Born and raised in rural Vermont, Naomi Shulman was one of only three Jewish kids at her school. The books she read when she was younger had “incidentally Jewish” characters, if they had them at all.
Later, as a burgeoning children’s book author and mother of two, Shulman noticed there were still very few books that spoke to her own experience. So she wrote her own.
“I wanted to represent rural Jewish life,” Shulman said. “Yitzi, The Trusty Tractor was the kind of book I wish I had been able to read when I was a child.”
Shulman has written numerous children’s books since then. It’s a familiar story for many writers and illustrators of children’s literature who create their own books after growing up without seeing representations of themselves.
As in many other genres, in children’s literature, the representation of religious or ethnic minorities or of disability is not simply a matter of box-ticking. Children feel validated, and thus more confident in their identity, when they see versions of themselves. Children from other groups learn how to be more accepting of differences.
Since 2005, PJ Library has been working tirelessly to increase representation of Jews and Jewish culture in “kidlit,” or literature for children. It’s a free book club that, each month, sends more than 230,000 books to families in the U.S. and Canada alone.
To fulfill its mission, PJ Library works with publishers to distribute 250 titles each year. But even that global network has proven limiting against the surge of demand—both for volume and diversity of subject matter—from young families eager to see and learn themselves in the books they read before bed each night. In response, the organization has started its own imprint, PJ Publishing, and developed numerous programs to support authors and illustrators to create new works.
Thus Yitzi, The Trusty Tractor is just one of many recent books that reflect the diversity and range of Jewish families, experiences, and traditions. Others from PJ Publishing include Fridays Are Special, about an interracial Jewish family; ¿Dónde está Shmata?, a bilingual picture book; Havdalah Sky, which features a family with two moms; and Sign Language Shabbat, which depicts kids signing Shabbat terms.
Creating a market
If you’re a Jewish parent, it’s likely you have already heard about PJ Library. What you may not know is that PJ Library has singlehandedly created a massive market for Jewish children’s books where virtually none had existed. To date, PJ Library has distributed nearly 50 million books. Along with their sister program in Israel, they distribute books in seven languages across 36 countries.
It’s a huge operation, and one that would be impossible were it not for a massive philanthropic investment. That investment came, first and foremost, from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Harold Grinspoon himself had been inspired by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a book program designed to promote literacy. Grinspoon believed that a similar strategy could be useful for increasing Jewish people’s knowledge of their own history, values, and rituals. Jews don’t have a terrible literacy problem, but the need for greater cultural literacy was clear.
“Our team looks for creative ways to spark meaningful Jewish moments, with books and also beyond books. Each Jewish family is unique, and we strive to offer creative opportunities for each family to tap into their own Jewish journey,” said Winnie Grinspoon, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
The cost of PJ Library—and the efforts it has made to create an entirely new industry for Jewish children’s literature—has been shared by communities and major donors across the globe. In recent years, the families themselves have played an increasingly significant role in funding the program as well, paying it forward for new generations.
Here’s how it works. PJ Library purchases the copies they will distribute to families directly from publishers—about 250 titles per year. Most are from the “big four” publishers, although many come from smaller houses, such as the UK’s Green Bean, Apples and Honey, and Kar-Ben Publishing. PJ Library editors then add flap copy—that’s the copy that usually goes inside the flap on the dustcover of a book—explaining the context, for example when it’s about a lesser-known Jewish holiday or custom, to reinforce the Jewish values of the book.
PJ Library also encourages Jewish children to take the literary journey into their own hands after the formal program (serving from birth to eight years of age) is over. Nine- to twelve-year-olds in the US and Canada can participate in PJ Our Way, where they can choose books themselves and submit reviews.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz writes in a number of genres—poetry, essays, short fiction, and midrash (commentary on Jewish scripture). But she had never had a book published until she connected with PJ Library.
“I love writing midrash both serious and silly, and found that the PJ Library audience was the perfect place to share those kinds of stories,” she said. “Chris Barash [the chair of PJ Library’s Book Selection Committee] was a mentor to me and a champion for my work, and in some cases helped me to secure a publisher for a book,” Berkowitz explained.
Her book Queen Vashti’s Comfy Pants—a feminist spin on a Biblical tale—became incredibly popular, with people dressing as Vashti for Purim and rabbis reading the book from the bimah to children and adults. Berkowitz’s other picture book, The World Needs Beautiful Things, is about young Bezalel, an Israelite slave in Egypt, and his desire to create something beautiful. Berkowitz has heard of families using the book during Passover seders.
Naomi Shulman’s career has also been shaped by PJ Library. Aside from writing Yitzi, The Trusty Tractor, she noticed a need for more Jewish books suited to the very youngest readers—board books. So she wrote the One, Two, Three series, which was came out with PJ Publishing, and includes titles about Shabbat, Purim, Sukkot, and other holidays. Since 2012, she has also been an Officer of Content for PJ Library, consulting on a variety of publishing projects.
A third writer, Joanne Levy has a long history with PJ Our Way. Her debut novel, Small Medium At Large, was one of the first books selected for their catalog when they launched the program.
Several years later, Levy was struggling with her writing. She saw a call for submissions, so she dusted off The Sun Will Come Out, an unsold manuscript about a girl attending her first year at a Jewish summer camp. She thought it was perfect for PJ Our Way. Indeed it was: to her surprise and delight, she was awarded an Author Incentive Award for the manuscript.
The Authors Incentive Award is the rare award for unpublished works. It’s PJ Library’s way of investing in writers and illustrators struggling to get their work on Jewish themes to readers. It is literally an investment—several thousand dollars depending on the category and stage of the project. The numbers are often double a standard advance in children’s publishing, providing writers the time, space, and encouragement they need to get their books published.
Some titles that receive the award are eventually acquired by PJ Library or PJ Our Way. Others may be developed in-house for PJ Publishing—which to date has brought out 40 titles on an array of Jewish experiences.
More help for Jewish kidlit
Catriella Freedman, Director of Author and Illustrator Stewardship, explains that the PJ team knew that if they wanted to continue sending “the best, high-quality Jewish books that we can, we need to start with the source”— that is, the aspiring writers and illustrators.
Hence, some of their recent programs like The Stories We Tell: A Picture Book Program for Jewish Storytellers. This four-week online workshop, in partnership with NuRoots and the Highlights Foundation, was an introduction to writing picture books for LA-based creatives from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.
PJ has also hosted workshops and learning opportunities, including a week-long writing workshop at the Yiddish Book Center, Tent: Children’s Literature.
PJ’s professional development opportunities provide the chance to receive feedback, often from the very people who end up selecting the books. They enable networking and mentorship, frequently connecting creators to the Highlights Foundation, another resource for children’s literature. The result is a growing network of Jewish kidlit authors and illustrators whose careers have been launched and nurtured by PJ library.
“We’ve come to see ourselves as trying to support creative contributions to the Jewish kidlit world, to the canon of Jewish books that are out there,” Freedman said. “Our ultimate goal is not to have every Jewish book be in our line-up—it’s to grow and develop and celebrate the growth of books where all types of Jewish kids feel represented in books.”
PJ Library is an unquestionable success—as an engagement program, an educational resource, a parenting tool, and a positive force for cross-cultural connection. What sometimes goes unnoticed is the fact that it is also the driving force behind an entirely new literary canon that, prior to PJ Library, did not exist.
As people of the Book, it’s ironic that Jews didn’t have a robust body of work for our youngest and their caregivers. Thanks to PJ Library, talented Jewish illustrators and writers, the Grinspoon Foundation, and the hundreds of communities and donors they have inspired, we do now.