Let’s Talk About Jewish Young Adult Fiction Today

Jewish YA authors Dahlia Adler and Lev Rosen chat about the current state of their genre, and what they hope to see in the future.

When Dahlia Adler’s “Cool for the Summer” won an Alma award for best Jewish YA of 5781, Lev Rosen, the previous year’s winner for their novel “Camp,” decided it would be the perfect moment to discuss the current state of Jewish young adult fiction with Adler. Below is their conversation, which has been lightly edited and condensed.

Lev Rosen: Dahlia! Congratulations on winning the Alma! I’m so excited for you. When I won, it was kind of revelatory, because “Camp” is so queer, and I always felt like my queerness and Jewishness didn’t get to live together. And now “Cool for the Summer,” another super-queer book, [has won]. I’m so thrilled. But we’re not here to talk about those, we’re going to talk about the future of Jewish YA. And let’s get this out of the way: You have an advantage here. You run LGBTQReads.com — the largest queer book site on the web. This conversation might just end up being me asking you for recs.

Dahlia Adler: Thank you!! It’s an honor to follow in your queer Jewish footsteps. And you know I’m always happy to give recommendations! Is it too early to mention how deeply I loved a queer Jewish book I just blurbed that doesn’t even have its pub date in 2022 yet? Yes? OK, fine. (But it was “How to Excavate a Heart” by Jake Maia Arlow, and it is amazing.) In my defense, though, I think the fact that I’ve already gotten to blurb another queer Jewish f/f [female-female love interest] YA romance says a lot about the future of Jewish YA. It’s truly been incredible to see not just more Jewish YA that isn’t set during the Holocaust, but more of it that’s diverse in other ways, from our queer Jewish lit to getting the occasional Orthodox character (thank you, Leah Scheier, for “The Last Words We Said”!) to more books starring Jewish teens of color, like “Color Me In” by Natasha Díaz and “Gravity” by Sarah Deming. We definitely still have a long way to go, but it’s great to finally see YA heading in that direction.

LR:Color Me In” was amazing, and I agree, I want to see more diversity in the kind of Jewish lit we get — not just straight, not just white. I know in terms of queer Jewish YA, one book I’m very excited for that just came out is “The City Beautiful” by Aden Polydoros. Historical queer Jews, not Holocaust-centric, but taking place at the 1893 World’s Fair, and with Jewish-centered supernatural stuff? Sign me up. It’s such a combination of identities and genres, honestly, I’m shocked it got published. I’ve had so many experiences being told identity (Jewish, queer) is a “genre” and you can’t mix too many genres, so you can do queer, Jewish rom-com, but throw in magic and the sales department at a publisher goes “too weird/niche, can’t sell it.” They view each new potential audience as subtracting instead of adding. And that can really limit the kind of Jewish fiction we see being published, which sucks, especially for Jews who are queer and/or people of color. And those books not being out there means that a) Jewish minorities don’t get to see themselves represented, and b) the straight white Jewish majority don’t see minority Jews.

DA: Ahhh, I love “The City Beautiful” so much, and I think that between that and “This Rebel Heart” by Katherine Locke, which is slated for April 2022, we’re really getting to see historical Jewish YA fiction approached in a more interesting and nuanced way, and not just because both books are queer!

LR: Those sound amazing, and going back to “Color Me In,” I passionately hope that that book is read at Jewish schools and [Hebrew] schools. For white Ashkenazim like us, I think it can often feel like our experience is the [only] Jewish one. So for teens to see that it’s not — that Jewishness is a huge diverse quilt — can only build our community and make it stronger. That’s what I want to see in Jewish YA. Do you think that’s something we can hope to see more of, or is it still difficult out there for Jewish books to break the mold?

DA: You and I have written queer Jewish books, and of course [Jewish authors like] David Levithan and Hannah Moskowitz have been doing it for years, but ultimately, we’re still all writing white Ashkenazi narratives. The only story I know of in YA with a queer Jew of Color at the helm is “Little & Lion,” which is great but does not have a Jewish author (although Brandy Colbert is very much one of my favorite authors, and always does a wonderfully respectful job). I do love, though, that the main character is also a convert, and I wish that’s a narrative we saw more, too.

So yeah, I think we’re still coming up short on the cultural diversity front. Jasmine, the love interest in my “Cool for the Summer,” is of Syrian descent, as many Jews I grew up with are, but we’re still not really seeing that rep much and really not from Syrian authors, or Lebanese, Egyptian, Persian, Moroccan… where are those voices and stories? There’s so much to those cultures within Judaism, and I’d love to see them taking up space on shelves alongside our Ashkenazi narratives. Even just the way being Ashkenazi is sort of a mishmash (hard to maintain a specific national identity with all those shifting borders!) but Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have far more specific ties to their nationalities is such an interesting difference in my opinion. So that’s what I’d love to see more of. How about you?

LR: Yes, I want all of that as well! I want intersectional authors and identities and genres, all mixed together. I want books that focus on Jewish family, not in the literal parents/siblings way, but in the great Jewish community as family — that show all those different Jewish backgrounds you just mentioned and make them come together and celebrate their combined Jewishness instead of trying to gatekeep. I want books that teens read and they feel connected to Jewishness in its myriad forms after. Books that make our community larger.

One other thing I haven’t mentioned that I want to see more of — and I don’t know if I should mention this online because I sort of want to write this — but I want to see Jewish epic fantasy. Like, a fantasy world but steeped in Jewish culture/mentality, and [written] obviously by a Jew. We’ve seen many a YA fantasy author appropriate various cultures, and lately I’ve been thrilled to see more epic fantasy based in cultures the author is from, but I haven’t seen any dragon-slaying bagel-devouring heroes of late. And there’s so much magic in Jewish tradition and legend, it could absolutely be used to form a whole fantasy world. I have half an idea for a book like that in my head, but the rest hasn’t clicked into place yet, and I really want to read one, so I hope someone else is already publishing one.

DA: Yes yes yes! Rebecca Podos does some work that leans into this, though it’s more like Eastern European contemporary fantasy. Her next book, “From Dust, A Flame” even has an Emet on the back — and Rena Rossner has “Sisters of the Winter Wood,” but something like an “Anya and the Dragon” for teens, or like Phoebe North’s sci-fi “Starglass,” squarely in a fantasy realm… I guess you just may have to write it!

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Lev Rosen writes books for people of all ages, most recently Camp, which was a best book of the year from Forbes, Elle, and The Today Show, amongst others and is a Lambda finalist and ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Their next book, Lavender House, will be released fall of 2022. They live in NYC with his husband and have a very small cat. You can find them online at LevACRosen.com and on Twitter (@LevACRosen) and Instagram (@levacrosen)

Dahlia Adler (she/her) is an editor of mathematics by day, the overlord of LGBTQReads by night, and a Young Adult author at every spare moment in between. She is the editor of several anthologies, including His Hideous Heart, and the author of many novels, including Cool for the Summer and Home Field Advantage. She lives in New York with her family and an obscene number of books. You can find her on Twitter (@MissDahlELama) and Instagram (@missdahlelama).

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