‘Devil’s Arithmetic’ author wins Sydney Taylor Book Award for lifetime achievement in Jewish children’s literature

(JTA) — Jane Yolen, the acclaimed and prolific children’s book author whose over 400-book oeuvre includes the bestselling Holocaust time-travel novel “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” has been honored for his writing career by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Yolen received the Body-of-Work award from this year’s Sydney Taylor Book Awards, which recognize excellence in Jewish children’s literature. Named after the author of the “All-of-a-Kind Family” series, the awards were announced Monday during a virtual ceremony at the American Library Association’s winter meeting as part of the ALA Youth Media Awards.

The coveted Body-of-Work award recognizes an author who has made a substantial contribution over time to Jewish children’s literature. Yolen’s books include a range of Jewish children’s books for all ages, according to Martha Simpson, chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

“Its variety of subject matter and enduring appeal to all types of readers impressed the committee. We are proud to acknowledge him this honor,” Simpson wrote in an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Over 30 years ago, Yolen hesitated to write ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic,’ her first Holocaust novel, she told JTA in a 2018 interview.

She accepted her publisher’s challenge and the 1988 book, in which a modern-day Jewish girl travels back in time to 1941 Poland and experiences internment in a concentration camp, is went on to become a bestseller and a staple in college classrooms nationwide. In 1999, it was made into an Emmy-winning Showtime film starring Kirsten Dunst. Yolen went on to write two more Holocaust novels for young readers, including “Mapping the Bones” in 2018.

“I look at all three and realize that it’s not just the Holocaust that binds them. It’s remembering,” she said.

Yolen’s work has been honored with several Jewish books for young readers in 2021, including three gold medalists: a magical Passover tale inspired by a Yiddish classic; a tween novel whose protagonist navigates family issues, prejudice and anti-Semitism; and a haunting queer-themed historical fantasy.

‘The Passover Guest’, by Susan Kusel, won the highest honor for picture books at the Sydney Taylor Book Awards. (Random Penguin House)

The gold winner in the picture book category, Susan Kusel’s “The Passover Guest” is set in Washington, DC, in 1933 during the Great Depression. When a ragged juggler is invited into the home of a poor family for a Passover seder, their bare table is miraculously filled with food for the festival. Inspired by Uri Shulevitz’s version of IL Peretz’s Yiddish classic “The Magician,” Kusel’s story echoes the mysterious tales of Elijah the Prophet, who is believed to help those most in need. Illustrations are by Sean Rubin.

Set in 1967 in the immediate aftermath of Loving v. Virginia, “How to Find What You’re Not Looking For,” by Newbery Medal winner Veera Hiranandani, won gold in the average reader category. The protagonist, 12-year-old Ariel Goldberg, finds herself bravely confronting racial prejudice, anti-Semitism and problems at school when her older sister runs away with an Indian.

“Hiranandani perfectly captures this turbulent time in history through a sympathetic Jewish preteen,” Sydney Taylor’s committee wrote in a statement.

Aden Polydoros won the top prize for young adults with “The City Beautiful,” a queer Jewish story fantasy. Set against the backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the novel tells the story of Alter Rosen, a young Romanian immigrant with big dreams for life in America. When his life is turned upside down by the murder of his Jewish friend, Rosen races to find the killer, all the while struggling against the dark presence of a dybbuk. The story is distinguished by “the masterful combination of fantasy, mystery, LGBTQ romance and historical fiction”, wrote the Sydney Taylor committee.

Eight additional Sydney Taylor winners won silver medals, 10 books of Jewish content were named Outstanding Books, and a Manuscript Award was given for a mid-level novel. Authors and illustrators will receive their awards at the annual AJL conference in June.

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