Life & Culture

This children’s author puts Israel centre stage – in a positive way

Hong Kong-based children’s author Erica Lyons writes books with a very distinct Jewish flavour


In the midst of the Covid pandemic, author and history buff Erica Lyons wrote a book for children about a little girl celebrating Pesach during lockdown. Inspired by a video she had seen online showing Israeli families having seders out on their balconies, she set the story in Jerusalem. It was her first children’s book, and she called it Alone Together on Dan Street.

“It was an absolutely beautiful moment of connection and kindness, and I wanted to capture it in a book, as a source of Jewish pride,” she tells the JC.

However, after it was published, she was surprised when an Israeli children’s author contacted her to say how brave she was, to “debut with a book about Israel”.

“I didn’t consciously write a book about Israel. I wrote a book about loneliness, empathy, Passover and the pandemic,” Lyons says. “It wasn’t bravery – it was a picture book written for six-year-olds. Still, the comment stuck with me.”

She was even more surprised when the book was a finalist in the US Jewish Book Awards last year. “Maybe a story about resilience that normalises Israel was what people needed at that moment,” she says.

This month sees the publication of another book by Lyons – again connected to Israel. Saliman and the Memory Stone tells a fictionalised story of the real emigration of hundreds of Yemeni Jews to Jerusalem in the 1880s. “What I love about this is that people tend to associate Yemeni Jews with Operation Magic Carpet, [where Yemeni Jews were airlifted en masse to Israel between 1949 and 1950] but that’s not the story I’m telling,” she says. “Mine is a story about when Yemeni Jews walked from Yemen to Israel in 1881. It was a harder story to research as it’s not as well-documented as other periods in history.”

This is one of three books by Lyons that will be published this year; like Saliman, the others are also inspired by the lesser-known stories from Jewish history. As chair of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong, where she has lived for 22 years, she loves nothing more than to sit in an archive sifting through stories, finding the more obscure ones and adapting them into picture books.

But then, October 7 happened.

In the aftermath, whenever she sat down to write, it suddenly all felt very trivial. “The last story I submitted was about a turtle that sort of celebrates Shabbat,” she recalls. “I thought to myself, there are people really suffering, we’re seeing the largest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust, and I’m sitting here writing about turtles.”

So she decided to put her kidlit aside and focus on her family – she has five children: the oldest two are grown up and live in Israel, the youngest two are adopted and come from a Hong Kong Chinese background – and on fighting antisemitism online. In November, she attended a World Jewish Congress country directors’ meeting in Rome, as the Hong Kong delegate, specifically to address the hostage crisis and the growing global antisemitism. “Being in a gathering of country directors from all over the world, discussing problems that were common to all of us, felt really important,” she says.

At this point she started to realise that, while she had stepped away from children’s books to focus on fighting antisemitism, writing Jewish stories was actually part of that fight.

“Jewish artists are seeing venues revoked and performances protested. This can either push you to write more, or it can have the opposite effect. Using our voices and continuing to create Jewish art suddenly felt like an act of resistance.”

She thought about why she had started writing in the first place. As a child growing up in New Jersey she was an avid reader, but there weren’t many Jewish books for children then. They were mostly didactic, sparsely illustrated and only represented the American Ashkenazi experience.

She started writing short stories and poetry at the age of eight and went on to study English literature with creative writing and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, followed by law school before moving to Hong Kong due to her husband’s job.

In Hong Kong she created and ran a magazine, Asian Jewish Life, aimed at connecting and preserving the histories of the Jewish communities in the Far East. She founded and became the director of PJ Library Hong Kong, part of the literacy programme PJ Library, which sends free Jewish children’s books to families around the world every month. She puts the modern boom in Jewish kidlit down to the establishment of PJ Library which, she says, “helped create a new canon of Jewish children’s books that are entertaining as well as representative of many different ways of being Jewish”.

But rather than just sharing other people’s stories, Lyons’ passion lies in writing her own. Now an established children’s author in her own right, she recognises the power of Jewish children’s literature,  particularly after October 7.

“I worry that, as Jewish writers, our voices will be silenced, but there’s a child out there who needs that story, and maybe reading it now is even more important for them than before,” she says. “I keep thinking about that child, waiting for that particular story – and that’s all that matters.”

Saliman and the Memory Stone is published by Apples and Honey Press

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