Winds of worry for Jewish and Israeli children’s writers?

Tzivia MacLeod with a book she wrote for children

As a children’s writer living in Israel, I’ve had an interesting few weeks, to say the least. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure how worried I should be.

It’s too easy to say it all started when the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) came out in May with a statement against anti-Semitism. Things were brewing before that, but let’s start there. In the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and #AsianLivesMatter, why shouldn’t Jewish lives matter?

It turns out it’s not that simple.

Too Little, Too Late?

SCBWI issued that statement during Guardian of the Walls, the brief Gaza war in which I and many of my friends were mercilessly bombarded by rockets and fire balloons.

To be clear: SCBWI’s statement didn’t mention Israel or the war. It was issued in response to an uptick in anti-Semitic violence in North America.

Many people found that in itself upsetting. If an organization only condemns violence against Jews when it takes place in the United States, does that mean violence against Jews is justified if it happens in Israel?

As co-regional advisor of SCBWI Israel, that statement put me at the centre of things I didn’t really want to be part of.

The Twitter War

My involvement only escalated when a SCBWI member of Palestinian ancestry claimed on Twitter to have been hurt by the statement against anti-Semitism for omitting any mention of Palestinians. She demanded that SCBWI divest itself from Israel and suggested that Jews should, too: “I hear Germany & Poland are quite nice these days.”

It’s hard to know where to begin, except by shrugging and saying that’s what Twitter is. You only have so many characters with which to rile up a mountain of hate. It’s today’s answer to haiku. Just a few short sentences, a neat little twist, and—stab—right into the heart of the matter.

Conventional wisdom says, “Don’t feed the trolls”—just let them fade out naturally in an ouroboric feedback cycle of their own regurgitated noise.

But SCBWI did feed the trolls. They apologized for hurting the (by then former) member’s feelings, and that was a mistake. Not only did it fail to appease her, but online news sources began suggesting that SCBWI had apologized for or even retracted its statement against anti-Semitism. As I’ve tried to reassure many members, that’s just not true.

Kidlit Whistleblowers

But then, just when I was hoping to move on, a few Jewish writers blew the whistle on anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist trends in publishing. They claimed the publishing industry, and perhaps especially children’s publishing, isn’t a safe place to be Jewish or Israeli.

They have some compelling evidence. Like a young adult novel, Once More with Chutzpah by Haley Neil, about a Birthright trip. Nobody has read the book yet, but it already has dozens of 1-star “reviews” on GoodReads citing Zionist “war crimes” and “genocide.” Another recent YA novel, Red, White, and Royal Blue, had a line about Israel removed to avoid potential controversy.

It’s easy to imagine that publishers would think twice before taking on a book that’s going to attract negative attention.

The Future’s So Bright…

On the other hand, I recently moderated two panel discussions, one with PJ Library and a second with five leading Jewish children’s publishers. And they all suggested that things were pretty rosy in the world of Jewish kidlit, that the market was bigger and more diverse than ever, that there is room on the shelf for proud Jewish stories. That Israel is and will remain central.

Still, maybe I’d missed something? Was their optimism superficial? I’ll admit, I was worried.

A couple of years ago, in the push for #ownvoices—encouraging creators to write and illustrate their own diverse cultural experiences—I started writing very Jewish, and in some cases, very Israeli, middle grade novels. None are quite ready to send out to agents or publishers, but once they are, I want to be sure there’s still a market out there.

So I got in touch with an agent for a reality check. And apparently, there’s less cause for concern than I’d feared.

The Inside Scoop

According to literary agent Rena Rossner, “The idea that books by Jews, or books with Jewish or Israeli content are being banned or not published is simply untrue.” In fact, she says, “A wider range of Jewish books are being published than ever before–books that go beyond the Holocaust.” Her agency, the Deborah Harris Literary Agency, is based in Jerusalem and represents Israeli, Palestinian, and international authors in over 40 countries.

She recently sold a client’s novel in an auction among publishers in the U.S. and Germany. “It’s about a very Orthodox boy, living in a very insular community who experiences a terrible act of anti-Semitism and how he and a non-Jewish girl in the town are affected.”

Publishers are eager for these books, she says. “People are able to write more Jewish books than ever before… in fact, we’re in a bit of a golden age of Jewish children’s literature. More Jewish kids of all types are seeing themselves represented on the pages of books.”

Rossner also speaks from personal experience as an author. Her second novel, The Light of the Midnight Stars, richly laden with Jewish themes, was recently published by Redhook, an imprint of Hachette.

Her experience hasn’t been entirely positive. Living in Israel, she felt very threatened online earlier in 2021 and made the choice to step away from social media.

In general, however, Rossner says, “There’s a lot of screaming online… But that’s not what’s happening in acquisitions. What’s going on online is very detached from the reality, from the people in the industry. I never saw a book that was really good that didn’t find a home because it was Israeli or Jewish… A good book is a good book.”

So What About Me?

Speaking for her agency, Rossner adds, “It’s important that Jewish and Israeli writers don’t get discouraged. Sometimes an inaccurate narrative has a way of becoming accurate and that’s the last thing on earth we want to see.”

I want to try. Not to become discouraged myself, and to encourage other writers and illustrators.

Obviously, things aren’t perfect. There’s still some distance to go when it comes to including Judaism in the important conversations taking place around diverse books. There are challenges sharing Jewish and Israel stories with kids and teens whose Jewish lives are radically different from previous generations’.

As I said up front, I’m still not sure how worried I should be.

It’s hard to completely disregard the trolls—and the negative reviews. But at heart, I’m an optimist. I want to believe that a well-written story is timeless, can transcend hate, and maybe even help us overcome the polarization running rampant in so many other areas of our lives.

I want to believe that a great kids’ book is louder than a Twitter rant ever could be.

The best is yet to come.

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