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Philly Writers Love Getting Into Their PJs
Each month, about 5,000 Philadelphia-area children receive a free Jewish-themed book in the mail courtesy of PJ Library.
This year, some of them are getting works by two local authors. Sharon Baker’s newly published All Kinds of Strong, about a frail girl in rural Connecticut who helps her community, will arrive in the mailboxes of 15,000 6-year-olds around the country in September. And Tamar Fox’s No Baths at Camp, about the joys of Jewish camping, landed in the hands of that same group of youngsters in June.
“There’s nothing better than when they spy that white envelope with the blue stripe,” said Robyn Cohen, the newly hired director of PJ Library Philadelphia and the mother of four children between the ages of 3 and 12, two of whom currently receive books from the organization. “They’re so excited because it’s addressed to them — they literally just rip it open.”
PJ Library has grown dramatically since philanthropist Harold Grinspoon started it in December 2005. Two years in, his nonprofit was shipping books to some 10,000 children in 50 communities. Today, it sends Jewish literature to more than 138,000 kids in 200 communities across North America.
That’s not even counting the thousands of Israeli children who also receive books through the comparably named Sifriyat Pijama, which started in 2009 and expanded in 2011 to also send books to Hebrew-speaking families in America. More recently, PJ Library has added Arabic and Spanish programs throughout the world.
With this growth, PJ Library has not only expanded its mission of bringing a little Jewishness into children’s homes, but it also has become a significant influence on the publishing world.
While initiated by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts, PJ Library partners with local communities to distribute its monthly selections for children ages 6 months through 8 years.
The foundation, which had a 2013 budget of $4.5 million, subsidizes professional staff and marketing in each PJ community and also covers more than half the cost of buying and mailing the materials. The communities must secure the rest of the funding, which could come from Jewish federations, synagogues or individual donors.
Locally, the program is run by Jewish Learning Venture as part of jkidphilly, which offers a variety of events and resources for young families in the region. The bulk of jkidphilly’s funding comes from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which has just granted it $662,000 for the fiscal year.
But the decisions about what each young reader receives come from the national level. A book selection committee works closely with both authors and publishers to curate the 11 books and one CD that each age group gets throughout the year — 88 titles altogether. To date, the program’s offerings have included 342 distinct selections.
Some are chosen from works that have already been published. Other times, PJ Library serves as the liaison between authors and publishers to bring new works to print. Because the organization will guarantee the purchase of at least 15,000 copies, publishers have good reason to print the manuscripts it recommends. Last year, the program received nearly 300 submissions, the majority directly from authors and the rest from publishers “who keep their eyes open for Jewish-themed manuscripts they think will be of interest to us,” said Chris Barash, who heads the national selection committee.
Appealing directly to PJ Library worked for the two local authors, Baker and Fox. Read on to find out what sparked their stories.
A First-Time Author’s Picture of Summer Camp
Though she neither attended camp nor had experience writing children’s books, Tamar Fox landed the honor of showing the joys of the quintessential Jewish summer camp experience to PJ Library readers. Her No Baths at Camp, illustrated by Natalia Vasquez, was sent out for the first time last summer and again this June.
Fox, 30, of Center City, holds an MFA in fiction writing from Vanderbilt University. She is a communications consultant for haggadot.com and other websites, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
When Chickens Came Home to Roost: Local Educator Specializes in Historical FictionSharon Baker acknowledges that most people don’t imagine chicken farmers when they think about Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. However, while getting to know her neighbors in West Hartford, Conn., where she used to live, Baker was surprised to learn that most of the Jewish families from the region had their roots in chicken farming.
Baker, 51, now a Lower Merion resident and the director of admissions and communications at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, envisioned a children’s book set in that farming community. In May, more than a decade after her first encounter with the history of the Connecticut chicken farmers, Amazon released her book, All Kinds of Strong, illustrated by Kris Wiltse. While it’s currently available online, the real exposure will come this fall when PJ Library mails it out to 6-year-olds across the country.
Chris Barash, chair of PJ Library’s book selection committee, said the action-filled story with themes of kindness and community, and Jewish values woven throughout, made it an ideal pick.
“The story will be empowering to children,” who, like its main character, Sadie Rose, “feel different but come to realize they can contribute in important ways,” Barash said.
This is Baker’s second work of historical fiction for children. Her first, A Nickel, A Trolley, A Treasure House, is based on her grandfather, Lionel Reiss, an artist who traveled widely to track down subjects and also designed commercial images, including MGM’s roaring lion.
What motivated you to write this book?
This was a community I didn’t know anything about. I started listening, hearing stories about farm life and talking to families. I got interested in their histories and their stories of immigration.
At that point, I was working on a lot of other writing projects, but this one kept tickling my brain. So one day, I just got in my car and drove out to eastern Connecticut and throughout those communities of Colchester and Lebanon, imagining what it had been like for, essentially, Jewish pioneer families to be settling that area and creating a new life for themselves in an area that was so unfamiliar.
As I became familiar with the names of the families, I started imagining actual lives of actual people, and the story just sort of developed in my head as I was doing the research.
How has your own background impacted your work?
I taught for many years in Jewish schools and other independent schools. I also did a lot of writing both while I was teaching and afterwards when I was home with my three kids. I have been involved in one way or another with Jewish communal work either from the lay side or professional side for most of my adult life.
I would say that all of my work — the communal work, the teaching, the writing, all of it — comes from passion and curiosity about Jewish life and Jewish experience. And because I’ve lived in so many different places, I became very interested in how Jewish life has developed in different communities and under different conditions.
How did All Kinds of Strong get the attention of PJ Library?
It’s an interesting time to try to write anything because the industry is changing so much. When I moved here six years ago, I had a pretty good draft. I worked on it a little more with a woman who was really a giant in the children’s publishing world, an editor named Deborah Brodie. Deborah had a lot of great suggestions about the manuscript and ultimately a suggestion that helped me to get a publishing deal, which was to submit the manuscript to PJ Library.
What do you hope families will gain from having this book in their homes?
Enjoyment, of course! But I also hope children of all religions will see that a person can make a difference to someone else or to a community in many ways. Compassion, resourcefulness and persistence matter in the world and none of those qualities depend on age, size, strength or other physical abilities. I also hope readers will see a model for intergenerational relationships. That’s something that is less common these days than in the time this story was set.
For Jewish families in particular, I hope the chicken-farm setting will expand their idea of what our Jewish past looked like in America.