Jewish LGBTQ Books for a Synagogue Collection, a guest post by Jill Ratzan
For our second post today we are honored to host Jill Ratzan discussing Jewish LGBTQ books for the #FSYALit Discussion.
The Hebrew word mishkan can mean “tent,” “safe space,” or “inclusion.” At my Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue (Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, PA), the Mishkan committee is charged with building a safe, welcoming space for LGBTQ members and their allies. Recently, the Mishkan committee, together with our rabbi, asked me to assemble a list of YA books with Jewish and LGBTQ content. I was delighted to oblige!
Because this particular ‘tent’ turned out to be pretty large—and because, like many nonprofits, we have a limited budget—I also put together a list of criteria, which evolved alongside the booklist. I considered limiting the list to books whose main characters were queer and/or Jewish, but decided that the term “main character” was too vague. I also wanted to make sure that various genres (historical fiction, science fiction, contemporary realistic fiction) and approaches (humor, adventure, dystopia) were represented. And I wanted to balance books where being gay was easy and accepted (like Wide Awake) with books where characters struggled with expressing their identities within potentially-unwelcoming communities (like Gravity).
I also thought about what level of explicit sex, references to drinking and drugs, and other similar content was or wasn’t appropriate for our collection. Should we, as a religious institution serving a liberal but varied audience, be more cautious toward these issues than a public library might be? In the end, I decided that a wide spectrum of voices on these topics—from the “fade to black” approach of Openly Straight to the few explicit lines in Gravity—would serve our community best.
Here are my criteria, and the titles I chose.
I looked for books with Jewish and LGBTQ content that:
- were published for teens (ages 12-18) within the past ten years (2005-2015)
- are of high literary quality
- include intersectional approaches to Jewish identity (characters are Jewish and gay and ____: African American, athletes, scientists, etc)
- feature characters who reflect on their or others’ Jewish identity, and/or make decisions based on Jewish values
(This last criterion was inspired by Sarah Aronson’s Jewish Book Council review of The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow.)
The election of the first gay Jewish president is in jeopardy, and Duncan (who isn’t sure about God but believes in lighting candles for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath) and his boyfriend Jimmy want to help. They’re joined by a tween who’s coming out . . . as Jewish. Like David Levithan’s other novels, Wide Awake embraces the liminal space where realism and fantasy meet.
In a Jewish dystopia in outer space, everyone is told where they will work, how they will live . . . and who they will love.
Ellie loves the intensity and connection she finds in prayer. She also loves science. And girls. Set amid an Orthodox Jewish family in 1987.
Rafe, tired of being defined exclusively by his sexuality, wants to start boarding school with a clean slate . . . but things get complicated. A final reveal (Rafe is Jewish) creates new questions just when old ones are answered. Openly Straight has received significant critical acclaim and is arguably a definitional work of contemporary YA literature.
Simon and his anonymous email-boyfriend Blue talk about everything, including Blue’s half-Jewish heritage (“Jews . . . are supposed to be gay friendly, but it’s hard to really know how that applies to your own parents”) and—after much drama on and off the stage of the fall play—finally realize who each other really are. Simon… was recently longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award.
We’ll be adding these books to our library collection and publicizing their availability through our newsletter, on social media, and via library displays and programs. We’ll also be intershelving them with young adult fiction, thereby normalizing them and making them easy—but not embarrassing—to find.
YA librarians know that part of building a mishkan (a safe space) is providing a place where everyone’s stories can be told, shared, and honored. I’m pleased that my synagogue library can be this kind of space for Jewish LGBTQ teens and those who love them.
Meet Our Guest Blogger:
Jill Ratzan relishes opportunities to combine her passion for YA lit and librarianship with her Reconstructionist Jewish practice. She curates digital resources for her synagogue library, blogs for BookPage magazine, and contributes to School Library Journal, Fig Tree Books, and other review sources. She enjoys dressing up as her favorite book characters (sometimes more than one at a time).
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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