It Never Happens How You Think It Should
My first literary award was the Sydney Taylor Book Honor for Middle Grade 2020.
My second literary award was also the Sydney Taylor Book Honor for Middle Grade 2021.
Anya and the Dragon
I was at work. At the time, I worked in a Cold War era building at the VA (Veterans Affairs) Hospital, doing outpatient mental health therapy with mostly Army and Marine infantry and artillery veterans with varying degrees of PTSD, plus the depression and anxiety that always seem to tag along with it.
My phone was an iPhone well past the point where I should have gotten it replaced (when I finally did end up replacing it a few months later, the cell phone place didn't even want it as a trade-in). Between my old phone and the concrete-reinforced basement office I occupied, I had spotty cell service at best. Usually none at all.
But on this day, during a break between patients that gave me precious time to write up my charts, I had enough reception to get a message from Susan Kusel, a friend I'd made at a Highlights Jewish Kidlit Symposium a few months prior, and the former chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She said she had something important to tell me, and asked if she could call me.
I don't know where I picked this thought habit up, but for as long as I remember, any time someone says "I need to talk to you," it spikes my anxiety. I'm positive they're going to tell me I did something bad, or that I'm in trouble, or that something terrible has happened. I don't know why this is, and I know I'm not alone.
That's what happened on this day, until Susan, apparently capable of reading my mind, amended her message with another one: It's good.
I was already on my way out of the building, phone in hand. It was January in Utah, and it was rain-snowing. In my anxiousness at being told I had done something awful somehow, I'd left my car keys and coat in my office. I had to leave my office building and walk out into the parking lot, coatless, as my phone rang. When I picked up, Susan was on the phone along with Rebecca Levitan, the new chair of the committee. They told me that my debut novel, Anya and the Dragon, had been selected as a Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor.
I got this news as I was hopped up on anxiety brain chemicals, pacing in the freezing rain in my workplace parking lot, trying not to cry so my coworkers and patients wouldn't think I'd finally snapped.
I couldn't tell anyone until the official announcement later that month. I mean, I told my husband and my close friends. My agent knew. My publisher. But I had to keep it under wraps for a couple of weeks, during which I was pretty sure I was going to split open and spill the secret award beans.
And when I did get to make that announcement at the ALA awards, it felt... amazing.
Anya and the Nightingale
I think my second book is better than my first.
That's good, though! Writers should always be improving, and me being better at writing Book 2 than I was at writing Book 1 means I'm growing in my chosen profession. Hooray!
But Anya and the Nightingale was also a little riskier. I included some characters with representations that are outside of my own personal experience. One of the characters is Deaf. One of the characters is Sephardi. One of the characters is bisexual. One of the characters struggles in a body he doesn't see as his own. And I tried very hard to portray those experiences as accurately and sensitively as I could, while still maintaining the overall flow and message of the larger story.
I was so afraid I didn't do a good job. I still am, to a degree.
But I still think this book is better than the first.
I was still pretty sure it wouldn't get any awards.
If you're familiar at all with the impostor phenomenon, you understand my absolute certainty that not only would my second book not get any awards, but that the people who awarded my first book would regret their decision. Any moment now, they were all going to realize that they'd been duped into giving my book an award that it absolutely didn't deserve.
I was wrestling with my son to get his shoes on when my phone rang. I glanced at it to make sure it wasn't my husband calling about the kids, and saw Rebecca Levitan's name on my caller ID.
And my brain said, "Hey, she finally got around to telling you that they're taking back the award."
And then it said, "If you don't answer, she can't take it back."
These are the stupid thoughts I was thinking when I picked up.
She was not, in fact, calling to take back my award. She was giving me another one. And once I got my son's shoes on so we could meet my husband on time, I actually let myself... enjoy the feeling.
The Complexity of (My) Jewish Identity
I was browsing Reddit (or maybe Quora? They start to blend.) the other day, and someone asked the question, "Do Jews count as POC?"
The discussion was long and robust and complicated. Most of the people answering were Jews, after all, and if there's something Jews love to do, it's discuss something to absolute death.
At the time I exited the thread, the most commonly agreed upon answer was as follows:
Jews are not POC (unless you are a Jew of Color, in which case yes that particular Jew is a POC).
