PJ Library, which sends free books to families raising Jewish kids, has included a board book with a two-mom family in this month’s shipment to families with 1-year-olds—marking a striking change from how the organization handled a book with a two-dad family just a few years ago.
PJ Library is a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and unaffiliated with any Jewish movement, although they partner with organizations around the Jewish world. Subscribers receive free books each month, chosen by PJ Library, based on the age of their children. In 2014, PJ Library offered Elizabeth Kushner’s picture book The Purim Superhero, which stars a boy getting ready for the Jewish holiday of Purim. He happens to have two dads. Unlike their other titles, which they choose and send automatically, they only sent The Purim Superhero to families that specifically requested it. “Like it or not, parents in our community have differing opinions about same-sex marriage and how or when it is discussed with children,” wrote Harold Grinspoon Foundation trustee Winnie Sandler Grinspoon at the time. “… We think many families would love this book. Yet we know that there are some parents who would want to decide for themselves.” Even at the time, however, the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements of Judaism all supported marriage equality; only the Orthodox movement didn’t. Many were outraged that the book was treated differently from all others. The good news, though? The demand for the book was overwhelming. PJ Library ran out of copies within 36 hours and had to print additional ones.
Fast forward to this month, when PJ Library simply included Havdalah Sky: A Poem for the End of Shabbat, a board book by Chris Barash and illustrated by Sarita Rich, in its shipments to all subscriber families with one-year-old children in the U.S. and Canada. A publicist working with them told me that over 14,000 families have received the book. On its blog post announcing the pick, PJ Library wrote, “Our committee also loved that this book depicts a family with two moms. PJ Library strives to include books that represent all our families, and Havdalah Sky is an excellent contribution to that mission.”
What a difference a few years (and a little outrage) makes. Additionally, PJ Library now says it is “actively soliciting manuscripts that show and celebrate” a variety of diverse Jewish and interfaith identities, including “LGBTQIA+ people and families.”
Havdalah Sky itself is a gentle rhyming board book, told from a child’s perspective, as she, her two moms, and a pair of grandparents observe Havdalah, the short ceremony that ends Shabbat each week. After the requisite three stars are seen in the sky, a candle is lit; the grandfather (Saba) blesses the wine; Mama holds a container of sweet-smelling spices; the grandmother (Savta) watches the candle flame. The other mother, Ima (Hebrew for “mother”) plays the guitar and the child claps along, then the ceremony ends as the grandparents extinguish the candle in the wine cup, marking the end of the holiest day of the week. To end the evening, the child and her moms watch out the window as the child bids good night to the Havdalah sky. On the cover, one of the moms has very pale skin; the other mom and the child are just a shade darker. In the book’s interior, the dim room in which Havdalah is observed makes everyone’s skin a very light tan.
I love that, as in The Purim Superhero, the fact that this family has same-sex parents is entirely incidental to this soothing tale. I also love that Havdalah Sky shows extended family and the sharing of tradition across the generations, and adds to the small number of LGBTQ-inclusive books that depict families of faith. (Not that I’m particularly observant myself, although I am Jewish; I just don’t like it when LGBTQ and faith identities are always placed in opposition.)
Unfortunately, the book isn’t (yet) available to non-PJ Library subscribers, but PJ Library does tend to offer its books individually through the major online bookstores, so stay tuned. In the meantime, though, you can watch it being read in this Facebook video.
Bonus fun fact: Families with 3-year-olds received Here is the World, by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Susan Gal (Abrams), in their January PJ Library shipments. It’s a lovely book about the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays. While there’s no LGBTQ content in it, Newman is of course the author of several LGBTQ-inclusive picture books, including the famed Heather Has Two Mommies.
Second bonus fun fact: Havdalah Sky isn’t the first book to show a two-mom family celebrating Havdalah. The 1986 book Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!), by Patricia Schaffer, about the Jewish holidays, did so as well. The text doesn’t specify them as a couple, but professor and librarian Jamie Campbell Naidoo includes the title in his authoritative Rainbow Family Collections reference book—and they sure look like a couple to me. (Chag Sameach! feels dated now, though; I mention it only as a historic note.)
Want to sign up to receive PJ Library free books monthly? Do so here. Children 8 and under receive PJ Library’s picks; those 9 to 12 may select their own (from a few options) through the sister service PJ Our Way.
Extra bonus note: Today also marks the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, the “New Year of the Trees” that is today often celebrated as a Jewish Arbor Day or Earth Day. For the holiday, PJ Library has launched a “Plant for Tomorrow” matching donation campaign to help plant tens of thousands of trees for future generations and help with critical reforest efforts. All proceeds will go to the National Forest Foundation (NFF). Each dollar contributed through PJ Library’s campaign through the end of January will help plant one native tree. PJ Library will match donations up to a total of $50,000, and NFF will plant trees where they are most needed.