fiction · YA

Book Review: Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

You know that feeling when your TBR is empty and you have absolutely nothing to read, so you’re just wandering around the library listlessly?

Yeah, me neither.

What really happened was this: I had a stack of like five books or so that I needed to read, but my daughter wanted to get some library books, so I took her over, telling myself, “I’m not getting anything for me! I have way to much to read already.”

And then the library had a lovely display of books that included Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon (Simon Pulse, 2020), whom I LOVE, and, well, it went into my bag, because I have no self-control when it comes to Jewish authors I love. And this was such an excellent moment of weakness, because I ADORED this book.

It’s the last day of high school, and Rowan Roth is ready to finally best Neil McNair once and for all by being awarded valedictorian. She and McNair have been battling it out every single minute of the last four years, each trying to outdo the other for grades, awards, status. The day isn’t starting out great, though; a fender-bender has Rowan slipping into the office late, only to face – who else? – Neil, who works there. Ugh.

The whole last day of school is strange, and when the senior class game – Howl, a Seattle-wide scavenger hunt that will award the last student standing with $5,000 – starts up that evening, Rowan quickly finds herself paired up with Neil, who…maybe isn’t quite as awful as she’s made him out to be the past four years. He’s maybe even kind of cute. And – holy shit- he’s Jewish, too???

What else has Rowan missed???

As the night goes on, Rowan and Neil grow closer, and she learns so much about him that she hadn’t known before, since her focus had been solely on competition. But things change, people change…and with everything else changing at this moment in time, maybe it’s time for Rowan and Neil’s relationship to change as well.

This is such a fun YA novel. Rowan is driven, almost single-minded, and that causes her to miss out on a lot, something she’s only really realizing on this last day of senior year. Her love of romance novels is endearing; I love the growth and openness she attributes to her admiration of the genre, because it makes her a far more interesting character than it would have otherwise. There is one scene I didn’t care for at all; Rowan goes too far and uses something she learned about Neil to lash out and hurt him the way she felt he hurt her, and…it was too far. I was honestly a little surprised Neil moved on from that as quickly as he did. I don’t know that that was a choice I would have made as an author. But really, everything else in this story is perfection; it’s a straight-up love letter to Seattle (a phrase I thought of early on, only to read it in Ms. Solomon’s afterword. *high five*), a city I’ve never been to, but which Ms. Solomon made come alive. I truly felt like I’d spent the day racing around the city with Rowan and Neil.

And Neil! What a great character. Awkward, determined, quirky, hardworking, Jewish – what’s not to love? I had a somewhat similar relationship with a guy friend in high school, though nowhere near as competitive (we were into very different things, for one). This was long before the days of texting, so I had to wonder throughout this book what our texts would have looked like, if they would’ve been as snarky as Rowan and Neil’s (likely worse; we were pretty brutal at times). I enjoyed their friendship and their blossoming romance, and the optimism for the future that this book absolutely bursts with.

Such a great read. Rachel Lynn Solomon absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one.

Visit Rachel Lynn Solomon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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nonfiction

Book Review: Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

I can’t actually remember how Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman (The Jewish Publication Society, 2015) ended up on my TBR; likely a mention by one of the many Jewish pages I follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Books and reading have always been an important part of being Jewish (we are the People of the Book!), and so learning about and understanding what happened to Jewish books during and after World War II was something that piqued my interest. Boy, did I learn a LOT from this book!

So, almost everyone knows that the Nazi burned books. Most of us have seen pictures of people throwing books onto a huge bonfire, and we use Nazi book burning as a metaphor for the dangers of censorship. But most of us probably don’t know that their book burning phase didn’t last very long; they quickly moved on to collecting books. That’s right. The Nazis stole, then collected Jewish writings even as they mowed down the Jewish people during World War II. They planned to study the writings of the culture they had wiped out. Fortunately, they lost, and afterwards, one of the many questions to be answered at war’s end became, “Now what do we do with all these millions of books?”

