Book Review: Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature

Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature
(Children’s Literature and Culture)

by Madelyn Travis

In a period of ongoing debate about faith, identity, migration and culture, this timely study explores the often politicised nature of constructions of one of Britain’s longest standing minority communities. Representations in children’s literature influenced by the impact of the Enlightenment, the Empire, the Holocaust and 9/11 reveal an ongoing concern with establishing, maintaining or problematising the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. Chapters on gender, refugees, multiculturalism and historical fiction argue that literature for young people demonstrates that the position of Jews in Britain has been ambivalent, and that this ambivalence has persisted to a surprising degree in view of the dramatic socio-cultural changes that have taken place over two centuries.

Wide-ranging in scope and interdisciplinary in approach, Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature discusses over one hundred texts ranging from picture books to young adult fiction and realism to fantasy. Madelyn Travis examines rare eighteenth- and nineteenth-century material plus works by authors including Maria Edgeworth, E. Nesbit, Rudyard Kipling, Richmal Crompton, Lynne Reid Banks, Michael Rosen and others. The study also draws on Travis’s previously unpublished interviews with authors including Adele Geras, Eva Ibbotson, Ann Jungman and Judith Kerr.

About the Author

Madelyn J. Travis is an Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published on historical and contemporary British and American children’s literature and is currently researching Jewish childhood in England. This is her first book.


‘An original and significant addition to understanding of the interaction of British culture with the Jews and “Jews.”‘ Professor David Feldman, author of Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture1840-1914

Amazon Review

5 Stars  Innovation, insight and interest reviewed by R. White

Madelyn Travis has produced an outstanding work of scholarship, at its heart the most important driver of all – innovative insight. In `Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature’ we are gifted a complex, well-argued work that carries within it messages far beyond children’s literature – for it examines the translation of a troubling issue for adults into the world of fiction for the young, where its impact will be formative.

This book delivers a shock, though, in its detailed, well-argued unfolding of the persistence of Semitic and anti-Semitic stereotypes, and in its revelation of how ready they can be to spring up out of earth thought cleansed at last. Cited in the book, the resigned yet all-too understandably embittered phrase “The closed season on Jews is over”, is haunting – not least because of its recent provenance. And yet one can see a basic literary problem facing modern authors of clear sight and goodwill – how do you resist a poisoned stereotype (is that tautology?) without first describing or at least somehow encompassing it? And what might you unleash when you do?

It’s also revelatory to read of modern authors yielding to the seductive power of this image (the “bad Jew” etc.) Sadly, all Gentiles – like the present writer – have the potential for this corruption in them, though obviously the key point is what an individual does (and doesn’t) do about it. It would seem in the end far better for a writer to deny to her/his pages such a “stereotrap” – how much harm would that do, either artistically or didactically? Surprising, too, is Travis’ finding that so few have used the nature of being Jewish as an affirmative thing – to make, say, a work that tells of a journey from knee-jerk dislike to acceptance and understanding. Jewish culture and faith is so deep that would surely succeed, by simply presenting difference as rewarding, creative, stimulating – which, approached with an open heart, always enriches. Any Gentile who has, for example, attended shiva to commemorate the life of a departed person, will have found the firm but gentle inclusivity of the ceremony truly moving.

The insights `Jews and Jewishness in British Children’s Literature’ offers are often troubling, but for that very reason of great value. It should be a first starting point for anyone writing on such subjects, in fiction or in academe, and there is little doubt it will become a seminal text. Its originality and insightful power will readily ensure that.

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