When the Angels Left the Old Country: Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2023

Welcome to our stop on the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour! Author Sacha Lamb was kind enough to answer my questions about When the Angels Left the Old Country just hours after the book won the STBA’s Gold Medal in the Young Adult category...and some other major accolades. The expansive queer tale marries historical fiction with inventive world-building based on Jewish folklore, as angel Uriel, demon Little Ash, and a number of humans from the Pale of Settlement start new lives in early-twentieth-century America. 

Shoshana Flax: What does the Sydney Taylor Book Award mean to you…and what does it mean to you to win it in conjunction with a Stonewall Award and a Printz Honor? 

Sacha Lamb: These are all career goals, and to have my debut novel reach them is simply overwhelming. I’ve given myself a really tough act to follow! I’m especially touched to have received the Sydney Taylor in conjunction with the Stonewall — to have such a queer book recognized as an important Jewish story, and such a Jewish book recognized as an important queer story, it’s very emotional.  

SF: Which came to you first — the human story, the angel/demon story, or a combination? Which portions were the most fun or most challenging to write? 

SL: The angel/demon story was the original spark of inspiration. I liked the idea of a romantic chevruta [study partner] relationship between an angel and a demon, because it seemed to have a lot of narrative tension inherent in it. I set it in the immigrant era because that’s the era I focused on for my master’s degree in history, and I was really writing this book for myself, for fun! But I also really liked the idea of combining the collective-memory Jewish immigration story with fairy-tale elements.  

I loved writing a lot of things in this book, but one thing I added more of as I was revising was Little Ash and Rose’s friendship. Little Ash supports the kind of “worst impulses” that are actually Rose’s most admirable qualities. They’re both a bit stubborn and headstrong and argumentative, and those are qualities that a young girl really needs to get along in the world sometimes.   

SF: You describe this book in the acknowledgements as a “classic Yiddish novel, but it’s queer.” What’s your relationship with Yiddish fiction? Any recommendations...and any characters you’d like to imagine as queer? 

SL: I’ve been studying Yiddish for six years or so, and it’s a really rich literature. I took the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research summer course while I was doing my history degree because I thought it might help with research, but I ended up falling in love with a lot of poetry and novels. I think most people are aware of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” as a Jewish story with queer dimensions. (It may also have been partly inspired by his older sister Esther, who was deeply frustrated by the lack of intellectual outlets in her life.) An-sky’s The Dybbuk and the folklore of dybbuks in general is really rich in gender confusion and gender play, an element that I didn’t really explore in this book (but stay tuned). There’s also a 1936 Yiddish film, Yidl Mitn Fidl (Yiddle with His Fiddle) starring Molly Picon, that I’m obsessed with. Molly Picon is this cute, curly-haired little pixie who spends the whole film in drag and starts getting awfully close to her love interest while still in drag. I definitely want to revisit a character like that.  

SF: This book has so much complex Jewish detail. Was it difficult to figure out what to explain and what to let readers figure out? 

SL: It was a challenge! It helped that it went through a bunch of different readers with different levels of Jewish experience and knowledge (including non-Jews). We all agreed that we didn’t want to over-explain. I used the persona of the omniscient narrator to help with some of the explanations: there are places where I’ll define a Jewish word for the audience but introduce it with a phrase that sort of invites the reader in. For example, Little Ash is a “sheyd,” a kind of Jewish demon. I introduce my interpretation of the concept by saying he’s a creature that “another people might call fairies, and we Jews know as sheydim.” Or the narrator will say “as you know,” and then tell you something you maybe didn’t know. It’s like a little sleight-of-hand trick where as I’m explaining it, I’m pretending the reader already knew what it meant.  

In the end, when I’m reading I like to be invited into the author’s world and I like feeling that they trust me to follow along. So I extended a lot of trust to the readers, that they’ll stick with the universal themes of identity and family obligations and love even if some of the words are unfamiliar.  

SF: Who is more like you: Uriel or Little Ash? 

SL: I’m definitely more like Uriel on the outside, though I do have an inner Little Ash. In some ways the journey Uriel goes through in this book with regard to its identity and its relationship to community echoes what I went through when I was younger. That makes me very proud and happy when people connect with Uriel’s story.  

SF: Any dream casting if the book were adapted for the screen? 

SL: I don’t know enough actors, but I think Guillermo del Toro as a director could bring out the dark fairy-tale elements in the story. I’d love to see what sort of design he’d come up with for the dybbuks. Maybe even make the whole thing stop-motion! I think he could stretch the story and its themes in ways that wouldn’t be identical to how they’re presented in the book, but would be really fun.   

SF: How do you hope this story resonates with modern teens?  

SL: I hope that the book helps teens feel open to possibility within their own identities. It was important to me to tell a story where traditional Jewish life intertwines with queerness very closely, and I hope that Jewish teens who’ve struggled with queerness or queer teens who’ve struggled to find themselves in Judaism will feel at home in this story and feel the comfort and warmth that I wanted to put into it.  

I want all of my readers to take this story as an invitation to learn more, I think curiosity is a very powerful emotion. I hope anyone who’s curious about the ways I fit queerness into the early-twentieth-century immigrant setting will feel empowered to go out and look for real queer stories from that time. A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 by Noam Sienna is a great starting point for queerness in Jewish history.  

Visit the Association of Jewish Libraries website to see where the other gold and silver medalists will be interviewed over the next few days.

Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, associate editor of The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. She has served on the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and Sydney Taylor Book Award committees, and is serving on the 2025 Walter Dean Myers Award committee.

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