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The Sydney Taylor Book Award 2023 Winners and Honors

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Introducing the winners and honors of the Sydney Taylor Book Award (2023), presented annually by the Association of Jewish Libraries to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.

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[1:03] Introduction


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, and a fan of kids. Yep, all of you. Big, big fan.


Some of you may be aware that children’s publishing just celebrated its biggest awards show of the year. Each year, librarians, authors, illustrators, and other book people gather at the American Library Association’s midwinter conference for the Youth Media Awards. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the awards that are given:


The John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature.


The Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children.


The Coretta Scott King Book Award recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults.


The Schneider Family Book Award for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience.


The Pura Belpré Awards honoring Latinx writers and illustrators whose children's and young adult books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience.


The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children.


And lots more, including the Sydney Taylor Book Award, which is presented annually by the Association of Jewish Libraries to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.


It has been a distinct pleasure for me to welcome the authors and illustrators of the Sydney Taylor winners and honors books over the history of this podcast, and today we’re upholding that tradition.


We have 12 books represented across three categories: Picture Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. And while you may fall into one of those categories more than another, I promise that the messages these authors and illustrators brought to today’s episode are for everyone.


I’ll have book covers and more information included with this episode on my website at matthewcwinner.com, but for now, all you need to do is listen.


Let’s start with the Picture Books.



[3:32] Picture Book Winner and Honors


Matthew: The 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Award Gold Medal winner in the Picture Book category is The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs by Chana Stiefel, illustrated by Susan Gal.



Chana: I'm Chana Stiefel, author of The Tower of Life, illustrated by Susan Gal, published by Scholastic. I was inspired to tell Yaffa Eliach’s story when I read her obituary in the New York Times in 2016, I was amazed by Yaffa's ability to exhibit hope and resilience in the face of unbearable tragedy.


Yaffa was born in 1935 in a small town, a shtetl, called Eishishok in Poland. Her grandmother was the town photographer, and Yaffa loved to help out in her grandmother's store. On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Roshashanah, every year people sent photos to their relatives around the world with wishes for good health and happiness. But when the Nazis invaded in 1941, Yaffa and her family fled. Yaffa tucked some family photos into her shoes. Within two days, 900 years of history in Eishishok were uprooted.


Many years later, Yaffa, who was a survivor, had become a Holocaust historian. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter reached out to Yaffa to help build a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Washington, D.C., but Yaffa didn't want to reflect on death and darkness. She wanted to show dignity, not disaster. Lives lived, not lost. And she remembered those photos she had tucked in her.


So she set out on a SA Sacred Mission to collect stories and photographs of every man, woman, and child who had lived in Eishishok. She traveled around the world for 17 years and she rebuilt her town, not brick by brick, but story by story, photo by photo. And she created the Tower of Faces, which is a central exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C..


Yaffa would want children today to see themselves in these photographs and appreciate our shared humanity.


I'm so honored that The Tower of Life won this year’s Sydney Taylor Book Award. It's so important to me that Yaffa's story be shared with the next generation, since Holocaust survivors are passing away, uh, I believe that this book is best suited to children eight years old and up, but I believe it's also for all ages and at the discretion of parents and teachers because of the sensitive nature.


That said, Susan Gall's illustrations are filled with life and are so powerful and I hope that everyone who gets a chance to read this book will enjoy it and appreciate it. Thank you so much.


Susan: Hello, my name is Susan Gal. I'm the illustrator of The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, written by Chana Stiefel.

The Tower of Life is a picture book biography about Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and historian. She was born in the town of Eishyshok in Poland and her grandmother was one of the town’s photographers. In 1941 the Nazis invaded her town and murdered nearly the entire population of Eishyshok. Yaffa and her family miraculously escaped. As they fled, six year old Yaffa tucked some family photos in her shoes and held on to them throughout the war.

