Jewish experiences

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, and the following five middle-grade and middle-school titles provide glimpses into diverse Jewish experiences. Find more recommendations on and in the Guide/Reviews Database; and see also the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.

Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science
by Jeannine Atkins
Intermediate, Middle School    Atheneum    288 pp.    g
1/22    978-1-6659-0250-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-6659-0252-6    $10.99

Another real-life, courageous, boundary-pushing woman gets some well-deserved attention in Atkins’s (Grasping Mysteries, rev. 11/20; Finding Wonders, rev. 7/16) novel in verse. Readers first meet Jewish physicist Lise Meitner (1878–1968) as she “aches to taste hope,” clutching fake papers aboard a train at the German border in 1938. Atkins then leaves her audience in suspense and backtracks to Meitner’s childhood in Austria, as she chafes against restrictions preventing girls from formal schooling after age thirteen. When the University of Vienna finally opens its doors to women, Meitner is the only female physics student. After earning a PhD and publishing her work on radiation, she moves to Berlin and begins conducting unpaid research in a makeshift basement laboratory. Vivid and poignant, Atkins’s poems chronicle Meitner’s hesitation to abandon her experiments and flee Germany after Hitler’s rise to power; her horror at realizing her role in the creation of the atomic bomb; and her disappointment that her longtime male collaborator received the Nobel Prize for their shared discovery of nuclear fission, while she was snubbed. Atkins meshes “facts with empathy” in this stirring portrait of — as Meitner’s epitaph reads — “A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity.” An author’s note, a timeline, an annotated list of Meitner’s colleagues, and a selected bibliography are appended. TANYA D. AUGER

[Ed. note: See also The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner by Marissa Moss.]

Falling Short
by Ernesto Cisneros
Intermediate, Middle School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    304 pp.    g
3/22    978-0-06-288172-4    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-288174-8    $10.99

The first day of sixth grade at Mendez Middle School is coming up, and Isaac Castillo’s Amá expects him to become “más responsable”: “no more forgetting my lunch, no more missing homework, no more detentions, no more bad grades. And most importantly, no more tears for Amá — at least not because of me.” Isaac’s parents are getting a divorce, and he hopes that his good behavior can keep the family together. Isaac’s best friend, Marco Honeyman (“half-Jewish, half-Mexican”), lives next door, and his parents are divorcing, too. Unlike Isaac, he’s a top student: “all geek awards, nothing my dad can brag about.” Maybe if Marco plays a sport, he can make his father proud. Alternating first-person narrations effectively offer Isaac’s and Marco’s perspectives on their own experiences and on each other’s. Isaac teaches Marco to play basketball, and Marco — who’s truly bad at offense but is a scrappy defensive player — makes the team; the latter part of the novel features exciting basketball action. By the end, Isaac has indeed become more responsible, and his schoolwork is better. He has learned how much basketball is like life and school: “It pretty much comes down to the hustle we put in.” Though their families don’t come back together the way that they’d hoped, the boys do indeed make their loved ones proud. A well-told story of family, friends, basketball, and life. DEAN SCHNEIDER

Just a Girl: A True Story of World War II
by Lia Levi; illus. by Jess Mason; trans. from Italian by Sylvia Notini
Primary, Intermediate    Harper/HarperCollins    144 pp.    g
3/22    978-0-06-306508-6    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-306510-9    $9.99

In a direct, first-person account (adapted from her adult book Una bambina e basta), Levi relates what happened to her and her family under the rule of Mussolini and during World War II. Brief chapters, short sentences, and a simple vocabulary give this the air of a child’s voice, but the quick, deft storytelling is that of a gifted, experienced narrator. The story starts in Turin, but when restrictions are imposed on Jewish Italians, Lia’s family moves first to Milan and then to Rome, where Papa finds work. When the Germans occupy Rome, Lia and her sisters are hidden at a Catholic boarding school, and Papa and Mama go into hiding. Lia’s impressions of her different schools, new friendships, and the conditions war brings about (“One egg for three people: that’s just one of the little tricks that war can play on you”) speak to children’s interests, and the author’s conversational style has just the right tone to make readers feel the narrator is addressing them personally. The main narrative is occasionally interrupted by “dear reader” notes — explanations and reassurances to soften the suspense of a terrifying time. Mason’s soft black-and-white illustrations make these switches clear and meaningful, as she moves from images of the youthful Lia to Lia as a grandmother, a testament of survival and Jewish cultural continuity. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk
by Mari Lowe
Intermediate, Middle School    Levine Querido    170 pp.    g
2/22    978-1-64614-125-8    $17.99

This emotionally complex novel set within a contemporary Orthodox Jewish community is full of immersive Jewish detail — literally, as much of the story centers around the mikvah, or ritual bath, that eleven-year-old Aviva’s mother has run since Aviva’s father’s death; mother and daughter now live in a “shabby little apartment” above it. Mischief happens often around the mikvah (a guest’s candies get unwrapped, a door’s hinges come unscrewed), and the culprit is apparently a dybbuk (“a soul that won’t rest,” though this version creatively inverts the usual definition) that only Aviva can see. When the dybbuk creates more serious trouble, including antisemitic vandalism, Aviva must confront painful truths about her perceptions (and thus what she has been presenting to readers) of her father’s “accident,” her family’s circumstances, and her own actions. The book creates a strong sense of the protagonist’s isolation — awkward, impetuous Aviva has difficult relationships with her classmates, and communication is strained with her mother, who lives with severe depression — but remains accessible while addressing its heavy issues. Unreliable narrator though Aviva ends up being, she’s a heart-rendingly sympathetic one. SHOSHANA FLAX

I’ll Keep You Close
by Jeska Verstegen; trans. from Dutch by Bill Nagelkerke
Intermediate, Middle School    Levine Querido    176 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-64614-111-1    $17.99

Jeska lives in the Netherlands in the 1980s. Her parents are secretive about the family’s past and the reason for her mother’s periods of self-isolation. When her grandmother becomes ill and confused, her mentions of an unfamiliar relative and then of Westerbork lead Jeska to make connections with what she’s learned in school about World War II. She comes to realize that her family is Jewish and that her mother and grandmother are Holocaust survivors. The smoothly translated first-person prose has a hushed feel to it, with the details in Jeska’s observations lending immediacy (“Classical music and warm air compete for space; this car is far too small for piano music, the stifling heat, Mama, and me”). The close adherence to the point of view of an eleven-year-old who’s been kept in the dark makes watching her work things out for herself all the more poignant: “Is it a Jewish face that looks back at me? It doesn’t feel Jewish. But how does that actually feel? I have no idea.” Ultimately, she concludes that what her mother has hidden is worth remembering. An afterword explains that Verstegen “adapted the facts” of true events from her childhood “to be able to tell a well-rounded story.” An emotional glimpse into the effects of the Holocaust, long after its end. SHOSHANA FLAX

From the May 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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