Picture book about family that celebrates Rosh Hashanah and Lunar New Year wins Jewish book award

"Blood Years," "Two New Years" and "The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman" won this year's Sydney Taylor Jewish children’s book awards. (Collage by Mollis Suss)

by Penny Schwartz

(JTA) — A lavishly illustrated children’s book about a Chinese Jewish family who celebrate both Rosh Hashanah and Lunar New Year is among the top winners of this year’s Sydney Taylor Book Awards for Jewish children’s books.

Meanwhile, the publisher of the imprint behind the popular Sammy Spider Jewish holiday books won an award for her lifetime of contributions to Jewish children’s literature.

Both prizes were revealed Monday as part of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards. Michelle Margolis, president of the Association of Jewish Libraries, made the announcement on a livestream from the ALA’s multi-day LibLearnX conference in Baltimore.

Named in memory of Sydney Taylor, the author of the “All-of-a-Kind- Family” series that is being made into a TV show, the Sydney Taylor Book Awards honor work that “exemplify high literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience,” according to an statement by Aviva Rosenberg, chair of the Sydney Taylor awards committee.

“Two New Years” by Richard Ho, illustrated by Lynn Scurfield, took the top prize in the picture book category.

“The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman” by Mari Lowe won in the middle-grade category, marking the second year in a row that Lowe has snagged the top prize in that category. Last year, her debut novel “Aviva vs. the Dybbuk,” like “Dubious Pranks” a story centered on an Orthodox girl character, won in the same age category.

And “The Blood Years,” by Elana K. Arnold, a stirring historical novel about a young Holocaust survivor from Romania, won in the young adult category.

In addition to the annual Sydney Taylor awards, the AJL awarded Joni Sussman its coveted body-of-work award, granted biennially “to an author or entity who has made a substantial contribution over time to the genre of Jewish children’s literature,” according to the AJL’s press statement.

Sussman is the publisher of Kar-Ben Publishing and the award-winning author of “My First Yiddish Word Book” and four Jewish-themed Sesame Street board books.

Sussman “has greatly increased the reach of Jewish children’s literature by producing a significant number of high-quality titles over an ever-expanding variety of Jewish topics,” the Sydney Taylor committee wrote. In recognizing Sussman’s two decades of leadership at the helm of Kar-Ben, the committee said, “Her efforts have put Jewish books in the eyes of the public and the hands of children on a new scale.”

Among Kar-Ben’s popular titles for readers of all ages is the best-selling Sammy Spider series, which depict a family of spiders learning about Jewish holidays from the family whose home they scurry about. More than 20 Kar-Ben titles have won Sydney Taylor awards.

“Two New Years” follows a Chinese Jewish family as they celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the fall and Lunar New Year in the spring. In straightforward, lyrical prose, Ho — whose own family observes both holidays — introduces young readers to Jewish and Chinese traditions for welcoming the new year. Scurfield’s brightly colored illustrations evoke the paper-cutting traditions of both cultures. Notably, the book adds to the growing list of books that reflect the wide range of diversity in contemporary Jewish life.

In “The Dubious Pranks of Shaindy Goodman,” readers meet Shaindy, a totally relatable, socially-awkward sixth grader in an all-girls Orthodox Jewish day school who yearns to fit in.

In spot-on self reflection and dialogue, Shaindy reveals that she feels like “a shadow. The girl no one notices,” at school, in her religious neighborhood or at summer camp, Lowe writes in this first person narrative.

As the new school year begins and the High Holidays approach, Shaindy is unexpectedly befriended by Gayil, the most popular girl in her class who lures Shaindy in to a series of seemingly harmless school pranks that target their classmates. When the pranks turn mean-spirited, Shaindy grapples with the search for identity and the meaning of friendship, as she comes to understand her own resilience and, the power of seeking forgiveness.

“The Blood Years” is Arnold’s poignant fictional story of 13-year-old Frederieke Teitler and her older sister, Astra, who, before the start of World War II, are raised by their mother and grandfather in the Romanian town of Czernowitz. When the war breaks out, their lives in the tight-knit Jewish community, are transformed with the invasion by the Soviet and Nazi Germany armies. Readers follow Frederieke as she is forced to make hard choices and navigates the harsh and sometimes brutal realities of survival.

The gripping story is based on the life of Arnold’s maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Maintaining accuracy about the historical events and honoring the victims and survivors was a priority for Arnold. “It was incredibly important not to sensationalize the Holocaust,” she told Publishers Weekly. An Author’s Note gives historical context and elaborates on her grandmother’s extraordinary life story.

The Sydney Taylor committee named 11 honor books; three were designated as notable. The manuscript award went to Marlaina Cockcroft for “Ava’s Golem.”

Among the other awards announced at the Youth Media awards by the ALA were the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery and Printz awards. “The Blood Years” was a Prinz award finalist.

Neil Shusterman (“Game Changer,” “Bruiser,”), whom the Jewish Journal dubbed “a Jewish literary powerhouse,” won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. His most recent work, the graphic novel “Courage to Dream: Tales of Hope in the Holocaust,” was a finalist for a Sydney Taylor award, though his work has otherwise largely not focused on Jewish stories. Shusterman has spoken about the influence of his Orthodox Jewish grandmother on his writing and previously authored a book about mental illness based on his experience parenting one of his sons.

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