Dragons, Artists and Prophets in Tales for Tweens and Teens
Anya and the Dragon By Sofiya Pasternack (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp. $16.99)
The dark and complex world of 10th-century Eastern Europe comes alive in the story of 11-year-old Anya, the daughter of the only Jewish family in the East Slavic state of Kievan Rus’. The oppressive czar and his legions are anti-Semitic, anti-magic and anti-dragon. In this vivid fantasy that blends Russian and Jewish folk traditions, Anya and her cohort of gifted magicians save her family from eviction and rescue a legendary dragon. Good triumphs over evil and Shavuot is celebrated with a buffet of blinis.
A glossary explaining the Russian expressions that pepper the narrative would be helpful, as would a map of the area and a brief discussion of Jewish life. Still, this is an enchanting story, published by Versify, a new imprint devoted to books that empower young people to “create a better world,” according to a publisher’s note. Ages 10 to 12.
The Tsar’s Drummer: A Story of Courage an Resilience By Robert Abram Seltzer. Illustrated by Michael Gleizer (Cometeq Publishing, 48 pp. $21.95)
When 12-year-old Yosef is cruelly conscripted into the Tsar’s army, he becomes Yakov, a drummer boy, He is advised by a compassionate veteran drummer that his “drum is more powerful than…the sword…that future generations are listening.” That prediction becomes a reality, as the years pass and the beat of the drum resonates. Yakov becomes a military hero, earns his release and returns to his family, still carrying his drum, which will become a traditional gift for all the boys in Yakov’s family. Generations later, two of his descendants—they are “the listening generations”—one a refusenik in Russia and the other a Philadelphia resident dedicated to helping refuseniks, discover their common ancestry when they reveal that each was given a drum and told the story of “the tsar’s drummer.” A moving chronicle movingly illustrated. Ages 11 and up.
Picture Girl (Becoming American Kids) (Volume 1) By Marlene Targ Brill. Illustrated by Michael Sayre (Golden Alley Press, 106 pp. $9.99)
Twelve-year-old Luba captures the life of her vulnerable Jewish Ukrainian family in her sketchbook. Her pictures record their escape from brutal anti-Semitism and their hopes for a new life in the land of liberty. But those hopes are threatened when her small brothers come down with the measles, preventing the family from departing Ellis Island. Luba’s talent rescues their dreams and eventually allows the “picture girl” to become an American artist and teacher in the country where “art builds good will.” This book is based on the true story of Louise Dunn Yochim, a former art supervisor for Chicago Public Schools. Ages 8 to 12.
The Prophetess: A Novel By Evonne Marzouk (Bancroft Press, 313 pp. $25)
Rachel, the young prophetess of Evonne Marzouk’s complex and ambitious novel, receives a siddur from her devout Zaide, a Holocaust survivor, on her seventh birthday, with the inscription “For Rachel—may she grow into all of her gifts.” Those gifts emerge during her adolescence, when she experiences prophetic visions. The daughter of an assimilated Baltimore family, Rachel is slowly transformed from a typical high school senior into a seer who can access the past as well as the future. Her mentor during this process is the charismatic Yonatan, who introduces her to the mysteries of meditation and is her guide to a small, insular community of prophets in Tzfat (Safed) when she visits Israel.
Marzouk ably fleshes out Rachel’s friends and their complicated families, including non-Jewish pal Chris, who understands Rachel’s prophetic destiny; her Jewish friend Jake, tormented by drug use; and her sister Beth, whose life is saved because Rachel can see the future. Marzouk is equally familiar with the landscape of Israel and the complicated personalities of Holocaust survivors who are powerfully linked to Rachel’s prophecies.
Questions are raised, and belief and disbelief are suspended, and there are hints of romance. Resilient Rachel follows her destiny, continuing her studies in Jerusalem. She is wearing Jake’s friendship ring because “love was a possibility [she] might be allowed to choose.”
In the Neighborhood of True By Susan Kaplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 320 pp. $17.95)
It is 1958 and the civil rights movement is starting to grow. After Ruth Robb’s Jewish father dies, her family moves from New York to her mother’s girlhood home in Atlanta, a racially segregated city rife with anti-Semitism. Ruth’s mother joins Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue.
At school, Ruth does not reveal her Jewishness, but she is deeply influenced by Max, a social justice activist she meets at synagogue services. Torn between her Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, Ruth is catapulted into making a decision when Shir Shalom is bombed by white supremacists. As a result, she exposes hatred, ending her painful masquerade “in the neighborhood of true.” Inspired by actual events, this insightful and humorous book has an unflinching focus on events and attitudes that are painfully relevant today.
It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories Edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 336 pp. $17.99)
In her foreword to this anthology for mature young adults, actor Mayim Bialik writes that “being Jewish and young in the 21st century is a spectacular thing,” adding the caveat “that it is not without tension and complexity.” That tension and complexity is captured in the 14 short stories selected by the daring editors whose emphasis is clearly on love rather than latkes. Alex London explores the dynamics of same sex love at Jewish summer camp with great sensitivity. Dahlia Adler writes of Amalia, an Orthodox day school graduate who bravely navigates her way through freshman orientation at a secular university and realizes “she is not in the Jewish world anymore.” Other stories include a Shabbat experience, a bewildering but humorous Hanukkah party, the dilemma of interfaith dating and an insightful narrative based on a Birthright Israel trip.
Color Me In By Natasha Diaz (Delacorte Press, 384 pp. $17.99)
Neveah Levitz, the daughter of a recently divorced black mother and a Jewish father, is torn between competing families, with competing agendas as well as her own painful uncertainties. Confronted with the dilemma of choosing between a sweet sixteen party and a belated bat mitzvah, she must examine her priorities even as she copes with bullying, both because of her race and her (as yet) undefined religion at her pricey private school, pressures from her black cousins and her Jewish father and grandmother. Romance intercedes and Naveah’s poems, interspersed throughout the text, express her ambivalence.
Diaz strains for impartiality but retreats into stereotypes, particularly in her portrayal of Samuel Levitz, Naveah’s philandering father, as opposed to her upright black preacher grandfather. Still, interesting questions are raised and difficult answers contemplated in this debut novel.
Gloria Goldreich’s newest novel is After Melanie.