As a soon-to-be graduate of the Master’s in Book Publishing program, a budding editor, and a Jewish person born and raised, I have had the pleasure of working on Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s upcoming YA novel, Seven Stitches. Like her previous two books, Judaism and the protagonist’s Jewish identity and heritage play a central role in the story. In Seven Stitches, the protagonist, Meryem, is a sixteen-year-old girl of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Sephardi (Iberian/Middle Eastern/North African) Jewish descent. On her sixteenth birthday, Meryem receives a tallit (prayer shawl) containing a blue thread. This tallit transports Meryem back in time to sixteenth-century Istanbul, where she is charged with rescuing another young Jewish girl named Izabel from a terrible fate.
During the Transmit Culture panel last quarter on diversity in children’s and YA literature, the panelists—S. Renee Mitchell, Alicia Tate, and DongWon Song—discussed the importance not just of diversity of representation within books but also of having publishing professionals of multiple races and sexual orientations (for example) working in the field. Greater diversity among the people responsible for which books get published often leads to greater diversity within those very books. Greater diversity can also lead to a more nuanced attention and understanding given to ensuring people of different races, sexual orientations, religions, etc. are portrayed in more than just one or two ways.
When Ooligan first acquired Seven Stitches, one other person on the project team and I were Jewish. Both of us were excited at the prospect of working on a book with Jewish characters that depart from the typical narratives of Judaism in children’s and YA fiction of turn-of-the-century immigration and the Holocaust. (Funnily enough, reading stories in which people of your religious/ethnic background are persecuted and/or killed gets old very quickly. I can’t imagine why.)
Seven Stitches is the first book in Feldman’s series to have Jewish editors on the team. Unlike with Blue Thread and The Ninth Day, whose editors defaulted to Feldman’s expertise when it came to the accuracy of the portrayal of Judaism, the other Jewish editor and I were able to double-check details based off our own knowledge and provide our own insights regarding Meryem’s connection to Judaism, the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Judaism, and other such aspects.
One of the things the Seven Stitches project team spent a lot of time discussing was the need to balance the portrayal of Judaism so that it was accessible and understandable to non-Jewish readers without pandering at the expense of Jewish readers who might already be familiar with certain phrases, rituals, holidays, and other elements of the Jewish faith. One of my editorial concerns was ensuring that Jewish readers of Seven Stitches won’t feel like their religion and culture are being “explained” to them.
Editing Seven Stitches provided invaluable insight into real-life concerns editors and publishers face regarding audience expectation and defining who a book’s audience is in the first place. Judaism is central to the story of Seven Stitches, but that doesn’t mean the book is solely for Jewish readers, and we at Ooligan want this book to reach as many people as possible. Yet that doesn’t mean we should assume everyone who reads the book will be unfamiliar with Judaism, or that non-Jewish readers won’t be able to understand various Jewish elements without overt explanations. As the publishing industry continues to engage with the topic of diversity and the multiplicity of peoples’ stories, identifying and targeting a book’s audience will continue to play an important role in the books that are acquired, edited, and marketed. My hope is that Seven Stitches will be read and loved by Jews and non-Jews alike, that non-Jewish readers will experience a story featuring a religion they may not be as familiar with, and that Jewish readers will have the pleasure of reading an entirely different story of themselves than is currently being written and published elsewhere.