Jews are sometimes white (depending upon where you are and who you're asking), or at least can be considered "white-passing".
Jews are more often neither POC nor white. We exist in a Schrödinger's Race type of area.
In my country, the United States, Ashkenazim are the most common flavor of Jew. These are your Central/Eastern European Jews, as opposed to Mizrahim ("Oriental," Central Asian/Middle Eastern), Sephardim (Spanish/Iberian), and Ethiopian (Ethiopia).
I'm Ashkenazi. My genetic heritage is very minimally Israeli/Persian (like, my pinky toe, basically). I'm mostly Ukrainian, French, Scottish, and German/Danish (my family lived in a place that straddled the border of these two countries). And that's pretty white, right?
If you ask the average person, yes.
If you ask a white supremacist... no.
Very often, the whiteness of a Jewish person depends on which way the person asked would like to villainize us today. Sometimes, the fact that we are not white but can pass that way proves that we are sneaky and trying to infiltrate the white race and bring it down from the inside. Sometimes the fact that we're basically white means we're not actually oppressed or marginalized.
So there's this in-between space many Jews occupy when it comes to our identity. As a middle class white-passing Jew living in a place without a large Jewish community (but a very large community of people who are weirdly enthusiastic about Jews), I can say that it's very much that Schrödinger's Identity feeling. I'm white... for now. I'm a US citizen... until someone decides that the Jews need to be brought down a peg. I'm free to do my job however I want... until I can't.
And my own Jewish identity is also complicated by the fact that I'm a born Jew... but not really. Kind of. A little? My mom's family essentially left their faith behind when they fled Germany/Denmark in an attempt to survive. So I'm ethnically Jewish, back a couple generations. But I didn't grow up Jewish. I'd say at best my grandma was crypto. She'd yell at my sister and I in what I thought was German while bingeing Wheel of Fortune. She'd say vague stuff about being Jewish and then refuse to discuss any further. I learned weird holiday traditions from her that I thought were just my family being weird recent immigrants but much later realized, "Oh... that's a Jewish thing."
I had to learn Judaism as an adult, very much alone because I've struggled for a long time with rejection sensitivity dysphoria which made me very afraid of approaching my rabbi about learning (and then we got a new rabbi and I'm still circling him at a distance to make sure he's cool). Fortunately, the cantor is rad and ridiculous, and she's done more for me than I think she'll ever realize.
I wrote my first book as an exploration of the feelings I was experiencing about my Schrödinger's Identity. About being born Jewish but lacking the upbringing that would make me culturally Jewish. About cobbling together my own learning because I wasn't confident enough in my own right to belong to this community. About feeling like an outsider no matter where I walked.
Double Schrödinger's Identity. This is what it feels like to not really exist.
Do you want to know something kind of sad? Get your tissues ready.
I still haven't told anyone at my synagogue that I wrote two (almost three) Jewish children's books.
I haven't told them my books won any awards.
I'm positive the synagogue librarian knows my name, but doesn't know I slide silently into service every week and then escape before anyone can catch me.
I told you it was sad.
So anyway. That was a really verbose way of me saying that winning a Jewish literature award (or two) means something beyond "I wrote a book well" to me.
In Schrödinger's cat experiment, he put a cat inside a sealed box where it was entirely unobservable. There was a mechanism that would randomly release poison into the box, possibly killing the cat. But since the mechanism was entirely random and whether the cat was poisoned couldn't be predicted, Schrödinger theorized that the cat could exist in a state of both life and death as long as it was unobserved. Only when someone opened the box and observed the cat did it actually become alive or dead.
Winning a Jewish literary award (twice, and no one even rescinded the first one!) did not make me "count" as Jewish. I was Jewish before either award, and I'll continue to be Jewish even if I never win again. Awards do not define a writer as a type of person; they define the book, yes, but not the author.
But it still kind of felt like someone opened my Schrödinger's Identity box. Just a crack. I have been observed. I'm no longer liminal or half-real or existing across a threshold.
I'm Jewish, and I write books that are meaningful to other Jewish people.
That's pretty neat.
Maybe soon I'll even be able to tell people at shul about it.
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