Yaffa became a history professor in the US and was asked by President Jimmy Carter to help build a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Washington, DC. Yaffa remembered the photos that she had saved in her shoes. She wondered if other survivors had saved family photos so Yaffa set out on a mission to rebuild her town through photos and stories. After 17 years of traveling the world she gathered over 6,000 photos of the people of Eishyshok. Those photos became a three-story high exhibit in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum known as the Tower of Life. Yaffa's memorial focuses on the lives that were lived with dignity and humanity, not as victims or disaster.


As I was creating the art for this book I wanted to honor Yaffa’s desire for young readers to see the people of Eishyshok as people just like them, not as victims of the Holocaust. I focused on illustrating what life was like at that time to show why Yaffa so loved her vibrant shtetl.

It’s my hope that readers will be inspired by Yaffa’s empathy, her determination, and resilience. As Chana so beautifully writes at the end of the book, “May her spirit and legacy continue to shine forever."



Matthew: The Silver Medal honors in the Picture Book category are Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda by Shoshana Nambi, illustrated by Moran Yogev, and Sitting Shiva by Erin Silver, illustrated by Michelle Theodore.



Paul: Hi Matthew. My name is Paul Martin. I am not an author illustrator. My wife, Paula Cohen, is the author and illustrator of the book Big Dreams, Small Fish, which was published last year in March by Levine Querido.


Big Dreams, Small Fish was the culmination of several years of work by Paula. Paula was an illustrator by trade and she had a dream to become a children's book illustrator and author. Paula, unfortunately, died on February 24th of last year, not too long after learning that her book would be published, and also just prior to the March 1st formal publication date of Big Dreams, Small Fish.


I know she would be extremely honored and thrilled that her book has been recognized by the Sydney Taylor committee as an honor book.


Paula just would've been thrilled. For me,, it's been, you know, obviously bittersweet, but, I am so happy that Paula's work has been recognized. It's so important to me. It's so important to my two sons, Joshua and Julian, that, you know, Paula's memory can live, you know, through this work, which is just a, you know, a lovely book. The book obviously touches on Jewish themes, but I think that the message is, you know, some of the messages and themes in the book are universal.


Big Dreams, Small Fish tells a story of a little girl, Shirley, who's growing up and helps her parents in their grocery store, in the 1930s.


Their parents are immigrants to the new world, and Shirley has all kinds of ideas to make the store more modern and more efficient. The store that is the set, if you will, of, of the story is loosely based on the grocery store that Paula's grandparents ran in Albany, New York, where Paula was from.


And the main character, Shirley, the little girl who stars in the story, is named after Paula's beloved mom. And Paula's mom also would have been, and I'm sure is so proud of Paula for this accomplishment.


So the story is Shirley has some great ideas to make the store work better, run better, to help her parents out, you know. And her parents are, you know, they don't, they didn't bring, as they say in the book, their little girl to the new world to work.


But Shirley is persistent and has some great ideas on how to make this store better and how to make this new delicacy that the customers do not know about, gefilte fish, a success in how to introduce that in a unique way to the people who come into the store.


Big Dreams, Small Fish is a culmination of Paula's dream, much in the way that Shirley, her character in the book, realizes her dream in the story that Paula told.



Shoshana: Hi, my name is Shoshana Nambi. I am the author of The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda. The Very Best Sukkah is a story about a young spirited girl, Shoshi, who lives with her grandparents and her two brothers, and her goat. Shoshi loves to decorate the sukkah where her family will celebrate Sukkot, but she also looks forward to the annual sukkah competition where everybody presents their very best sukkah to be selected.


Shoshi loves a little competition, but for the first time, she is confronted by the ugly side of competition, which is people speaking badly about others and being unkind. And she feels sad. But she quickly learns, through the message of the Rabbi and through the community experience, that everybody wins when neighbors and friends and community works together and feels kindness towards each other.


