Northern Virginia authors made a splash in Jewish children’s literature this year, with four taking home national Sydney Taylor Book Awards last week.
In the younger readers (up to age 8) category, Jacqueline Jules of Arlington won honors for “Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva.”
For teenage readers, Arlington’s Madelyn Rosenberg and Falls Church’s Wendy Wan-Long Shang received honors for “This is Just a Test,” while Tammar Stein of Fairfax won with “The Six-Day Hero.” Stein and Jules are members at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church; Rosenberg attends Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington.
All four of the Northern Virginia winners are part of the same writer’s group, which meets every other week at a member’s house to critique drafts and bounce ideas.
“We were absolutely floored and thrilled to find out that we’d gotten an honor,” said Rosenberg, who’s now authored 10 books. “For me, it was especially meaningful because Sydney Taylor books were so important to me growing up. I grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, so I knew more Jewish kids in the book than in my own town. It was my first chance to see a mirror, someone Jewish in literature.”
Her book, co-written with Wan-Long Shang, follows a middle schooler in the 1980s who’s just watched the 1983 television movie “The Day After” and has become fixated on the possibility of nuclear war, although Rosenberg is quick to point out that the book is actually funny and light-hearted.
The protagonist, David Da-Wei Horowitz, is also of a mixed background, reflecting the book’s authors, and tensions are rising between his Jewish and Chinese grandmothers.
Wan-Long Shang was the only Asian student in her Fairfax elementary school, so the two writers bonded over what Rosenberg called their “’only’ status.”
Although the book is set in the ‘80s — when the authors were growing up — Rosenberg said the themes can resonate for any middle schooler.
“I think middle school and a lot of the feelings that you have in middle school are the same,” she said. “You’re just trying to figure out where you fit in and getting comfortable in your own skin. I think those things resonate whether it’s the 1800s, 1900s or now.”
The award committee reviewed some 140 submissions, according to Susan Kusel, the committee’s chair and librarian at Rodef Shalom. Thirteen published works were given awards, named for the author of the well-known “All-of-a-kind Family” series.
Kusel said it was a point of pride that so many local writers were being recognized, but added that the Jewish children’s literature genre as a whole is improving and starting to tell a wider range of stories.
The Northern Virginia books, she said, “are on completely different topics we haven’t seen before. I think that Jewish children’s literature, as a whole, the body of work is improving. With something that’s usually a niche market, it’s self-publishers or small publishers. But now big publishers are more willing to take a chance on books that aren’t just about the holidays and Chanukah or Passover. The literary quality is rising and the production quality is rising.”
Some of that change, Kusel said, can be attributed to the growth of the nonprofit PJ Library, which sends free Jewish children’s books to families.
“Publishers know that PJ’s are going to purchase, so authors are getting published that wouldn’t have before,” she said.