In order to help the reader understand the importance of this question, Rabbi Mark Glickman begins the book with a fascinating look at the history of Jewish texts and the emphasis on reading and study that has always been central to Judaism. The second section segues into the many heartbreaking ways the Nazis stole and desecrated our texts; the third, how so many people worked for years to return said texts to their rightful owners, or, barring the ability to do that, to send the texts to the places they would again be loved and cherished. This was obviously a massive amount of work; millions upon millions of books and papers had been stolen and hidden away, or stored in places that ranged from caves to castles. Moving these books involved multiple organizations working tirelessly for years.

This is an incredible book that tells a story I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea about the Nazis stealing books; even with all the reading I’ve done about history, World War II, and the Shoah, I had been under the impression that they burned books and nothing else. I had no clue about the massive troves of Jewish literature that lay hidden after the war, nor of the incredible effort of so many people to return these books to communities and organizations that would recognize them for the treasures that they are. This book presented a brand-new understanding of history to me, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Glickman for having penned such an interested, eye-opening work. I always appreciate being able to be better informed about anything, but especially Judaism and Jewish history.

fiction

Book Review: The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis

Okay, y’all. I have discovered a deep love for Tova Mirvis’s books. I’ve read The Book of Separation and The Outside World, both of which I loved, and a few week ago, I picked up a copy of The Ladies Auxiliary (Ballantine Books, 1999). From the first page, I was hooked with a capital HOOKED. This book pulled me in like a shark dragging me into the deepest ocean waters, and I didn’t want it to end, like, EVER. If you haven’t read Tova Mirvis, you neeeeeeeeeeeeeed to. She’s so good.

The orthodox Jewish community of Memphis, Tennessee is abuzz with the news of a new woman moving to town. Bathsheba, a recently widowed mother, has come to town, her late husband’s hometown, with her five-year-old daughter Ayala, for a fresh start, and the women of the town want to know everything about this unconventional woman. Bathsheba is a convert, a woman with a past outside of Orthodox Judaism, and immediately, the community is on edge. Who is this woman with her strange way of dressing and her outside-the-box behavior? What kind of influence will she be on the young people of their community? What’s she really doing here?

The more the women get to know Bathsheba, the more suspicious they are. Even though she’s still following the rules of the community, is she really following them well, with the right spirit? After all, they wouldn’t want their daughters to end up like her. Surely they’re in the right in ostracizing her, because she just doesn’t fit in. Not really. And the more the women of Memphis try to push Bathsheba away and make her understand she’s not wanted, the more damage they actually do to one of their most beloved members.

Oh my goodness, this was WONDERFUL. The Ladies Auxiliary is narrated in a kind of first person plural, as in “We thought this,” and “All of us wanted to know…”, and then goes into examples of that behavior, describing each character in third person omniscient. I loved this structure SO much. I’ve never seen this done before, and it worked so very, very well to illuminate the suspicion, the fear, and the gossipy, bullying nature of some members of the community. Absolutely incredible storytelling.

Bathsheba is a strong character who withstands a lot in this book. She does show her hurt several times, but not as much as one might suspect. The other members of the community, for all their piousness, are often portrayed as nosey, judgmental, and unable to see beyond the tips of their own noses. The introduction of a colorful new person to their insular community wakes them up, but not in the way they need to, and their behavior and treatment of Bathsheba will have exactly the opposite effect, driving them all apart, harming their relationships with each other, and most of all, harming the very last person they wanted to hurt.

The Ladies Auxiliary comes to an excellent conclusion, with a few questions still left up in the air. Plenty still remains to be seen, and that’s left for the reader to wonder, to ponder, to try to fill in the blanks. Does the community truly learn its lesson? It’s something I’ll be considering for a long time.

Excellent, excellent book. I loved every page of this.