I wrote this book first for the kids in Uganda to see their trees and their stories and their lives and their foods celebrated in a Jewish book, a Jewish children's book. I wrote a story also for kids, for Jewish kids around the world to read about how Sukkot is celebrated in Uganda with the foods and the kinds of decorations that we use, and the spirit that people have celebrating all the Jewish ceremonies in Uganda.


I also included a message of how kids and caregivers and parents and grandparents can learn about the history and the present and the future of the Jewish community in Uganda.


The message of the book is basically we need to work together. That we, uh, sometimes can feel divided and sometimes can feel frustrated and so many other things, but when we try to work together, we all win.



Erin: Hi, my name's Erin Silver and I'm the author of the picture book Sitting Shiva.


The book is about a girl who's lost her mother, and she comes to discover what it really means to sit shiva.

The reader that I had in mind when I wrote this story was young children who have had some kind of loss, and need to turn to their family or friends to feel better and get support. And you don't have to have lost a family. It could be even having a sad day or losing a pet, but it's all about the beauty of community and the traditions we share and how we're more similar than we are separately.


And that is really the message that I wanna share with my readers is that we're so much more similar than we are different, and that we can all learn to support each other and take care of one another in our time of need.



[15:57] Middle Grade Winner and Honors


Matthew: Picture Books are for everybody, and the words and illustrations work together to tell a story to the readers. Middle Grade books, by comparison, are most often focused on readers ages 8 to 12, though it really depends on the contents of the story as well as the kid reading it. Middle Grade books often make great classroom read alouds.


The 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Award Gold Medal winner in the Middle Grade category is Aviva vs. the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe.



Mari: Hi, my name is Mari Lowe and I'm the author of Aviva vs. the Dybbuk.


Aviva is the story of an orthodox Jewish girl who lives with a mother who's struggling with depression, and they live above a ritual bath, a mikvah, which is a place where, you know, women go once a month and they immerse in the mikvah. And Aviva's mother is kind of in charge of helping them with that.


And this building is haunted by a dybbuk, which is almost like a ghost. It's, you know, some kind of creature with unfinished business. And this dybbuk is constantly, you know, doing all kinds of things and ruining things and making things more difficult for the women who come and visit and for Aviva and her mother. And Aviva is the only one who can see the dybbuk and the only one who can fight that dybbuk.


At the same time in school, she's having trouble with her friends, who aren't really her friends anymore after she had lost her father, they really stopped talking to her and she became kind of an outcast in school. So she spends a lot of time trying to sort of rebuild all the connections that she had once had, while she comes to terms with what had happened to her father in the past and tries to, you know, kind of reach out to her mother a little bit more.


And the dybbuk is kind of a rival, but also kind of the only person who understands.


I really wrote this story for two different kinds of readers. I wrote it first for the Orthodox Jewish kids out there, like me, who, when we grew up, there really wasn't much about us. When there are stories about Orthodox Judaism, they tend to be about either people kind of peeking in from outside, or about people leaving Orthodox Judaism and exploring the world.


And while those were all really interesting to me, I never really felt like there were people existing within my culture. So it was very important for me to create a book where Orthodox Jewish kids could see themselves.


But at the same time, I also wrote it for the outside world because I felt that there really aren't a lot of books out there, or even a lot of media out there that really depicts what it's like to actually authentically be an Orthodox Jewish kid and you know, to kind of exist within that world.


There's always, you know, there are a lot of stories that come at us, like we're strange and different, and I don't really think we're all that different. And so for me it was also kind of to reach out to those kids and to let them kind of see, “Oh, we're not that different. Oh, you know, I'm a lot like Aviva. I relate to Aviva, I relate to her story, and this world is not really all that strange.”


My message to my readers is, you know, we are not that different. We all come from different cultures and there are many, many ways to be Jewish and there are many cultures, you know, built around Judaism and built around everything really. And throughout all that, I think that there are a lot of really human things about all of us that we all share. You know, Aviva likes sports. She likes playing sports. A lot of kids like playing sports. Unfortunately, she's dealing with a lot of grief, which is something that's not unfamiliar to adults and children, you know.


