Revelations in Children’s Books

January 20, 2022 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

The Jewish book world is celebrating a bumper crop of excellent nonfiction picture books for children. My three personal favorites are: Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin, The Singer and the Scientist by Lisa Rose (both for ages 5-10), and No Steps Behind: Beate Sirota Gordon’s Battle for Women’s Rights in Japan by Jeff Gottesfeld (ages 7-12). Each of these award-winning titles reveals a fascinating, little-known piece of history.

Reforming Charles Dickens

Eliza Davis (1816-1903), the real-life protagonist in Dear Mr. Dickens, was an unlikely hero. A British Jew, she admired Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the most celebrated British author of his day. But Eliza was horrified by the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

In the original novel, Fagin, a loathsome villain who trains his band of homeless boys to steal, was referred to repeatedly as “the Jew,” as if all Jews were criminals. Eliza wrote to Dickens, telling him that his portrayal of Fagin “encouraged a vile prejudice.” Dickens replied, strongly rejecting her criticism, but Eliza persisted, writing to him again.

Eventually Eliza persuaded Dickens to “atone for a great wrong.” The author instructed his publisher to emend later printings of Oliver Twist to delete most references to Fagin as “the Jew.” Moreover, Dickens wrote a new novel, Our Mutual Friend, featuring a kind and generous Jewish character, Mr. Riah. And Dickens went still farther, penning essays protesting prejudice, including one declaring that the Jewish people have “too long been wronged by Christian communities.”

Dickens was so widely read that author Churnin credits his reformed views on Jews with playing a role in the softening of antisemitic attitudes in Britain, leading to increased civil rights for Jews.

Albert Einstein, Princeton’s Host

The Singer and the Scientist opens with a 1937 concert in Princeton, New Jersey, showcasing the magnificent contralto, Marian Anderson. Although the concert was a grand success, Anderson, as an African-American woman, could find no hotel to spend the night. World-famous scientist Albert Einstein stepped forward to host her, confiding that he too was treated as an outsider in his native country, Germany. The two became friends, sharing music (Einstein played the violin) and conversation during visits cheerily depicted in this charming book.

Albert Einstein is best known as a scientific genius, but he was also a social activist who gave speeches and wrote articles denouncing racial discrimination in America. Appalled by segregation in Princeton, he tried to build relationships across racial lines, frequently taking walks in African-American neighborhoods to meet and chat with residents.

Equal Rights for Japanese Women

The captivating picture book biography, No Steps Behind, introduces Beate Sirota Gordon (1923-2012), a Jewish woman honored in Japan for her contribution to the Japanese women’s rights movement, but little known elsewhere.

Born in Austria, Beate moved with her parents to Japan in 1929 as a young child. Beate’s father, Leo Sirota, a renowned concert pianist, was head of the piano department at the Imperial Academy in Tokyo. Growing up in Japan, Beate came to love the Japanese language and culture, but she was dismayed by the widespread oppression and disparagement of women.

During World War II, Beate attended college in the United States, but after the war she returned to Japan, securing a job with the occupying U.S. Army as an interpreter and researcher. General MacArthur’s staff assigned her to help draft Japan’s post-war constitution. Earning the respect of both the Americans and Japanese involved in the project, she persuaded both sides to include in the constitution two provisions she wrote guaranteeing legal equality to women.