For a very long time, I’ve struggled to find representations of Jewish children in children’s literature who aren’t, as one child I work with puts it “all bundled up with the Holocaust.” And of course, Holocaust literature is extremely important, and for Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow I’ll highlight some recent examples. But I work with children in a Jewish school, and although we stock a breadth of titles and I want them to be able to read about any child anywhere, and empathise with their plight, I do, on the odd occasion want to show them that they too exist in children’s literature. A modern British Jewish child.
There have been periphery characters, side entities who occasionally display some kind of Jewishness. In Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari, the main character’s friend is planning her bat mitzvah. But they are few and far between. So, it was with great expectations that I waited for my pre-ordered copy of What We’re Scared Of by Keren David, published last week.
Fourteen-year-old twins Evie and Lottie are far from identical. Evie is outgoing and fun and wants to be a comedienne. Lottie attends a different school – is quieter, studious and a dreamer. And religion doesn’t play a role in who they are. Until their mother takes on a new role hosting a radio breakfast show, and not only professes her Jewish heritage to the world, but takes a stance against anti-Semitism too. Before long, both twins are embroiled in their own battles in their own way.
This is an excellent portrayal of modern anti-Semitism in its different guises, and a gentle description of what it means to be a traditional Jewish family in London (as explained to Lottie by her new friend Hannah), but above all this is a book about navigating friendships and family relationships when young teens are on the verge of finding their own identities and breaking free from their childhoods.
Elegantly written, David manages to make this a gripping page turner for any young teen, whilst also grappling with some intense modern issues and problems – addressing the Charlie Hebdo killings, trolling on social media, conspiracy theories about hidden rulers of the world, and the lazy everyday anti-Semitic tropes of ‘rich’ Jews. And all these deep difficult issues are tied into a well-crafted story of twins – and alternating chapters told from their different points of view. There are boys too, a group of mean girls, and a wonderful Muslim best friend.
Particularly impressive is David’s weaving of Hannah’s life into the twins’ story. Lottie makes friends with Hannah at school, and is interested in finding out more about her modern orthodox Jewish life. To that end, she attends a bat mitzvah with her, goes to synagogue at Purim and learns about the festival, and experiences the beauty of a family Friday night meal – a Shabbat dinner. This is all gently introduced, with a wonderful teen perspective by Hannah (who also struggles with some of the gendered aspects of her religion), and very neatly juxtaposed with the things that can turn scary – the very necessary security outside synagogues and Jewish schools, anti-Semitic leaflets that brainwash, and even the small scuffles of violence that can turn serious.
And towards the end, the twins experience the true story of a Holocaust survivor – true because it is the only part of the book that David hasn’t fictionalised. Mala Tribich’s story is kept intact and unembellished – because survivors’ stories are scary and empowering and astounding and essential in their true form. It brings home the idea that Jewish people can’t be separated from such a people-defining event as the Holocaust, and yet it isn’t the only defining factor. Jewish people have a culture, and a religion, and live modern lives, and thrive, assimilated or not, in modern Britain. And this very life-affirming story speaks to that fully and boldly. I can’t wait to give it to my children, and show them that they can be proud of their identity – after all, now it’s even in a book.
For age 11+. Published by Scholastic.