Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher, a book for children 4 to 8, opens with Baxter learning about the joys of Shabbat but hearing that — being a non-kosher animal — he cannot participate. After gorging on kosher pickles, downing five loaves of raisin challah and trying to pass for a cow, he meets a generous woman rabbi who tells him, that “everyone is welcome at Shabbat dinner.” The book closes with the pair enjoying the meal together.
Laurel Snyder, author of Baxter, didn’t always focus on Judaism in her children’s books, which include the hilarious, creepy-but-not-too-scary picture book Inside the Slidy Diner; the adventure of a girl searching for her lost mother in Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains; and Any Which Wall, a fantasy. Two years ago, Boca Raton-based librarian Heidi Estrin asked why she didn’t write for Jewish kids. Snyder told Lilith, “I realized then that I had a snobbish idea that most Jewish books for kids weren’t very good, very artful or funny. I think I was afraid for my books to get lumped into a club with educational, religious books. So it was like a dare…to see if I could do better.”
What Snyder, 36, came up with in response reflects the progressive and multifaceted Jewish community she knew growing up. Her father was a founding member of the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore, a congregation with “people who represented all kinds of Jewish worlds — from every denomination….[T]here were gay families, and Orthodox members, and art students, and political radicals, and intermarried couples….” Snyder’s background informed the 2006 anthology she edited, Half/ Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, essays by and about people in families with one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. “Picture books feel more like poems to me,” says Snyder, who has also published several books of poetry, “and so far I’ve tried to push limits with them. Make them odd, surprising. But Baxter is also a Jewish book, and with my Jewish writing, for kids and grownups too, I feel like I’m writing to the future. To a diverse community. A community that doesn’t look like it used to.
“These issues are complicated for all of us…I don’t think Baxter is all that edgy. It’s about inclusion, about welcoming. That’s a pretty basic Jewish value!” The book’s conclusion draws on her experience of “… having felt excluded sometimes, from the more institutional world, because of all the things I didn’t know. That’s the thing with this book that I want people to understand: Baxter isn’t excluded because people don’t like him, or even because he’s a pig. Baxter’s excluded because he doesn’t ask the right questions, because he needs more information! And because someone makes an assumption.”
Since delving into the world of Jewish children’s literature in earnest, Snyder reports happily that her preconceptions about the genre were unfounded, “…I was wrong. There are some amazing Jewish picture books out there. More every year!” In addition to Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher and her forthcoming middle-grade novel, Penny Dreadful (both available this fall), her Yiddish board book for children — Nosh, Schlep, Schluff — will be out in January.