I was a curious and strongly opinionated tween girl growing up in the 90s and the books I treasured centered around characters of the same mind: Kristy in The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, Ramona from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series, and the titular Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh to name a few. But when I read Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume, the reflection felt even more striking. Because in addition to being a slightly dramatic, hyper-imaginative youngest sibling that sometimes worries too much, Sally is also distinctly and undeniably Jewish.
Sally and her family are not particularly religious, but the cultural hallmarks are easily recognizable: Ma Fanny, her grandmother, peppers Yiddish into her speech, Sally enjoys kosher bologna as a snack, and, set in post-World War II Florida, there are numerous references to Adolf Hitler and concentration camps. For Sally, like many American Jews, the war in Europe feels both far away and closely connected to her life at home because of the relatives she lost. And so, the Holocaust, though not yet known by that name, becomes a point of fascination, the inspiration for several stories she tells herself, and the impetus for suspecting a fellow resident of her Miami apartment building is actually Hitler in hiding.
What was remarkable to me about the not-so-subtle Jewishness of Sally J. Freedman, outrageous subplot and all, was that it was simply a fact of life, not a lesson about tolerance or a lens to understand the brutal realities of the Holocaust. The Freedmans and their Jewish identity felt familiar and lived in rather than educational and distant. In contrast, up until then the “Jewish” books I had come across seemed important and eye-opening like The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Those were books to take seriously, not books I’d bring into bed or read on the sidelines of my sister’s soccer game. But Sally was different. Her story, which aligns closely with Blume’s own childhood, felt personal to me as an eight-year-old who snuck comics into High Holiday services and saw my grandparents as both Holocaust survivors and indulgent babysitters.
That was my first time seeing a Jewish reality close to my own and it was refreshing and even a little revelatory. It’s a memory I carry close to my heart as a children’s librarian because I know other young readers, particularly from BIPOC communities, are also seeking out meaningful representation that goes beyond a singular narrative. A critical part of my work is helping them find that feeling of being seen whether the answer lies in a biography, a dystopian fantasy series, or a quirky graphic memoir following a funny, clumsy Jewish Mexican kid cheered on by his relentlessly optimistic imaginary mascot (shout out Chunky by Yehudi Mercado.)
Today, in the spirit of Sally J. Freedman and in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, I’m sharing a list of middle-grade fiction featuring Jewish characters. These selections seek to honor the diversity within the Jewish American experience, particularly in respect to race, ability, and heritage (i.e., Sephardic Jews from the Spanish diaspora and Mizrahi Jews from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds,) though there is definitely more room for representation on all these counts.
I also highly recommend a recent New York Times essay (you can use your Los Angeles Public Library card for free, unlimited access) entitled “Why Are There So Many Holocaust Books For Kids?” from author Marjorie Ingall, which celebrates and champions the divergence of Jewish children’s books from the singular Holocaust narrative.