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Sydney Taylor awards announced

BOSTON — An illustrated book about an inspiring Holocaust survivor and two works of fantasy featuring dybbuks and Jewish demons have won this year’s top prizes in Jewish children’s literature.

The winners of the 2023 Sydney Taylor Book Awards include a picture book about Yaffa Eliach and middle-grades novels featuring Jewish fantasy characters. (Collage by Mollie Suss)

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards are awarded annually to outstanding works of Jewish literature for children, as part of the American Library Assn.’s youth media awards and in conjunction with the Assn. of Jewish Libraries.

This year, the top winner in the picture book category was The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, by Chana Stiefel, illustrated by Susan Gal.

Aviva vs. the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe won in the middle-grade level.

When the Angels Left the Old Country, the debut novel by Sacha Lamb, garnered the young adult award.

Named in memory of Sydney Taylor, the author of the “All-of-a-Kind-Family,” the award “recognizes books that exemplify high literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience,” according to the award committee announcement.

“There are many different ways to live a Jewish life,” committee chair Martha Simpson said. “It’s wonderful that these stories are finally being written and published so that readers can see themselves and also learn about other experiences.”

The top picture book tells the story of Yaffa Eliach, who survived the Holocaust in hiding with her family after being expelled from their hometown of Eishyshok, a shtetl (now in Lithuania) where she had helped in her grandmother’s bustling photography studio taking portraits of the Jewish villagers.

After immigrating to the US and becoming a historian, Eliach set about a globetrotting journey to thousands of photographs and remembrances from Eishyshok’s Jewish families. Her ambitious project is now a centerpiece of the core exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. She died in 2016.

Gal brings Eliach’s story to life through her richly colored illustrations interspersed with photographs of Eliach.

Lowe’s Aviva vs. the Dybbuk is a suspenseful coming-of-age novel about an introspective 11-year-old girl that opens a window into daily life in a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community in New York.

After the traumatic accidental death of her father, Aviva and her increasingly reclusive mother move into a small apartment above the old mikveh, the ritual bathing house where Aviva’s mother becomes the caretaker.

A supernatural, troublemaking dyybuk, whom only Aviva can see, becomes Aviva’s confidant. The tale of resilience deals with grief, memory, the ups and downs of teen friendship, acts of anti-Semitic violence and the healing power of love and community.

A demon named Little Ash and an angel named Uriel are the compelling otherworldly characters at center stage of When the Angels Left the Old Country, Lamb’s lyrically penned historical fantasy. As the drama unfolds, the pair of unlikely, centuries-old Talmud study partners, who take on human-like form, set out from their small Pale of Settlement shtetl and head to New York City on a quest to find the village baker’s missing daughter.

In their journey, they confront the perils faced by Jewish immigrants — a deceitful rabbi, probing Ellis Island officials, exploitative sweatshop bosses and the pushes and pulls of Jewish assimilation.

Lamb, a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow in young adult fiction, paints a richly textured tale of pathos and wit, filled with Jewish culture that explores gender identity and the bonds of friendship.

The Sydney Taylor committee named nine books as silver medalists and nine notable titles of Jewish content.

Winners will be honored in June at the AJL’s digital conference.

Other books with Jewish characters and themes also garnered several ALA awards including The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen, by Isaac Blum — the William C. Morris young adult debut award; and Just a Girl: A True Story of WW II, by Lia Levi, illustrated by Jeff Mason — the Batchelder Prize, adapted for young readers, and translated from its original in Italian.

Jewish children’s books winning National Jewish Book Awards were The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda, by Shoshana Nambi, illustrated by Moran Yogev, and the middle-grade novel The Prince of Steel Pier, by Stacy Nockowitz.

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