I don’t like Juvenile Books.
There, I’ve said it.
If a book is a certain width, height and thickness, if the type is of a certain size, if there are more than, oh, let’s say 20 titles in a series, my brain is automatically programmed to dismiss it as dumbed-down for a younger audience. My kids have over a hundred Animorphs books at home, and despite my obsession with Science Fiction and at times (let’s face it) outright desperation for reading material, I’ve never even considered reading a single page of any of them.
Call it a bad case of literary snobbery. It’s just my personal feeling that if a kid is old enough to read more sophisticated fare, he or she should read a real book. Books with training wheels just never made much sense to me.
I found this especially true for Juvenile Books aimed at Jewish kids. Aside from fulfilling all the above criteria, they also apparently have to pass through the strainer that removes all objectionable content, anything that might raise a kid’s eyes past the blinders, that might perchance introduce the child to some concept or idea that might somehow corrupt the young soul and send him or her reeling off the path. Literature by committee. Completely bland and uninteresting. Right?
Well, two things came along that changed my mind a little.
The first was Harry Potter. Yes, I know, Harry Potter’s last few books were tomes that would rival Merriam Webster, but the first book filled much of my criteria from paragraph three, and was even published by Scholastic. And yet, when the craze swept the nation, the world, and elsewhere, when even my wife was sitting on the couch reading this, I had to take a look. And I got sucked in like everyone else. Yes, the book was aimed at a younger demographic, and yes it was completely clear of sex and bad language and even the violence was relatively benign. But it was a piece of quality fiction. It was well written. The words flowed. The story was deep, the world richly developed.
I don’t look at the Harry Potter series as Juvenile Literature any more. I view it as Literature. Period. Accessible by kids, to be sure, but satisfying enough for a reader of any age.
So where is the Harry Potter of Jewish Juvenile Literature? Our Jewish book stores have racks and racks of books which have been sanitized by the religious establishment and seem to have been published mainly to reinforce what our little ones are taught in school, and maybe also to give them something to read lest they be tempted to reach for, gasp, secular Juvenile Books like Harry Potter or even…Animorphs.
Where is the J.K. Rowling of Jewish Literature?
Maybe it is Robert J. Avrech, a Hollywood Screenwriter who recently released his first book, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden,” (Seraphic Press). Superficially, like Harry Potter, this book would appear to fulfill my criteria as mentioned above. Sitting on a shelf in your local Jewish book store, you might be tempted to pass it by. It’s the same size, weight, and smell as the other books surrounding it, and has as its cover a painting of a Jewish kid dressed like a cowboy with tzitzis flying in the wind. But you’d be making a mistake if you dismissed this as just another bit of religious fiction written by someone whose primary goal is to keep your kid in the shtetl.
Avrech is an adult writer who writes for real people in the real world. He has written a book that can stand up to any piece of secular fiction. It’s the story of Ariel, a soon-to-be Bar Mitzvah boy (named after the author’s own son who died tragically at a young age) who lives in the American Frontier in the years following the Civil War. Ariel’s family emigrated from Russia to escape anti-Semitism and constant pogroms. And what they find in the US…well, that’s for the reader to find out. It’s not necessarily what you think. Jews will face adversity wherever they go, and even in America, the most benevolent of the many places Jews have lived, there can be found great evil. But there is also great kindness, and Ariel and his family encounter many wonderful and surprising personalities, not the least of which is Lozen, the Apache Maiden.
The friendship Ariel and Lozen develop sheds much light on their two peoples, and by highlighting the differences he also backlights the similarities. This book is a Western, but it is not your parents’ Frisco Kid. Much as I love that old film, this story is not played for laughs. Avrech researched the period well, and through the reading of the book both young and old will learn a little something about what life was like in the Old West of the 1800’s.
Perhaps to make the book easier for the younger reader to absorb, the characters are familiar. The religiously impractical father. The overbearing-but-always-right mama. The older sister who just wants to fit in. The savage-but-noble Indian Chief. And Ariel…Ariel is our avatar. We observe through his eyes. We have to make the transition, as he does, from the Old World to the New.
So much changes for Ariel in his journey across the West. How does he hold on to who he is? Through the Torah. The traditions of the Torah, and the observance of Jewish Law keep Ariel and his family grounded through the entire unbelievable experience. Their stubborn persistence in sticking to their ways makes them pariahs to some, but paragons to others.
Jews can go everywhere, Avrech says. But they are never truly absorbed. Anti-Semitism follows them to the New World. But it is the adherence to Tradition that keeps them alive as a people. That is what our Torah is for. It is a lifeline that keeps us connected to our origins at Sinai, no matter how far our journeys take us, and no matter how strange our surroundings become.
Ariel laments with Lozen about the lack of a written language that will doom the Apache culture to gradually disappear. In the end, what Avrech tells us is that for the People of the Book, it is the book itself that brings us life.
What's wonderful about this book is that Avrech doesn't have to hit us over the head with this point. Read the story and it flows. And that is why this bit of Juvenile fiction is worth reading, at any age.