Visit Tova Mirvis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Miracles and Menorahs by Stacey Agdern

Representation matters. By now, anyone with half a brain understands this. It’s nice to be able to see parts of who we are on screen, in the pages of a book, in whatever media we consume. I always enjoy learning of new (or new-to-me; I’m often behind in just about everything) Jewish fiction, because seeing characters casually discuss the same holidays I celebrate, or approaching a difficult situation with a mindset they learned from the Jewish influences in their lives just makes my heart sing. I was happy to learn about Miracles and Menorahs by Stacey Agdern (Tule Publishing Group, 2020), and even happier to find it on the shelves of my library.

Sarah Goldman is second in command on the board of her small town’s Hanukkah festival (yup, you read that right!), a tradition that’s been going on for many years, but some people in the town want changes. More red, more green, more trees…boy, is this sounding familiar. But Sarah’s determined to keep the festival all Hanukkah, and for that, she’s going to need something special, like a giant menorah (how they didn’t already have one of these already kind of baffled me…). But where could she possibly find one of those so late in the game?

Enter Isaac Lieberman, metal artist and grandson of one of the town’s most beloved members. He’s single, good-looking, talented…and 100% against any kind of commercialization of Hanukkah, so making a giant menorah for Sarah’s festival is definitely not on his list of priorities. Bummer. But as he and Sarah spend more time together and Isaac gets to know the town where his bubbe lives, he may just change his mind…about a lot of things.

This is a very sweet Hanukkah romance – there’s no more action than a few chaste kisses, so if you avoid anything hotter than a bell pepper, you’ll be okay picking up Miracles and Menorahs. It’s basically a Hallmark movie in book form.

The ups: Jewish representation. SO much rep. Most of the town is Jewish (which makes a few of the board members cranky to suddenly find their holiday in the minority; the whole situation is shades of @JewWhoHasItAll on Twitter, a great follow!), and Jewish foods and rituals are discussed without needing much explanation, which is pretty awesome. I love seeing that in books. The small town is, for the most part, incredible in the way that small towns only are in books (I’m from a small town. In reality, it’s snobbery, gossip, arrogance, bigotry, hypocrisy, and hatred with a cute downtown. It breaks my heart, really), and the bookstore where Sarah works is charming.

The downs: I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. I found the writing a bit stilted, there wasn’t nearly enough action to keep me interested, and I felt like the book could have benefitted from a stronger editor (overuse of certain words, stronger action, heavier on the drama). What drama did exist in the book felt…boring, some of it (Isaac’s mother, especially) felt overdone and a little unrealistic, and to be honest, I had a hard time finishing the book. I will say that I prefer my fiction to be written in first-person; this is written in third, and I have a harder time connecting to that, so some of my issues connecting with this book are definitely mine, because plenty of other people have enjoyed it.

Miracles and Menorahs is part of a series. I’m disappointed that I don’t feel enough of a connection to the book or the characters to continue on with the other books, but if this sounds like something you’re interested in picking up, you’re in luck that there are several books beyond this one.

Visit Stacey Agdern’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Repairing the World by Linda Epstein

There have been so many great Jewish middle-grade books out lately, and I haven’t been able to let many of them slip by me without them ending up on my TBR. And I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Repairing the World by Linda Epstein (Aladdin, 2022) on a recent library trip. It was just sitting there happily on the new books shelf when I walked by, and into my bag it went!

CONTENT WARNING: Child death.

Daisy and Ruby have been best friends all their lives. They’re inseparable, doing everything together, complementing each other perfectly and being able to finish each other’s sentences. They’re looking forward to starting middle school together in the fall, beginning their journey to growing up, when the unthinkable happens, and Daisy is left alone to face the future and grow up without her best friend.

Grief weighs heavily on her, and Daisy finds it difficult to even speak about what happened. Two new friends – Avery, a science-minded girl who appears in many of Daisy’s classes, and Mo, a boy from Hebrew school and her regular school, whose mother is suffering from breast cancer – appear on the scene, helping her to crawl at least a little out of the shadows that Ruby’s death have left behind, but Daisy still continues to shove her grief down. But grief and pain can’t stay buried forever, and when they erupt in Daisy like a volcano, she’s going to have to figure out how to fix the damage her hurt caused.

