Perhaps one day in the not-too- distant future, British-Jewish young adult novels will be commonplace enough for reviews to focus solely on the books. Today, however, the mere use of the phrase “British-Jewish young adult novel” might cause those who know the teenage market to pause, then try (and fail) to recall other novels that such a label would fit. And so, as the first truly British-Jewish novel for young adult readers, it is not just Keren David’s new book, This is Not A Love Story, that merits attention: the very fact of its publication is noteworthy.
The Sydney Taylor Book Awards in America define Jewish literature as literature that “authentically portray[s] the Jewish experience.” If we accept this as a serviceable definition, then we agree that in Jewish literature, Jewish characters and experiences should take centre stage. In Britain, this is true of some historical novels and wartime memoirs, such as Street of Tall People by Alan Gibbons, the crossover novel Secret Territory by Miriam Halahmy, and Bombs on Aunt Dainty by Judith Kerr. But completely lacking—until now—have been culturally authentic representations of contemporary British-Jewish experience. One might wonder whether this matters. Seen in the context of British children’s and young adult publishing, it becomes clear that it does, and why.
There is a general consensus in the British publishing industry that literature for children and teenagers should represent the full spectrum of people living here today: black Britons, Muslims, gays and lesbians, Eastern Europeans. This conclusion arises logically from the laudable, if didactic, belief that young people should be able to see themselves reflected in the “mirror” of the books they read, and that they should learn about others in the wider community through the “window” of their reading material. The reality, however, has been rather slow to catch up with this aim. Furthermore, when it comes to multiculturalism, the position of Jews is ambivalent. According to the British government, Jewish difference is not ethnic, only religious. Though religion is an important aspect of American books with Haredi or Orthodox characters—such as Hush by Eishes Chayil or Never Mind the Goldbergs by Matthue Roth—in British literature for young people, religion is an unpopular subject. This has left British-Jewish writers wondering how they might grapple with the nature of their difference in books for children and teenagers, especially when the feeling is that, with the exception of the Holocaust, people in this country don’t want to read about Jews. This perception is reinforced when authors recount experiences like that of Hilary Freeman who, when she told a publisher she wanted the main character in her next YA novel to be Jewish, was advised to make the character a Muslim instead.
But now, finally, there is some progress…
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