Life & Culture

Why is there a dearth of Jewish children's books in the UK?

'There are some true gems, but the vast majority are unimpressive', says author Michael Leventhal


When Michael Leventhal’s sons were younger, the publisher was struck by the dearth of decent Jewish children’s books available in the UK.

“There are some true gems, but the vast majority are unimpressive,” says Leventhal, who owns Green Bean Books. The reason, he says, is that “at least 95 per cent” of English-language books Jewish books come from North America and as such feature a very different take on the Jewish world. “There are quite a lot of ‘we left Europe, we got to Ellis Island, we had a bagel’.” And I wanted to publish books that I would be proud to read to my children.”

However, at the Tel Aviv book fair, he witnessed Israel’s thriving children’s literary scene.

Seeing the wealth of “brilliant books and incredible artwork”, he started hand-selecting the best to translate into English and publish for the UK readership.

“Very few people know that the children’s book scene in Israel is one of the best in the world,” says Leventhal, who lives in East Finchley. He cites The Heart-Shaped Leaf, written by Shira Geffen, with illustrations by David Polonsky. This was originally published in 2010 but hadn’t been translated into English. He also points to Shtisel writer Ori Elon, whose A Basket Full of Figs he published in 2020.

None of this, he points out, would be possible without PJ Library, the charity that is the biggest buyer of Jewish children’s books globally. “It has completely and utterly transformed Jewish children’s books, and made it possible for someone like me in England to publish them.”

But Leventhal’s vision extended  beyond translating existing Israeli content. In 2021, he launched the Jewish Children’s Book Awards to find the best stories. With two £1,000 cash prizes as an incentive — one for an author, and one for an illustrator  — the first competition had nearly 100 entries.

Previously Israelis could enter, but Leventhal is now focusing on finding more voices from countries where there are fewer opportunities. Last year, they had entries from 12 countries in eight different languages including Spanish, German, Ukrainian and French. In fact, it’s the first platform for European Jewish authors. “This was the whole point of doing it,” says Leventhal. “There’s this dearth of European voices. There are plenty of excellent Jewish writers and illustrators in Europe, but it hasn’t been economically viable for them to tackle Jewish projects because there hasn’t been any market for it.”

But he also wants to get more Sephardi voices into print. Pointing to the recent wave of Iraqi-Jewish books, he has a theory: with all of the 100,000 Jews in Baghdad before the war long-emigrated, and anyone who had lived there now in their seventies at least,  families are writing the stories to save them for future generations — before they are lost for ever.

“But there are plenty of other Sephardi and Mizrahi stories that need to be told. What we currently have is very limited. There are massive lacunas.”

There’s little, for example, on the history of Egyptian Jews leaving in the Suez Crisis of 1956-7, the Jews of Aden, or Libya.

As for whether an Ashkenazi writer from Hendon should tackle an Iraqi-Jewish story, he says it’s fine if the story is well-researched, “but you should also have people from their own community telling their stories”.

We turn to Roald Dahl briefly, and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre’s apology for the impact of his antisemitism, which has been displayed on a panel since July. It’s been a few years since Leventhal went to the museum, but he welcomes the apology. “It certainly is very long overdue and a step forward that they are openly and boldly saying something.” He recalls his mother-in-law’s reluctance to read Dahl, although that could also be because of the cruelty in his books, he says. “But he was a brilliant writer, and my kids love hearing his stories. I don’t think banning Roald Dahl, or anyone, is a sensible route.”

He would, however, like to see more diversity in children’s books, given that the vast majority of Jewish stories feature a white, able-bodied boy as the main character. “It doesn’t reflect reality,” says Leventhal. As the father of a son who is deaf in one ear, he is disappointed that the only books featuring deaf children are “terrible. They’re so thunderingly unsubtle: David’s deaf. David can’t hear. You want to include people, but not in such a ham-fisted kind of way.”

He is publishing a book on Shabbat later this year where the main character is blind, but in which his sight has nothing to do with the story. “It’s just nice to feature someone different,” says Leventhal.

One of the most memorable emails he has received in the last five years was from a parent of a child with Down’s syndrome who asked why they don’t see their child represented in a book. “The hairs still stick up on the back of my neck when I think about it,” says Leventhal. “How terrible for a parent to think ‘my child never sees themselves’.”

As for how to write a winning book, Leventhal recommends simply setting out to tell a good story. “The problem with a lot of Jewish stories is they set out to impart a moral lesson or to teach a child or a reader about tzedakah or tikkun olam or a festival. It doesn’t work very well, it’s too unsubtle. The best stories are fun, entertaining and engaging, the ones that kids will want to read again and again.” This year’s theme for the illustrator’s prize is A Squash and a Squeeze, a story made famous by Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson, but which is actually based on a Yiddish folk tale.

The main character in the book,  a wise old man, looks like a rabbi but is not named as such, which Leventhal believes is because the writers were told not to include Jewish references.

This year Green Bean has partnered with European Jewish organisations including Spain’s Casa de Sefarad, a museum in Cordoba, to attract wider entries.

And they have translated the submission criteria into several languages to make it as easy as possible for people to submit. Since the Bologna children’s book fair is the biggest in the world, the plan is to hold a gathering of publishers, illustrators and authors there next year, “to create a community of Jewish creatives, because one doesn’t really exist at the moment”.

For creatives, such as this year’s Jewish Children’s Book Awards winners Italian artist Mel Zohar, and author Dina Leifer, from Finchley, whose And Eddie Had An Egg will be published in 2024, the competition is an exciting opportunity to become known.

“I suspect a lot of people have written a story that they’ve got in their drawer,” says Leventhal. “This is a great opportunity to submit it.”

The deadline for the Jewish Children’s Book Awards 2023/2024 is October 23.

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