At times in the beginning, I felt like the writing got a little clunky and awkward, but where Repairing the World really shines is both in its descriptions of grief, and in the deep understanding Daisy’s new friends show her. The descriptions of grief are heavy, but they’ll seem familiar to anyone who’s struggled with loss. It’s not just emotional, it’s physical as well, and survivor’s guilt is very, very real. Daisy is tasked with carrying a lot, and Ms. Epstein really nails how difficult this all is for a tween.

Avery and Mo are exceptional characters. Avery is spunky and analytical, with a personality not unlike that of Ruby, but different enough that she really sparkle. Mo, struggling with his own pain, provides support and a way for Daisy to begin processing her loss. Aunt Toby, home to help Daisy and Daisy’s heavily pregnant mother, also serves to give Daisy some breathing room and new ways to move forward in a life she never expected. The supporting cast in this book are phenomenal and provide a wonderful scaffolding for Daisy and her grief.

This book contains Bridge to Terabithia-levels of anguish; if your middle grader is especially sensitive for any reason, check in with them if this is something they express interest in reading. It might be tough for them; on the other hand, Repairing the World might make them feel not so alone, especially if they’re dealing with loss and grief (and we all know, far too many kids are struggling with that these days. Tough as it is, this book is SO necessary). Daisy’s hurt is almost palpable; Ms. Epstein’s portrayal of what that kind of pain looks and feels like is absolutely commendable, and I think a lot of hurting kids will be able to relate.

Repairing the World will squeeze your soul, and my hopes are that it will provide comfort to kids who see themselves in the story, and understanding and enlightenment for kids fortunate enough not to see their own journey in Daisy’s.

Follow Linda Epstein on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Outside World by Tova Mirvis

A while back, I learned about Tova Mirvis and became interested in reading her books. I started with her memoir, The Book of Separation, and I loved it, so I was curious as to what her fiction looked like. I was able to get a copy of The Outside World (Vintage, 2004), and I was hooked on the first page. I am 100000000000% in now for reading everything she’s ever written, and I don’t say this about many authors. (And y’all know I don’t read heaps of fiction, so this is HUGE.)

Tzippy Goldman has been dreaming of her wedding day since she was a child. Marriage is a huge deal in her Orthodox Jewish community, and the discussion of and planning for her eventual wedding was a bonding point between Tzippy and her mother, a woman who only became Orthodox as an adult and who is always grappling to fit in and achieve a higher social status. But now that she’s in her early 20’s and still single, Tzippy’s thisclose to becoming an old maid, and her mother’s panic is grating on her. Off to Israel for a year of study and to hopefully get some space, she finally meets – or re-meets a childhood friend, Bryan, who now goes by Baruch, and the two quickly become inseparable.

Baruch’s parents are stressed to the hilt over their son’s metamorphosis from a sports-loving, Columbia-bound teenager into this black hat-wearing, strictly observant young man. It’s causing some definite friction at home, and both parents fear for his future and begin to question their own commitment to their family traditions. As Baruch and Tzippy begin to build their life together, all back home is definitely not well, and the pressures of the community will wear on everyone.

My goodness, this was an utterly fascinating look into the stress of an insular Orthodox Jewish community. Different levels of observance, the pressure to marry, the insane pressure to follow community norms, the gossip, the subtle – and not-so-subtle – demands to go with the flow or be ostracized, the gossip, all of it makes for interesting and complex characters who are struggling to find themselves and where they fit in within the confines of a restrictive society. The Outside World is narrated by multiple characters (my favorite!); Ms. Mirvis does an absolutely incredible job at showing varying commitments to observance, what changing observance looks like, and the confusion, the thought processes, and the stress it takes to navigate such changing waters.

I truly enjoyed all of this. I loved the look into the community, the questioning, Baruch’s increased observance versus his father’s dwindling desire to remain observant, versus his mother’s foray into the more mystical aspects of Judaism. I loved Shayna’s desperate attempts to do anything and everything she could to gain status in the community and Tzippy’s increasing frustration with her.

