Where the Wild Things Aren’t

I met KtB contributing editor Laurel Snyder back in 2004, when Peter Manseau and I went to Iowa City to promote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible. At the time, Laurel — a poetry MFA grad of the Iowa program — was thinking a great deal about children’s books. Read Thurber, she told us, and we did, and it was good, and we realized that we were not too old for books written with children in mind. I’ve been determined to buy my own copy of Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks since, but I want it used — not because I’m cheap, but because it seems appropriate to the book. Haven’t found one yet.

Fortunately, Laurel keeps producing terrific books. In addition to two volumes of poetry for adults — The Myth of Simple Machines and a chapbook, Daphne and Jim — and an anthology, Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, she’s put out two children’s books so far, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains and Inside the Slidy Diner, with a third, Any Which Wall, coming this spring.

But all is not well with Laurel and publishing. In a recent edition of Nextbook, a Jewish literary site, Laurel laments the lack of great Jewish children’s books:

Most books for young Jewish readers are instructional. They have titles like Purim Goodies or It’s Israel’s Birthday! and they’re intended to educate kids about specific customs, traditions, events, and places.

Which is fine, if you’re looking for instruction (though most kids aren’t, if you ask me). But I’m not the kind of writer who sets out to indoctrinate.

But Laurel doesn’t let herself off easily, either. If she’s not the kind of writer who sets out to indoctrinate, what kind of writer is she? And why doesn’t that kind produce books that are Jewish? Are the Scratchy Mountains treyf? Does the Slidy Diner feature a sign that says “No Jews or Dogs Allowed”? Why is the default mode for children’s stories, “from Eloise to Mister Dog” gentile? What would a Jewish Thurber write?

I can imagine the Jewish books I want for my kids. A crazy range of things—from updated dybbuks, mystical legends and weird Talmudic lessons, to honest depictions of intermarried families and the ongoing diaspora most of us experience everyday. I can envision sweet, silly characters and ridiculous situations—a rabbinic Cat in the Hat. A crazy time-traveling sukkah. Books as wild and wonderful as anything the secular market offers. I can imagine them. Now I have to write them.

Of course, this realization came too late for Slidy Diner, but I did manage one small change in the book I was finishing at the time, Any Which Wall. Just as the book was going to print, I convinced my editor to change the name of a central family, from Simpson to Levy. It was a small first step, but to me it felt like something—a symbolic shift, a promise I was making—to try to write for the self I was as a kid—a little girl in love with magic, humor, and the big wide world around me, but also a little girl who happened to be Jewish.

I was so excited to see the word Levy in the page proofs for the new book, I began work on a picture book called Baxter the Kosher Pig, about how insecurity and misunderstanding once kept a little pig from finding his community. The book came out in a rush, and thrilled with the results, I quickly sent it off to an esteemed publisher of Jewish children’s books.

Almost overnight I received a rejection, a kind note explaining that while the press liked my voice, and the story, and while they thought Baxter was cute and funny, the idea of a pig wanting to be kosher was too risky. They said they could not afford to “alienate their readers.” Could Baxter be something besides a pig, they wondered.

Find out why not in Laurel’s essay, “Where the Wild Things Aren’t.”

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).