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Battle of the Book: The Opt-In Edition

Friday, March 21, 2014
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Miriam's 2-year-old daughter reads the Purim Superhero.

Dear Miriam,

I just heard about PJ Library's decision to make The Purim Superhero an "opt-in" book for families as opposed to sending it to all subscribers because the book features a family with two dads. What do you think about this decision?

Signed,
Opt-in Debate


Dear Opt-in,

First, a little background: PJ Library is an amazing program that provides free Jewish-themed books and music to children once a month in many communities, including Philadelphia. Typically, once families sign up for PJ Library, they receive a book (or CD) each month that has been pre-selected by a committee based on the quality of its content and the age of the children in the family. This month, in addition to the already-scheduled PJ Library selection, The Purim Superhero was available to families for free, just like the rest of the PJ Library books, but only if the family filled out a form online and requested it. That way, if parents didn't want their children to have a book about a kid having trouble deciding what to be for Purim, they didn't have to have it in their homes. Oh, wait, you mean the plot isn't the issue?

Obviously, I am not so naive as to think that homophobia is absent in the Jewish community, but I am actually so naive as to think that our institutions have an obligation to rise above these misguided opinions. The Purim Superhero is an adorable book about a little boy named Nate deciding what he wants to dress up as for Purim. It's about a kid struggling with normal kid things. and his parents and his sister celebrating Purim. This is, simply, an awesome book, and one that should be in the canon of Jewish children's literature.

Two dads, one dad, no dads...these are just some of the variety of family configurations present all around us. I'm unimpressed by the argument that keeping a book out of your family's library can shield your children from the reality of a constantly changing social climate where people of all stripes are increasingly able to be open about who they are.

I do sympathize with the predicament of an institution trying to be all things to all people with Jewish kids, and I don't mean to diminish the complexity of the issue. This blog post on PJ Library's website does a really good job of articulating the difficulties the staff has in choosing books that will be well-received by a wide swath of the community.

I find it very telling that the demand for the book was unexpectedly high. I heard that PJ Library "sold out" in 36 hours. I don't know how many copies the organization started with, but I think this means that there were a lot of wildly supportive families who couldn't wait to get their hands on this book. By making parents decide whether or not this book was "appropriate," PJ Library made an issue out of something that probably would have barely registered for most kids reading it.

We just got our copy, and here is the conversation I had with my 2-year-old while reading it:

Daughter: Who is that? 
Me: Nate's Abba.
Daughter: Who is that?
Me: Nate's Daddy.
Daughter: Who is that?
Me: Nate.
Daughter: Who is that?
Me: Nate's sister, Miri.
Daughter: Miri! That's like your name! Who's that?
Me: Nate's Abba.
Daughter: Who is that?
Me: Nate's Daddy.
Daughter: Where's his mommy?
Me: This family has a Daddy and an Abba and not a Mommy.
Daughter: Who's that?
Me: Nate.

And so on...

By comparison, here is the conversation we had about our other most recent PJ Library book, The Matzah that Papa Brought Home:

Daughter: Who's that?
Me: The girl telling the story.
Daughter: Who's that? 
Me: Her Papa who brought home the matzah.
Daughter: Why are her arms out?
Me: She's giving him a hug.
Daughter: Who's that?
Me: Her Papa.

And so on...

So you see, 2-year-olds will be 2-year-olds. Frankly, I found the question that followed the above conversation, "Who is Elijah and why is she opening the door for him and where is he?" much harder to answer than the question about Nate's dads. It even crossed my mind that maybe parents should be able to preview and opt in or out of all the books crossing our doorsteps under someone else's selection criteria so that I wouldn't be faced with discussing a pretty complex theological question with my 2-year-old when, really, I just needed her to go to sleep already.

But I've accepted PJ Library as, according to their website, "a gift for Jewish children and their families," and not all gift-giving goes according to our individual preferences. Sometimes we'd rather our families gave fewer toys or quieter toys or more indestructible books. Sometimes we return or regift things that aren't right for our kids. Usually, hopefully, we smile and say thank you regardless.

Finally, sometimes we hope that the gift-givers' values will catch up to our values and the values of 21st Century standards of equality and that, just maybe, by next Purim, all PJ Library kids will have the chance to read about Nate and his Purim costume dilemma.

Be well,
Miriam

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