PJ Library and PJ Your Way promote local authors

Jewish children's authors find a place to share, grow communities

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Author Susan Tarcov, a New York transplant to Chicago, is the author of Maya Pray for Rain. (Photo courtesy of Susan Tarcov.)

Seasoned parents know bedtime routines are essential for kids. In fact, regular night-time schedules and rituals help everyone in the family, regardless of age, get the sleep they need. But, even more valuable, bedtime provides a daily opportunity for parents and their children to connect and reflect. 

Thanks to the PJ Library--a free program created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and brought to you locally by JUF and generous local donors--about 9,000 children in the greater Chicago area receive bedtime books related to Jewish life. "You're spending these beautiful moments reading and learning about Jewish values and holidays through these bedtime books," said Rachel Rapoport, Director of JUF Young Families, of which PJ Library in Chicago is a part.

PJ Library books, arriving monthly by mail, often serve as first introductions to Jewish values and culture and inspire families to create new traditions at home. 

"PJ Our Way is the next chapter of PJ Library for kids ages 9 to 12," Rapoport said. The interactive online platform invites older children to select a new book each month and submit their own reviews and videos.

Author, teacher, and mother Sarah Aronson of Evanston writes books for kids and teens through a Jewish lens. "I'm a rabbi's granddaughter and a professor's daughter. Being Jewish has always been a core part of my identity," she said. "It continues to be a source of inspiration." 

Aronson credits PJ Our Way with helping Beyond Lucky --her 2011 novel about a 12-year-old soccer player juggling school, sports, friendships, and his upcoming bar mitzvah--to continue to reach new audiences . "I'm so grateful to PJ Our Way. They keep finding me new readers," she said. 

JUF Young Families facilitates a variety of programs, events, and even at-home activity kits using PJ Library books to enhance family's experiences.  "So much of JUF Young Families is about helping families find their Jewish path, their Jewish village, and building connections," Rapoport said. "These books are very much in your home, and so much of Judaism takes place in the home. Our goal is to provide even more tools to connect you to other families and Jewish institutions." 

Like Aronson, Susan Tarcov, author of Maya Pray for Rain, values the PJ Library platform. "PJ Library is great for the kids and great for the authors," she said.

Tarcov grew up next to the Bronx Zoo, a rich inspiration for writing children's books, and now lives in Chicago. The mother of three grown children and author of several kids' books, including three more forthcoming with publisher Kar-Ben, Tarcov draws on daily life experiences to feed her creativity. 

"The germ of the story [for Maya Pray for Rain ] was my sister who has a fig tree in New Jersey," Tarcov said. "I was visiting her in the fall, and she was worried it would rain and the figs wouldn't ripen. Then, I started thinking about the prayer for rain for my story."

Author Maya Friedman of Northbrook explains her popular PJ Library story, 3 Falafels in My Pita: A Counting Book of Israel , also came about as a natural extension of her daily life.

Friedman, who now works for the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago Early Childhood Centers, spent eight years teaching in Toronto's Jewish community where many of her students spoke limited English. Set in Israel, her book playfully teaches numbers in both Hebrew and English. 

"My mother is Iraqi-Israeli, and I was happy to have a resource that was great for my Israeli students in Toronto but also meaningful for me as an educator who had a special love of Israel," Friedman said.

Friedman praises PJ Library for sharing stories, like hers, that show diversity within the Jewish landscape. "I think people are always looking for ways to connect their families with not just Jewish culture but with some sense of the Israeli culture," she said. "I really love that they [PJ Library] also choose stories that portray Jewish values that aren't necessarily Jewish stories."

Leslie Hill Hirschfeld is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

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