The Outside World definitely assumes a level of familiarity with Orthodox Judaism, so if you’re going to pick this up (and you should!) and there’s something you don’t understand, ask your Jewish friends (*waves*) or go check out My Jewish Learning and do a search there. They’re an excellent resource for all things Jewish.

Loved, loved, loved this book, and now I’m super excited about reading the rest of Tova Mirvis’s fiction!

Visit Tova Mirvis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower

It was a combing through of my library’s catalog (the old person impulse to still refer to it as a ‘card catalog’! I have a scar on my hand from dropping and thus trying to catch the H drawer of my library’s card catalog when I was 12. I think of it as a super cool natural bookworm tattoo…) to look for Jewish books that I learned about the existence of The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower (Mariner Books, 2021). I knew I had to read it – I feel a big responsibility to read everything I can handle about the Holocaust, but I had to wait until I had the mental space for it. And in trying to read all the ebooks that have been sitting on my list for a bit, this book came up…and it was finally in.

The Ravine covers a photograph that captures murder in progress. The photograph, shown in detail several times throughout the book, shows a woman in the process of being shot and falling into a deep ravine, a small child at her side and an even smaller child tucked in to her lap. Several men stand behind her, one who is doing the shooting. A cloud of gunsmoke hangs in the air.

Wendy Lower, scholar and researcher, worked diligently over a long period of time to identify not only the people in the photo, but also the photographer who took it. The Ravine documents this arduous process, which takes her across countries, deep into archives and down village streets around the world. Phone calls, documents, interviews, research into cameras; Ms. Lower used all the skills she had, along with the skills of other people, to help flesh out the story of this horrifying moment captured for posterity.

Not an easy book to read. The book gets into some truly gutting details about the horrors of the Holocaust, and there were a few times I struggled to continue reading. It’s also a research-heavy book, written in a fairly academic style, so this isn’t something the casual reader is likely to pick up for a relaxing weekend read.

It does tell a story of how intense historical research can be, and the lengths and depths researchers need to go to in order to ensure that their work is correct. The Holocaust isn’t over; its effects are still felt in the remaining survivors and in the family members who were affected by what their loved ones suffered. This is evident in some of the interviews Ms. Lower conducts; the subjects break down and struggle to answer her questions. This is still a raw subject for them, and this book does a good job showing how the pain hasn’t ended.

The Ravine is a heavy, heavy book, but a worthy read.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

I learned about A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (Clarion Books/HMH, 2020) a while ago, but while the premise interested me, I learned about it at a time when I wasn’t reading much middle grade, so it never ended up on my TBR. But a trip to the library last week had me walking past a display of books about food from the children’s section, and this book was on there. ‘Wait, I know that book!’ I said to myself as I passed it. ‘Guess it’s time to finally read it!’ And into my bag it went. Dual narrative middle grade. So fun!

It’s the first year of middle school for sixth graders Sara (that’s SAH-rah, not Sarah as in Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Elizabeth, and neither is having the best of times. Sara’s new to the school, having transferred from her small private Muslim school after her parents could no longer afford it; Elizabeth is struggling with friend issues after her best friend has taken up with a more popular girl. It’s Elizabeth who’s enthusiastic about joining the after-school South Asian cooking class club; Sara is only there because her mom is teaching it. Their first interactions are hostile at best, and neither walks away feeling great.

But as their time together in the club increases, Sara and Elizabeth realize they have a lot in common. Both are daughters of immigrant mothers; both are having trouble making the transition to middle school; both are desperately in need of friends. But in order to forge a new friendship, both will have to learn to listen to each other, to form a bridge over what divides them and learn to appreciate what makes each of them unique. A cultural festival and a cooking competition will force them to work together, and what they create at the end will be far more than just a new recipe.

