Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Am I diverse yet? Why there are no Jews in diverse books


If you've been out of the loop in the world of children's publishing, you may not be aware that the big, huge deal right now is Diverse Books. The battle cry for this movement is "We need diverse books."  Diverse books are good because they show kids "people who look like themselves" in the pages of children's literature.

Google "diverse books" and you'll see all kinds of cute pictures of kids--utterly heartwarming.  This is a Very Good Thing, as far as I’m concerned.

Here are a few examples:


(From We Need Diverse Books website)


(From The JJK Blog)


(From the We Need Diverse Books Indiegogo page)

Cute, right?  All of them are cute.  Just to recap: what do we see in these pictures?

  • LGBTQ people
  • People with disabilities
  • People of colour
  • People from First Nations and Hispanic backgrounds
  • Asian people
  • Even the occasional white person thrown in as a token, which I'm okay with.  Maybe they have some hidden disability, like dyslexia.

(Dyslexia has actually become a super-popular topic in kids' books, I think because it's a "diversity" that is relatively easy to depict and hard to get wrong and risk offending people.  But that's a topic for another post.)

That is all amazing, and it’s so fun to see kids’ books emerging as people come to their senses and realize that not everybody needs to be a blond, wealthy, English-speaking American.  (Or a talking animal, which is what kids’ books did for years to sidestep the question altogether!)

But what I don't see, and what my kids don't see, are people who look like us.

What do I mean by “look like us”?

  • Moms and girls who dress modestly.
  • Moms who cover their hair, fully or partially (unless it's a hijab, which isn't really "us")
  • Dads and boys who wear a kippah.
  • Dads with beards and headcoverings
  • Dads and boys with tzitzis, the stringed four-cornered shirt religious Jewish boys and men wear under their clothing.
  • People who pray before they start their day (granted, a little harder to depict).
  • People who choose kosher food or eat separately from others
  • People visiting Jewish sites
  • I don't know... what else do Jews do? 

I admit, we can be hard to draw.  But it doesn’t really seem like anybody’s trying all that hard.
Guess how many times my kids have seen themselves in books that weren't specifically published as Jewish books?  Exactly once.

Here it is.  Can you spot the Jews?


How about now?


(Image from It’s So Amazing!)

I love this picture because it’s so fun and active, and it’s also so by-the-way… no big deal to include Jews, which is as it should be.

For this (and this entire terrific book!), I credit the amazing illustrator Michael Emberley who has created a true montage of diversity, including LGBTQ people, disabled people, single-parent families, big families, mixed-racial families... the entire spectrum, including Jews.
As far as I've seen, there's nothing else like it in the entire children's book market.

I know that's a sweeping statement, and if you've seen other examples, I'd love to know about it.
All I'm saying is that when people think "Jew" they don't think "diversity."

Face it, most North American Jews look pretty white.  Here in Israel, things are different, and we have a whole spectrum of Jews--from Europe, yes, but also from Asia and Africa--that I'd love to see depicted in any children's book NOT from a Jewish publisher.

But in the meantime, I'm not holding my breath.


(Image © Elad Nehorai / Pop Chassid)

I don’t usually mention Jewish stuff here, because mostly, I think my religion isn’t relevant to what I do in kids’ books.  But here, when it comes to diversity and “kids who look like our kids,” I take things very personally indeed.

Part of the problem may be that most Jews aren’t religious, so we just look like ordinary people of whatever ethnicity we happen to be.  Black Jews look like black people (duh) and so too with Chinese Jews, Caucasian Jews, and every other kind of Jew in the world.  This gives publishers an easy out because they can always say we’re in there… we just look like everybody else.




They don’t look like me.  They don’t look like my kids.  I don’t care that we’re a very small percentage, as long as my kids don’t see themselves represented in kids’ books, then the Diverse Books movement doesn’t speak for me.

Am I just a privileged white girl whining?  Maybe, maybe not.  I’d love to hear what you think, as long as you say it gently.

But I actually don’t think so.  I was recently passed up for a scholarship to a writing program after, in a verbal interview, the person talking to me basically admitted that I was too white to qualify as diverse.  That stung.  Sure, my ancestors came from Europe, but it wasn’t exactly a picnic for them over there. 

I guess persecution doesn’t make you a persecuted minority unless it takes place on American soil?

I guess she’s assuming that because I’m Jewish, I’m also rich.  Because, you know, stereotypes are always so accurate.  That’s what the movement is about, right?

I suspect she was excited by my application because she saw that I was from the Middle East, one of the groups targeted by some diversity initiatives including hers.  And then disappointed to find out that I wasn’t an Arab or some other less-pale shade of Middle Easterner since I got here via Europe and North America.

I’m trying not to let that sting.

Trying to keep doing what I do.

Because I still think there’s a need for me and my books about observant Jews living normal lives, just as much as there’s a need for books normalizing being black, Asian, dyslexic, LGBTQ, or anything else. 

If you feel like whoever YOU are isn’t fairly or adequately represented by the We Need Diverse Books movement, I’d love to hear from you, too.  Don’t be afraid to talk back in the comments below.  I may be Jewish, but I don’t bite.

(Jews at Western Wall picture above © Ava Randa via Flickr)


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