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Conference report: Association of Jewish Libraries 2018

Jewish community events often feel like family gatherings. When you show up at your first Association of Jewish Libraries conference (June 17th–19th, 2018) as a baby committee member — a.k.a. an incoming member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, which honors “outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience” — you get greeted like family. It helps, too, when the other incoming member is fellow Simmons alum Sylvie Shaffer, and the outgoing members include one Elissa Gershowitz of the Horn Book. That this year’s conference was right here in Boston, at Temple Israel, also made me feel at home.

Current and incoming STBA committee members. Front, L to R: Rivka Yerushalmi, Sylvie Shaffer, Heather Lenson. Back, L to R: Rena Citrin, Marjorie Shuster, Elissa Gershowitz, Rebecca Levitan, Shoshana Flax, Susan Kusel. Photo: Heidi Rabinowitz.

Things kicked off with a party at the Boston Public Library’s Central branch in honor of the Sydney Taylor Award’s fiftieth anniversary, featuring readalouds of winning books, music led by Janet Feld, a raffle for an American Girl Rebecca doll (won by Susan Bloom, director emerita of Simmons’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature!), and a panel exploring the question, “What Makes a Jewish Book?” In the grand Jewish tradition of answering a question with a question, moderator Kathleen Bloomfield and panelists Lesléa Newman, Barbara Diamond Goldin, Jacqueline Dembar Greene, Whitney Leader-Picone, and Karen Boss didn’t arrive at a simple answer, but there was lots of discussion of how books can show our commonalities and about the need for books portraying more aspects of the Jewish experience, beyond the Holocaust and the best-known holidays.

I also got to quiz attendees about which sibling from Sydney Taylor’s semi-autobiographical All-of-a-Kind Family books they are most like (using an adapted version of this quiz). I even learned that Jo Taylor Marshall, Sydney Taylor’s daughter and the administrator of the award, most closely resembles her aunt Henny.

At the Sydney Taylor committee meeting the next day, there was lots of excited talk about the announcement of next year’s awards. Along with fellow ALA affiliates AILA (American Indian Library Association) and APALA (Asian Pacific American Librarians Association), our award will be announced at the Youth Media Awards press conference at ALA Midwinter. If you ever want to see a group of children’s lit nerds jump up and down in their chairs, just give them news like that. That afternoon was the “Social Justice and Jewish Children’s Books” panel, moderated by Elissa, with panelists Lesléa Newman, Heidi Rabinowitz, and me. The discussion, which had lots of participation from attendees, highlighted the variety of perspectives within the Jewish community, and questions of how librarians should respond when patrons (or their parents) object to particular books. We also talked about how Jews and Jewish books fit into larger conversations about diversity and intersectionality. (Lesléa remembered a letter from an African American child of same-sex parents, thanking her for writing Heather Has Two Mommies “just for me.”)

“Social Justice and Jewish Children’s Books” panel. L to R: Lesléa Newman, Shoshana Flax, Heidi Rabinowitz, and animated moderator Elissa Gershowitz. Photo: Sylvie Shaffer.

Next, I attended “Where Are the Jewish Middle-Grade Books?” with Catriella Freedman, Madelyn Travis, Miriam Newman, and Laura Toffler-Corrie. Catriella (whose kids I used to baby-sit for! And now you know what “Jewish geography” means.) shared research from PJ Library’s PJ Our Way program about how middle-grade readers want to see themselves reflected in all kinds of stories, particularly stories that make them laugh. And, as Candlewick editor Miriam Newman put it: “Where are the Jews in space?”

Meanwhile, Roger moderated “A Conversation with Previous and Current Sydney Taylor Winners,” which included Lesléa Newman, Arthur A. Levine, Barbara Diamond Goldin, and Richard Michelson (making me think, Forget space. Why can’t Jews be in two places at once?). Elissa reports that it was, as one might expect, lively and well-attended.

“A Conversation with Previous and Current Sydney Taylor Winners” panel. L to R: Lesléa Newman, Arthur A. Levine, moderator Roger Sutton, Barbara Diamond Goldin, and Richard Michelson. Photos: Sylvie Shaffer.

On Tuesday, we put on our Simmons-scholar hats for a panel on “The Sydney Taylor Book Award Winners Through an Academic Lens,” moderated by Director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature Cathie Mercier and Elissa, with Stacy Collins and me. Stacy, a fellow Simmons alum and HB reviewer, blew us away with her presentation on the history of the award before we moved into our discussion of the winning books. Did you know that the STBA, originally called the Shirley Kravitz Children’s Book Award, was the first identity-based award for children’s books? Neither did most of us in the room.

Lunchtime presenter Paul O. Zelinsky gave us a sneak peek into his illustration process for the forthcoming picture book All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, written by Emily Jenkins. We got to see initial sketches and finished illustrations; we also heard about his research into the era’s clothing and even what night of the week Hanukkah started in 1912.

That afternoon, we heard presentations from this year’s STBA winners and honorees. Author Richard Michelson and illustrator Karla Gudeon, winners in the Younger category for The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew, talked about finding their way into the story of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda through his son Ben-Zion — and Richard’s inspiration from a Klingon-speaking child at a Star Trek convention. Alan Gratz and Antonio Iturbe, Older and Teen category winners respectively, were unable to travel to the conference but sent heartfelt video messages. Then a panel of honor winners shared the stories behind their books — This Is Just a Test co-author Madelyn Rosenberg said that writing a book together was a way for her and Wendy Wan-Long Shang to “multitask our friendship” — and what the STBA meant to them — Katherine Locke’s emotional reaction to The Girl with the Red Balloon’s honor led to applause from an entire Starbucks. We also saw a video in honor of the award’s fiftieth anniversary, with messages from winners throughout the years.

Unlike many other award committees, STBA permits committee members to reveal what they thought of eligible books, and they did so during the next session, moderated by chair extraordinaire Susan Kusel. They booktalked many of the titles they received and explained what they liked or disliked about them.

Finally, it was time for the awards dinner. There were joyful speeches. People got verklempt. I got to know some committee members and others involved with the award a little better, making me even more excited for next year.

I’d better get reading.

Click here for more on the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.



  1. Rachel Kamin says:

    What a terrific write-up on the Conference! Welcome to AJL Shoshana!

  2. Shoshana Flax Shoshana Flax says:

    Thank you, Rachel!!

  3. Thank you for this detailed report on the conference. It is inspiring to read about the sense of community at the meeting and the attention which participants brought to important issues.
    I am very excited about the Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky collaboration on the new All-of-a-Kind book. I always have a little trepidation about adding to classics this way, but I looked at the preview on Jenkins’ website and the book looks beautiful!

  4. Shoshana Flax Shoshana Flax says:

    Thank you, Emily!! And yes–I think Paul Z. won over a lot of die-hard AoaKF fans!

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