Thursday, December 8, 2022

Best new Jewish books for young people ~ Part Two, by Brian Henry

Just in time for Hanukkah – the best new Jewish books from Canadian publishers for children, pre-teens and teens.

This year Orca Books gives us three books for Jewish kids: another Holocaust-themed novel, plus two contemporary books. If not for these two, every Jewish book for young people from Canadian publishers this year would be Holocaust-themed. 

So hurray for Orca! Because while we must continue to write about the Holocaust, it’s even more important for us to write novels and nonfiction that gives voice to our people in today’s world.

Sitting Shiva by Erin Silver, illustrated by Michelle Theodore (Orca books, ages 3–5, available here).

Full disclosure – Erin Silver was a student of mine and I saw this book when it was still a manuscript. Indeed, I’m lucky enough that Erin still comes to my classes, but now as a guest speaker. As you might expect, this picture book introduces the customs of sitting shiva, but does so in a tender story about a young girl grieving her mother. The illustrations are warm and wistful, the writing pitch perfect.

Erin, this is beautifully done!

The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca books, ages 8–12, geared to a grade 3 reading level. Available here).

In 2022, Joanne Levy had a banner year, with two novels for middle grade readers (reviewed here), one of which, Sorry for Your Loss was a Sydney Taylor Notable Book, a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award and The Red Maple Award, and won the Canadian Jewish Literature Award – all most deservedly.

The Book of Elsie is a spunkier novel, featuring Elsie Rose Miller who’s courageous and fierce and smart like her hero Queen Esther – who would totally be played by Gal Gadot if they ever made a movie about Purim. Elsie learns from one of her two dads that her temple is going broke and decides to channel her inner Esther and save both her synagogue and their annual Purim party.

What World is Left by Monique Polak (Orca Books, ages 14-up. Republished in 2022, originally published by Orca in 2008. Available here)

This is a sophisticated and engrossing novel that parents might find themselves borrowing from their teenagers. Based in part on the experience of the author’s mother, What World is Left tells the story of Anneke Van Raalte, a Dutch teen who together with her family is shipped to Theresienstadt, a “model” concentration camp used by the Nazis to show the world their supposedly humane treatment of the Jews.

Though made to work as slaves and often dying from malnutrition, disease and arbitrary execution, the inmates were conscious they were the lucky ones – as long as they could avoid being shipped farther east to the death camps. As the story progresses, this is the fate of the vast majority, including Anneke’s best friend and the boy she falls in love with. Anneke’s whole family survives, though, at the price of her father helping the Nazis with their propaganda. It’s an agonizing tale of a teen coming of age amidst a life of impossible choices.

Caveat: The opening couple of pages of What World is Left are so dull they seemed designed to stop readers from discovering what a gripping novel this is. Persevere – it’s worth it.

Special mentions:

The Way Back by Gavriel Savit (Ember, a Random House Children’s Books imprint, for teens and young adults, though adults will enjoy it, too. Available here).

Not Canadian, but The Way Back is my  candidate for best Jewish novel for young people published this year. Written by a master story-teller with a brilliant literary voice, it’s original, fun and gripping, yet deals with loss grief, and anger. The Way Back is fantasy novel, set in the shtetls of eastern Europe in the early 1800s, where we follow Yehuda Leib, who’s pursuing his father’s soul, and Bluma, who’s accidently come into possession of the Angel of Death’s spoon.

Afikomen by Tziporah Cohen, illustrated by Yaara Eshet (Groundwood Books, ages 3–6, to be released March 8, 2023, in time for Pesach. Available for pre-order here).

Told without text, entirely through pictures, Afikomen shows the story of three children whose dog has grabbed the Afikomen. He leads them under the table and they end up in ancient Egypt, where baby Moses in his reed basket needs their help. 

Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrations by Shahar Kober (Kar-Ben, ages 5–9. Available here). 

There are many books about Jewish holidays, but the Engineer Ari series, set in Eretz Yisrael, is one of the best. They’ve been around for a while, and besides Hanukkah, there are also Engineer Ari books for Rosh Hashana, Sukkah, Passover, and Independence Day. 

Beyond their wonderful charm, as books that place Jewish holidays in the land they originated, these would be ideal for school libraries across Canada.

Also be sure to check out “The best new Jewish books for young people from Canadian publishers ~ Part One” here.

Plus, Israel: A Simple Guide to the most misunderstood country on Earth by Noa Tishby, for teens or adults, reviewed here, and see last year’s round-ups of best Canadian books for Jewish kids here and here.

Cappuccino at Café Landwer

Note: These round-ups of Jewish books for kids also appeared on, the online journal of news and opinion for Canada’s Jewish community.

Brian Henry is a writer, editor, creative writing instructor, and publisher of the Quick Brown Fox blog. He reviewed books for Books in Canada and The Toronto Star and has written opinion pieces for the National Post and the Toronto Star. He was also a regular contributor to the (now defunct) Jewish Tribune and the Engage and Harry’s Place websites in the UK. He writes for, as often as he can find the time.

See Brian’s upcoming weekly writing classes, one-day workshops, and weekend retreats here.

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