What an enjoyable novel. I love dual narratives, and I can’t remember ever having read one from the middle grade section. Sara is downright prickly at the beginning, and this is completely understandable. She’s a Muslim student at a new school, and it’s not like this country is super understanding about non-Christian religions, especially Islam. Her mother’s accent and unfamiliar-to-everyone-else dishes make her feel like she stands out even more, and her defensiveness, even to the most basic of inquiries, is a learned skill. She’s also carrying the financial stress of her family with her, knowing her mother’s catering business is struggling and costing the family money they can’t afford. She lashes out a few times at Elizabeth, and I wanted to hug her. We don’t make life for immigrants or second gen kids easy at all here.

Elizabeth is struggling with problems of her own. Her grandmother died over the summer and her mother is grieving. Her father travels for work most of the week, leaving Elizabeth and her brothers on their own while Mom knits, listens to podcasts, and cries. Elizabeth is deeply worried her mom is going to return to England and leave the family behind, and to top it all off, her best friend is following in her racist father’s footsteps and making hideous comments about Muslims and immigrants. Cooking club and learning to make delicious food for her family helps with the stress, but she’s not having the greatest year either.

The friendship the two girls forge is fascinating. It’s not an easy one; it takes work for Sara to let down her guard and accept that Elizabeth is well-intentioned; Elizabeth has to learn that Islamophobia is a constant part of Sara’s life, and that it’s also her responsibility to speak out and defend her friend from it. (I really loved the role Sara’s friend from her private school played in this; she’s a super chill character and the voice of reason in their interactions, whereas Sara is more impulsive and fiery.)

Both girls are carrying an enormous amount of stress for their ages, an unfortunately not-uncommon experience these days, and while readers may not be personally familiar with their exact problems, I feel like most middle graders will understand what it’s like to worry about family matters you can’t control.

The authors really worked well together to create two middle school girls who are challenged in a variety of ways, and who begin not quite as adversaries, but as two distinct characters who aren’t necessarily on the same page…but who, with a little hard work and understanding, make it there, and the results are great.

What a fun, meaningful book, from an excellent writing team!

Visit Saadia Faruqi’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Laura Shovan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: As If On Cue by Marisa Kanter

I was so in love with Marisa Kanter’s What I Like About You that I immediately put her other book, As If On Cue (Simon & Schuster Books for Young People, 2021) on my TBR. She has such a fresh, engaging style and writes such great banter between teens who are complex characters. While As If on Cue didn’t speak to me quite as much as her first novel (likely because the first told the story of a book blogger! Can you blame me?), I still really enjoyed the story and Ms. Kanter’s engaging style.

Disaster has struck Natalie’s high school. Budget woes are everywhere, and the arts program has been cancelled, leaving the theater, choir, and art kids outraged and depressed. Not the band kids, though: the band is a money-maker for the school, and a community favorite; their funding, and thus Natalie’s father’s job as director, is safe.

Natalie is not okay with this, and she sets off trying to right this wrong, desperate to show her principal and the community that the arts are worth funding. Staging a performance of the play she and her best friend have written, a retelling of Frozen called Melted (focused on – what else? – climate change) will prove how serious the arts students are about their crafts. Seemingly standing in Natalie’s way at every turn is Reid, Natalie’s lifelong frenemy, family friend, and the clarinet protégé of her father, the reason why she and her father have never been as close as she wants. Holy frustration all around, Batman.

As Melted becomes more of a reality and turns into a musical instead of just a play, Natalie finds herself thrown together with Reid more and more…and she’s not hating it as much as she figured she would. But after so many years of hating Reid’s guts, can she really trust that he’s not just here to sabotage everything? When push comes to shove, Natalie lets her worst instincts take over…only to find that she may have inadvertently ruined not just Melted and any chance the arts program had of ever being funded, but Reid’s future as well.

