The UK needs truly authentic children's books - now

By Madelyn Travis, September 18, 2013
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When I was growing up in New York, the local library stocked a generous selection of Jewish fiction for young people. Years later, my work in London as a children’s literature consultant and journalist made me wonder whether British Jewish children were meeting Jewish characters in their reading material and what such characters, or their absence, would say about what it meant to be Jewish in Britain. These questions gnawed away at me. Eventually, I decided to investigate them formally for a PhD.

When I told people I was researching representations of Jews in British children’s books, I was often met with the rejoinder, “Are there any?” The answer, unsurprisingly, was: “Not many.”

In fact, this is not strictly true. Jews crop up in texts for a non-Jewish readership from the 18th century onwards, and story collections were produced for Jewish children in the 1800s. The questioners’ frame of reference, however, was their own childhood and, apart from Bible stories and books about chagim for young children, British Jewish children’s books were in short supply.

Some people wondered whether this matters. I find that odd. For nearly 50 years, it has been received wisdom in the educational sector that, in a multicultural society, children from all cultural backgrounds should be able to see characters like themselves in the “mirror” of the literature they read, and to experience other cultures through the “window” of fiction.

Jewish characters are mostly created by non-Jews

Literature helps to give young readers a sense of the world and their own place in it. If there are few Jewish characters in British fiction, what does that tell readers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, about the place of Jews in British society?

One reason for the paucity is that Jewishness is frequently perceived only in terms of religion, and British publishers generally steer clear of religion in fiction for children.

The one area of publishing where Jews are big business, of course, is books about the Holocaust. It is important for the Holocaust to be addressed in literature for young people, but there is a risk that in the absence of a range of genres, Jews will be seen only in terms of past trauma and not as people with a rich cultural heritage who have played an active part in British society and continue to do so.

Other representations are found in books originally published in America but while all good literature should be widely available, the American-Jewish experience can be applied here only up to a point. One person spoke for many when she told me: “I’ve read a handful of American books that featured some aspect of Jewish life, but nothing that was really similar to my life at all.”

One reason that the experience of Jewishness differs so greatly between the two countries is to do with the nations’ different attitudes to cultural diversity historically; another is that in Britain, the images of Shylock and Fagin have spilled over into popular culture, where they continue to flourish. In historical fiction for young people as well as in texts about contemporary life, the two figures are invoked as a means of either drawing on a literary tradition or challenging the stereotypes embedded in British society.

Many authors who set out to achieve the latter are unable nevertheless to fully transcend stereotype, and few have created a fictional Jewishness born out of cultural authenticity.

The majority of authors writing Jewish characters for young people are not themselves Jewish. This need not be a problem, of course: Philip Pullman and Alan Gibbons, to name just two, have created outstanding Jewish characters.

But Jewish identity is most often imposed textually by someone without first-hand experience of Jewish culture or who has not undertaken the necessary, painstaking research to compensate.

This needs to change. All British children would benefit from a literature that acknowledges and affirms Jewish difference in all its forms and does so from a position of cultural authenticity or thorough research.

We should identify and nurture the British E. L. Konigsburgs and Sydney Taylors: an award for an unpublished manuscript could be a starting point. Such developments would enable non-Jewish children to look through the window and see Jews not as caricatures but as fully rounded people, and Jewish children to look in the mirror and see a reflection they just might recognise.

Madelyn Travis is the author of ‘Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature’ (Routledge, 2013)

Last updated: 1:05pm, September 18 2013