And with a parent with depression, which is something else that's really, really difficult for many people, it doesn't matter where you come from, how you dress, it doesn't matter, you know, what languages you speak and so on, there's, you know, there are universal experiences out there, and I hope that I've demystified Orthodox Judaism a little bit for, you know, for kids and, you know, and they can kind of reach that understanding, um, through Aviva.


So that's really, you know, my main message to readers. And I'm really so grateful for all the people who have given Aviva a chance. And I hope that this is, you know, the first of many books that come out about Orthodox Judaism that aren't, you know, so othering and alienating.


I think that there are really stories that are still there to be told about also the many varieties of Orthodox Judaism out there, cuz we're all not the same. And you know about community and about just joy within our lifestyle that we really don't get to see a lot of. And I'm so appreciative and I'm really excited to see what comes next for my community within, you know, within literature.


In general, I'm just really happy about this push for diversity and lived experiences all throughout children's literature right now.



Matthew: The Silver Medal honors in the Middle Grade category are Honey and Me by Meira Drazin, Black Bird, Blue Road by Sofiya Pasternack, and Ellen Outside the Lines by A. J. Sass.



Meira: Hi, my name is Meira Drazin and I'm the author of the middle grade novel, Honey and Me, set in a modern Orthodox Jewish community. Honey and Me is a contemporary, realistic coming-of-age story about Mila, an 11 year-old girl going through sixth grade in the shadow of Honey, her fearless best friend.


I had several readers in mind when I was writing Honey and Me.


One: My childhood self. I basically wrote something that I would've loved to read as a kid about characters who went to the kind of Jewish day school that I did. In the kind of community I did, I never saw that kind of book growing up and when I started writing Honey and Me, there still wasn't anything like that.


Two: My own children and any readers today who deserve to see themselves and their communities as a legitimate mainstream setting in children's literature for everyone and anyone to enjoy.


Three: Readers who don't know anything or not that much about modern Orthodox Judaism and through the specificity of the setting and characters might relate to the emotional experiences of Milla and Honey. And through that, learn something new about the world as well as about themselves. And Four: Anyone who likes the story about day-to-day life that makes you laugh and cry along with the characters.


I'd like my readers to know that friendship comes in many guises, shapes, and sizes. Not everyone will have one best friend like Mila has with Honey, but no matter what, friendships grow and change. And through this, the best ones get even stronger.



Sofiya: Hi, my name is Sophia Pasternack, and I am the author of Black Bird, Blue Road.


It's the story of 12 year old Ziva and her twin brother Pesah, who has leprosy. And she's trying to cure his illness to save his life by taking him to Constantinople where there are lots of doctors. But on the way they meet a half-demon boy who tells them about a city where no one dies. So they try to go there.


The kind of reader that I had in mind when crafting this story was anybody but kind of specifically anybody who is experiencing loss or has experienced loss and giving a perspective on certain types of responses to facing losing somebody.


And the message that I would like to share with my readers is that there's always room for compassion in whatever we are doing, and that things are not always what they seem.



A.J.: Hi, I'm Andrew Sass, writing is A.J. Sass, and I am the author of Ellen Outside the Lines, a middle grade novel from Little Brown Books for Young Readers. Ellen Outside the Lines follows Ellen Katz, an autistic 13 year-old, as she embarks on a trip to Barcelona, Spain with her Spanish class during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. Ellen is really hoping this trip will help her reconnect with her best friend, who's grown a bit distant over the past year as she makes more friends and focuses on different interests.


Being autistic, Ellen finds comfort in known quantities, so she's prepared for this trip by memorizing last year's itinerary and even helping her Abba pack. But the moment she arrives in Spain, everything gets turned on its head when she learns that her Spanish teacher has changed the itinerary from field trips and lectures to a scavenger hunt format. And Ellen ends up assigned to a team that doesn't include her best friend.


