The success of PJ Library for younger readers, which provides books of Jewish content to families with children through age eight, has been expanded with PJ Our Way. This is great news for readers (ages 9-11) and for authors! I’m delighted to welcome Catriella Freedman, the Director of PJ Our Way to learn more about the program.
Many authors have been part of the the PJ Library program for younger kids. Can you tell me briefly about the PJ Our Way program?
PJ Our Way is really like the next chapter of PJ Library. While PJ Library focuses on Jewish picture books, PJ Our Way offers middle-grade books aimed at kids ages 9-11. What’s unique about PJ Our Way is that books don’t come automatically in the mail: kids go to www.pjourway.org to choose their book every month from a selection of four titles.
While it’s not that common for an author to be able to write for both age groups, we do have some overlap between the two programs. Authors like Eric Kimmel, Jane Yolen, and YOU, Barbara Bietz, have written picture books and middle-grade books that have been successful in both PJs!
How do you choose books for the PJ Our Way program?
We choose based on need and content. We look for books that are highly readable and relevant for kids, with characters that have positive Jewish identities, and where Judaism plays a role in either the character or plot development of the story.
Readability cannot be emphasized enough! If we wanted just to send Jewish books we could send copies of the Torah, but if we actually want kids to choose books every month, read them, and take away a positive message, readability must be married with Jewish content. Unlike PJ Library, we are catering to independent readers and we can’t assume that the books we offer are being read together with a parent, so the content has to be engaging to a kid. That is why every title our Book Selection Committee chooses has to be approved by a kid reviewer before we will include it in the lineup.
Can authors submit their work (in manuscript form or published book) directly to you? Any advice for authors looking to submit?
My advice is if you have an idea for a Jewish middle-grade book, now is the time to develop it and get it down on paper! We are offering a $2,000 author incentive award from now until December, 2018 for any manuscript which we include in the PJ Our Way lineup—that is in addition to any publishing monies an author might receive. When we decide to work with a manuscript and include it in the lineup, we will assist an author in finding an appropriate publisher as well.
My second piece of advice is to submit when the manuscript is really ready. Like most reviewers, we prefer to read a manuscript once it has gone through a thorough line and copy edit. It makes the review process much easier, and helps the committee approach the manuscript positively.
What kinds of books are on the PJ Our Way wish list?
The most popular types of books we offer are graphic novels, time-travel series, and easy-to-read biographies (like the “Who Was?” series from Penguin Random House). We have a real need for books aimed at 9-year-olds that boys will relate to. Our selection rates show that boys are much less flexible than girls in their book selection habits. They gravitate towards books about boys with subject matter they enjoy.
We are also looking for more diversity in our subject matter, with books that highlight Jewish culture from around the world and families of color and diversity.
What kind of programming does PJ Our Way offer to help promote books/authors?
We partner with JCCs and Jewish Federations from all over the country who offer programs for PJ Our Way members in their community. Professionals who work with this age group know that if kids love a book then they also love the author and want to meet the author as well! We match up communities with PJ Our Way authors who are interested in providing on-site as well as virtual programming. Barry Deutsch, author of the Hereville series, recently traveled to South Palm Beach, Florida to give a workshop on how to develop a graphic novel. Authors Erica Perl and Steve Sheinkin recently offered workshops on writing and illustrating via Skype to kids in Philadelphia. There are so many possibilities and kids really are engaged with all of them!
How do you see the PJ Our Way program growing in the coming years?
I’d like to see the program grow in size and in the number of kids selecting books each month to the point where we can start to commission books with relatable Jewish content, and offer more and continued support to authors interested in writing for this age group. Since quality books are our number one product, I envision starting a network of middle-grade authors dedicated to writing books with Jewish content that kids love.
Thank you, Catriella! To read another interview with Catriella about PJ Our Way, please check out The Whole Megilah blog: