to America

“You wouldn’t think a sweet, celebratory picture book about a little girl’s first day of preschool would trigger such rage. Or maybe you would, if the little girl in question happened to have LGBT parents. When Heather Has Two Mommies debuted in 1989, it rocketed up the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned and challenged books in the United States. In the 1990s, it was the ninth most contested book of the decade; it was burned, pooped on, returned to libraries with the pages glued together.

Heather’s author, Lesléa (pronounced Les-LEE-ah; you’re welcome) Newman, has never been deterred by haters. The author of over 70 books for kids and adults (several of which have appeared on Tablet’s best Jewish children’s books of the year lists), she looks forward. Her latest, Gittel’s Journey, illustrated by Amy June Bates, is the story of a little girl’s solo trip to America at the turn of the last century. Gorgeously published on heavy paper, sprinkled with Yiddish and spiked with bits of Newman’s own family lore, the book is luminous, both visually and narratively. Nine-year-old Gittel finds herself alone and at sea and afraid, but she keeps encountering kindnesses. And soft light pours through the windows at Ellis Island, making characters’ faces glow, as gorgeously stamped woodblock carvings and frames provide a sense of history.

Like Heather Has Two Mommies, Gittel’s Journey is a personal story. In an afterword, we see Newman’s Grandma Ruthie’s candlesticks (looking a lot like the ones that play a role in this story), learn about how Newman’s family friend Phyllis’ life story infuses the text, learn a bissel Yiddish, and read about Jewish immigration. Like Gittel, Phyllis’ mother crossed the ocean alone as a child and was reunited with family through collective effort. Published last week, the book has earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist.

“Gittel is special to me,” Newman told me in an interview. “Because words can’t describe what Phyllis means to me. She’s almost 91, and she’s beyond thrilled and astonished that the story of her mother as a poor young immigrant who came over with nothing has become this beautiful book that will be read and discussed by thousands of children and teachers and librarians.” Phyllis’ mother died in 1964, but her story will live on.”

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