When I was developing this story, I hoped that a wide spectrum of readers would find it entertaining, but I wanted to give a nod especially to Jewish neurodivergent and queer readers because Ellen and her family are Jewish and Ellen is autistic, as well as starting to realize she only gets crushes on girls and that she/ they pronouns might fit her better than she/her.


I have two messages I want to share with readers of Ellen Outside the Lines. First is that it's natural for friendships to change or even end during middle school. It doesn't necessarily mean it's anyone's fault though, and sometimes these changes can open the door for you to make friends with kids that fit you even better.


Second is that we are all wonderfully unique human beings. Some of us are Jewish, others aren't. I'm also autistic and queer, but some of my readers may not be. No matter what our backgrounds and identities happen to be, there are opportunities to be a good ally. So listen, when the people around you share their experiences or describe how you might be able to support them. Although needs may vary from person to person and situation to situation, we will always be stronger when we advocate for one another.



[26:14] Young Adult Winner and Honors


Matthew: Our final set of books are written for an audience of young adults, which means teens. These books feature more mature themes and language, so know that they might not be the right book choice for you right now. Even so, enjoy learning about their complex and beautiful stories, and make note of what books you might want to check out when you get to middle or high school.


The 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Award Gold Medal winner in the Young Adult category is When the Angels Left the Old Country by Sacha Lamb.




Sacha: Hi, my name is Sacha Lamb and I'm the author of When the Angels Left the Old Country.


When the Angels Left the Old Country is an Ellis Island-era immigrant fairy tale, starring an angel in a demon who are Talmud study partners and leave their little shtetl in Poland in search of a young girl from the village who's gone missing on her way to. And on their way they meet another young girl who's leaving her own shtetl to make a better life for herself and her family. And they find that America is a complicated place full of magic and mystery and murder.


As I was writing this story, I really wanted to create something that people like myself, who are very deeply attached to Jewish community and also very attached to queer community, could see both of those aspects of themselves reflected in the book. And I also wanted to write something that was. in a way, universal.


It's a story of leaving home and discovering new things about yourself. And so, I hope that readers will see that in the story, will see the love in the story, and will enjoy the journey that the characters are going on. And will see that history is complicated and it's full of darkness, but it's also full of bright spots and love and family and obligations and a little bit of magic.



Matthew: The Silver Medal honors in the Young Adult category are My Fine Fellow: A Delicious Entanglement by Jennieke Cohen, Some Kind of Hate by Sarah Darer Littman, and Eight Nights of Flirting by Hannah Reynolds.



Jennieke: Hi, I'm Jennieke Cohen. I am the author of My Fine Fellow.


My Fine Fellow takes place in an alternate version of 1830s England, where culinarians who are women who train to be the top chefs of their day, are the very top tier of society. Everybody wants their services and everybody wants them to consult, and everybody wants to be one of them.


One night at Coven Garden Market, two culinarians in training, Helena Higgins and Penelope Pickering, meet a young Elijah Little, who, in fact, is a Jewish boy who makes his living selling pies and empanadas on the street corners of London. Helena decides that, for her final year project, she's gonna turn Elijah into a gentleman chef who will be able to impress even royalty.


It's also a gender-swapped retelling of the musical My Fair Lady and the play Pigmalian by George Bernard Shaw. And there is a very healthy dose of the Great British Bake Off in there, too, for cooking show fans.


I believe the readers I had in mind started with people like me: readers who like musicals, historical fiction, cooking at baking shows, and people who wanna see more protagonists who are like themselves. The more I wrote, the more excited I was to be able to tell the story through the lens of a half-Filipino girl like Penelope Pickering and a Jewish boy like Elijah, and also to show the Jewish experience in a historical time period that hasn't been very well represented in fiction.


I was also aware that there would be readers who don't usually read books about antisemitism or racism. And I was very much hoping that this book would give those types of readers a different perspective and still deliver on the, you know, beauty and the romantic yearnings that they might expect of a My Fair Lady retelling.