Phew, this was a tense one! As If on Cue starts out with a problem that will, unfortunately, be familiar to far too many teens: the slashing of school budgets, particularly of the arts (always the first to be cut, of course). But instead of wallowing and complaining, Natalie takes action…though not always in the most appropriate or mature ways. Her determination to reinstate the arts program is both a blessing and a curse, as her single-minded focus tends to get in the way, a lot, but it provides for some amazing plot points. Natalie’s a great character; she’s fierce, determined, and creative, but she’s also lacking a little maturity, something she realizes later on. I really appreciated her complexity.

Reid is also a fabulous character. His musical prowess could make him snobby and unlikeable, but although Natalie sees him as such through much of the story, he’s never actually that guy. His determination is quieter; it’s only Natalie’s perspective of him that’s off, and this makes for amazing conflict.

The friends, the friends! Marisa Kanter is great at writing fleshed-out side characters who are so chill and so human. Can she write me a friend group, do you think? Is that a thing? (Please say yes.)

I really enjoyed As If on Cue. While I never had experience with a community who felt its school arts programs were expendable, I know far too many places that have had that exact experience, so this is a story that should speak to teens who understand the fragility of community support for their creativity. And Ms. Kanter’s delightful, fresh style makes the story come to life. I *really* want to attend a stage performance of Melted now…

Visit Marisa Kanter’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy

Jewish books! My absolutely favorite, and since I don’t always check NetGalley with regularity (because I’m pretty realistic about what I have time for, unless it’s a used book sale and then all reality flies out the window), I often miss out on what they have to offer. Not this time! I came across The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) while browsing NetGalley’s stacks one day and leapt to request it. Lo and behold, I was approved! Huge thanks to NetGalley. Orca Book Publishers, and Joanne Levy for allowing me to read and review this book.

Elsie is super excited about Purim this year. Her Queen Esther costume, created by her costume designer dad and which she’s still trying to accessorize with the perfect finishing touches, is going to be amazing, and she can’t wait to wear it at her synagogue’s Purim celebration. But then the bad news drops: the Purim celebration is cancelled. The synagogue is in serious financial trouble and is in danger of closing altogether. Elsie is devastated…and then she gets to work. If Queen Esther saved the Jews, Elsie can surely save her synagogue!

With her rabbi’s approval, Elsie’s synagogue opens up the Purim celebration to outsiders and begins to sell tickets to the events. It’s not just hamantaschen and hard work; Elsie and her best friend Grace experience a little bit of prejudice along the way. Things only get dicier when the synagogue is vandalized. Can Elsie continue to find inspiration in the story of Esther, or will Purim and the synagogue be cancelled entirely?

This is a charming, modern-day story centered around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from imminent death at the hands of the evil villain Haman. It’s traditional to dress up in costumes (biblical or not; there was a banana at my synagogue this year), get drunk (yes, really!), and make lots of noise (including a very loud, “BOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when Haman’s name is mentioned). Elsie’s Christian best friend Grace serves as an outsider who’s unfamiliar with Purim and needs the basics explained to her, opening up this story to be enjoyed and understood by middle grade readers of all backgrounds.

Elsie is a spunky, determined kid who doesn’t always make the right choices (and what kid does?), but she learns from her mistakes and has excellent follow-through. Not only is this book full of fabulous Jewish representation, her best friend is Black, and her two dads, Dad and Abba, make for great LGBT representation, especially as it’s never commented on as being a Thing, just presented as Elsie’s everyday life, which I loved.

There are a few instances of antisemitism and racism here. Nothing violent and in-your-face scary, but sensitive kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to live with these threats may benefit a few conversations about them with a loving adult. Elsie’s courage in the face of hatred and the violation of her community’s sacred space provides a great lesson in bravery and the refusal to back down when it comes to creating the kind of future you want and need.

The Book of Elsie is a quick, charming read that should delight younger readers as well as educate those who may not be familiar with Purim. This would make for a great parent-child read; not only is it a lovely book headed by a determined main character, there are a lot of great discussion points throughout the book, and I can imagine many wonderful conversations a parent and child may have as they make their way through the story. I’m going to read this with my eight-year-old soon. I expect that she’ll love it. : )

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