Laurel Snyder, a poet and author based in Atlanta, had been “noodling around” with the idea of writing children’s books for a while. But it wasn’t until her eldest son, Mose, was born five years ago, that she dug up her old manuscripts.
Her inspiration? The Jewish children’s books her family began receiving for free from the PJ Library. But it isn’t what you may think. You see, she didn’t particularly like them.
As a self-proclaimed “diversity Jew” who is married to a non-Jew and doesn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood, the books she received didn’t feel particularly contemporary or inclusive. “They were fine and we were glad to have them,” she says of the early PJ Library selections, “but I didn’t see books suited for me and my family coming from the PJ Library.”
So she set out to write the sort of books her children would gravitate to, the ones they would beg her to read to them over and over again, the sort of books that would feel authentic enough for her to oblige. Last fall, PJ Library sent out 7,300 copies of Snyder’s first Jewish children’s book, “Baxter, The Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher” (Tricycle Press: 2010), whose plot is aptly described by the title of the book. “Baxter is very much about inclusivity, about not needing to look or seem a certain way,” she says.
This month, PJ Library is sending 15,000 copies of Snyder’s new board book, “Nosh, Shlep, Shluff” (Random House: 2011) to its members. In the spring, it will distribute yet another one of Snyder’s books, “Goodnight, Lailah Tov,” about a family camping trip. She is currently working on a fourth PJ Library book about the Ten Plagues. “The PJ Library made me more accountable to the Jewish part of my life,” Snyder (no relation to this reporter) says.
That was part of PJ Library’s plan. The organization has worked tirelessly to persuade authors to write the high-quality books it would like to send out to its members. In the summer of 2009, PJ Library invited a group of authors, including Snyder, to spend time at Camp Ramah in Massachusetts, with the hope that they would be inspired to write a book about Jewish camping — one of the passions of PJ Library founder and main funder, the philanthropist Harold Grinspoon. (This June, four of the eight selections will be stories about Jewish camping). And last spring, at PJ’s annual conference for program professionals held in Baltimore, the organization invited several writers and two dozen editors and publishers to participate.
In just five years, the PJ Library has managed to transform what was once a small, niche market of Jewish children’s books into a status symbol. Marshall Cavendish, the latest in a series of publishers to sign on to publish PJ Library books, will be displaying a PJ Library seal — similar to an Oprah’s Book Club pick — on its new line of Shofar books, which will be sold at Borders, Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.com beginning in September. “The customer will know that the books have been vetted by a reputable organization,” says Margery Cuyler, Cavendish’s publisher.
“Every major publisher wants to do a PJ Library book,” says Carolyn Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council. “They’re doing it for the bottom line; they know that there’s a market out there.”
Grinspoon, who created the vision for PJ Library, has “taken over the market,” says Hessel. “If he wants to buy a book, he will have tremendous impact.” Next month, The Jewish Book Council will honor Grinspoon with the IMPACT award for his “commitment to Jewish literacy and growth through the PJ Library Program.”
Much of the PJ Library’s influence within the publishing world can be attributed to sheer numbers, particularly at a time when the publishing industry is suffering. Each month, the PJ Library sends out nearly 70,000 free Jewish books and CDs to Jewish children between the ages of six months and 8 years in more than 130 communities within the United States and Canada. During the past year, PJ Library began operating in New York, with more than 24 communities signed up, including the Upper West Side, Lower Manhattan, Queens, Long Island, Westchester and Syracuse.
“PJ Library’s publishing power is quite large, and publishers know that,” says Adrian Bailey, director of operations at The PJ Library. An additional 44,000 preschool children in Israel receive books through Sifriyat Pajama, a sister program of the PJ Library. The organization spent nearly $2 million on books last year alone. Since 2006, it has purchased more than 2.5 million books, including a million copies of the Scholastic title, “Something from Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (this title is often used as the organization’s initial community-wide mailing when it launches in a new city).
“There’s some security in knowing that a certain number of books are already paid for,” says Snyder. “It takes the risk out of the process.”
When Michelle Edwards’ two daughters were younger, she would buy several copies of the Jewish children’s books that she liked “because I knew it would go out of print,” she says. PJ Library has breathed life back into 10 Jewish children’s books that were out of print, including Edwards’ “Chicken Man,” a story originally published in 1992. An additional 10 titles have been exclusively reprinted by the PJ Library.
In the last several years, the Jewish children’s publishing world has evolved. Grinspoon likes to share the story of how, in September 2008, he entered the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side in an unsuccessful search for a Wall Street Journal. To make him feel better, PJ Library Director Marcie Greenfield Simons led him upstairs to look at the children’s books. It was close to the High Holy Days, so there was a table with some Jewish children’s books on display. Other than that, though, there was only a little section of religious books, which was stocked with children’s Bibles. Grinspoon was disappointed to find only one Jewish-themed storybook.
Before PJ Library came along, “Jewish children’s books were seen as lesser books,” says Edwards, who is the author of three PJ books. “Because they were tied to religion, they never fit into the multicultural framework. Now, there’s a vast audience of people who have no problem identifying themselves as Jewish and looking for books like the ones that PJ Library provides.”
The PJ Library prides itself on its book selection committee made up of Jewish educators and early childhood specialists. In addition to persuading publishers to bring favorite Jewish children’s books back into print, PJ Library receives hundreds of book manuscripts. “Our office has a vault, and there are hundreds of books under consideration in there,” says Simons. The organization also contacts children’s book authors and encourages them to submit manuscripts. “We’re never completely satisfied,” she says.
The selection committee has been particularly interested in manuscripts for board books aimed at the youngest range of PJ Library readers — those ages 6 months to 2 years. In fact, this need inspired Random House to publish Laurel Snyder’s “Nosh, Shlep, Shluff,” a board book that teaches kids Yiddish words like “bissel,” “kvell” and “kvetchy.”
The PJ Library works with nearly 50 different publishers, who often share manuscripts with one another. “Together we discuss what we think would suit both of our needs,” says Cavendish publisher Margery Cuyler.
Marshall Cavendish is one of the newest publishers to take a gamble that the market will be receptive to more Jewish children’s books. “Jewish families really care about building the interiority of the child and feeding them good literature and good storytelling,” says Cuyler, who is not Jewish but says she admires the values “that seem endemic to all Jewish households regardless of family makeup: hospitality, compassion, taking care of the sick, and giving to charity. I share those values as a Christian.”