The continued rise of antisemitism is something I thought a lot about while writing this book and something I continue to think a lot about, it's an issue we just can't brush under the rug or hope will go away. I hope that those of us who don't believe that hate against any group, really, is the answer, can be strong enough to stand up for each other and what's good both now and in the years to come.



Sarah: Hi, I'm Sarah Darar Littman, the author of Some Kind of Hate.


Some Kind of Hate is told from the points of view of two friends: Jake and Declan. When an accident puts the future Declan imagined for himself in doubt, he feels lost. Who is he if he's not the star pitcher with the bright future? Unfortunately, he finds his new identity by going down a rabbit hole of extremism, which puts his friendships and Jake's life at risk.


I had several types of readers in mind while writing some kind of hate. I wrote it for teens who live in areas where they might not have encountered a Jewish person. I wrote it for teens who feel lost and alone and are searching for something in the hope that they can find what they're looking for through love, not hatred. I wrote it for teens who spend a lot of time online hoping that through Jake's perspective, they will begin to recognize coded and not so coded anti-Semitic ideas and understand the danger of them. I wrote it for Jewish teens so that, at a time of rising anti-Semitism, they feel seen. I wrote it so that people understand that teens aren't attracted to extremism because of the ideology, initially. It's because there's a lack in their life and they're searching for community identity and purpose.


Researching and writing the book changed me. When interviewing former neo-Nazis, I learned that one of the first cracks in their extremist worldview came when they received kindness from whom they least deserved it. Or when they were approached with curiosity instead of hostility.


So I guess the message I hope to share with readers is that we need to learn to talk to people with whom we vehemently disagree. I am not pretending those conversations are easy. As I told one former Neo-Nazi I interviewed, Nazis were my worst nightmare growing up. But unless we learn how to approach people who might not look or worship or speak the same way we do.\, with respect and genuine curiosity, we will never achieve a more perfect union.


Thank you so much for this tremendous honor. It means the world to me.



Hannah: Hi, my name is Hannah Reynolds and I'm the author of Eight Nights of Flirting. Eight Nights of Flirting is a YA romantic comedy set at Hanukkah. It has a large family cast and it's very cozy. There's lots of hot cocoa and snowstorms.


It's about 16 year-old Shira, who gets snowed in for the first night of Hanukkah with her nemesis Tyler. And they strike a deal. He'll give her flirting lessons if she helps him try to get an internship with her great-uncle.


It also deals a lot with how to communicate. , how Learning how to be honest with people and learning how to not be scared about telling people about how you feel.


I wrote it for all teenagers, and I especially hope that Jewish teenagers get a lot out of seeing their own holiday traditions represented. There's lots of songs and lats and, uh, there's a Hanukkah play that all of the cousins put on. I hope it makes all readers laugh a lot.




[35:32] Closing


Matthew: Time to visit your library to put these great books on hold! There were so many compelling stories. I hope you heard one that feels just-right for you. And, if you didn’t, I hope you heard one that makes you want to step outside of your comfort zone to try something new.


The Children’s Book Podcast is written, edited, and produced by me, Matthew Winner.


Follow the show wherever podcasts are found, and leave us a rating or review when you do. That helps us out a whole lot because it helps the show get discovered by and recommended to new listeners.


Visit matthewcwinner.com for a full transcript of this episode plus some questions that you can use as you think about this episode.


So what book are you most excited to read from those we heard about today? Write to me or send me a message at matthewmakespods@gmail.com. That’s M-A-T-T-H-E-W M-A-K-E-S P-O-D-S at gmail dot com.


Want a copy of any of the 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Award winners or honors? Check your school or public library, your classroom, or, if you want to support independent bookstores, you can purchase a copy at Bookshop.org.


I’ll have a link in the show notes.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/).


Our music is by Podington Bear.


Podcast hosting by Libsyn.


We are a proud member of Kids Listen, the best place to discover the best in kids podcasts. Learn more at kidslisten.org.


Be well. And read on.




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