Children’s literature news does not ordinarily make it into lead stories in the New York Times. Last week’s announcement by the ALSC (Association for Library Services for Children, part of the American Library Association) that it had changed the name of one of its most prestigious awards was an exception. The award formerly known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award has now been renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The ALSC reached this decision after months of debate about the psychological impact of racism in Wilder’s books on young readers. A broad-based movement to increase diverse and accurate representations of people of color and other marginalized groups has engulfed the world of children’s books. Wilder’s work, which undoubtedly includes insensitive and offensive material about Native Americans, had become a very visible target. Where do Jews come into this story?
Last year’s recipient of the Wilder Award was the distinguished African-American author and poet Nikki Grimes. Grimes is the author of many critically acclaimed works, including one which is distorted by the most blatant and lurid anti-Semitic tropes. At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter accuses the Jewish people of venality, corruption, and hatred in the events surrounding the death of Jesus. The book closely follows the Gospels’ interpretation of these events. The high priest Caiaphas is described as “a mongrel smelling blood.” The Pharisees and Sadducees are conflated as members of the same evil elite, and Pontius Pilate is a passive and blameless victim of the enraged Jews who force him to kill the Messiah. The book is composed of poems, each one prefaced by the author’s comments and suggestions for discussion. Grimes encourages children to think creatively about the motives for killing Jesus: “Why would false witnesses agree to provide a legitimate excuse to have an innocent person crucified? My guess is money. Perhaps there were other reasons. Any ideas?” The poems are accompanied by illustrator David Frampton’s dangerously beautiful woodcuts, giving the story intense visual impact. One picture shows the Jewish leadership holding coins and other treasures, which they would supposedly risk losing should Jesus and his followers triumph.
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