Naomi Danis

Great Girl Protagonists in Books For Young Readers

Debut Novels from Rachel Mann and Ruth Behar, and an Encore from Novelist-in-Verse Sonya Sones


A Stranger in Summer Camp

Reena had never seen anything like this before she came to camp —kids her own age holding Hebrew prayer books, swaying and singing, standing and sitting. Her father avoided synagogue at all costs, so she’d only been on the high holidays with Grandma and Zeyde….

Reena knew that Grandma had been disappointed that she didn’t have a bat mitzvah. Grandma even offered to orchestrate one for her at her synagogue. But Reena had felt the way she assumed her father did: that it wasn’t for her. Praying was something she did when she felt anxious or worried, like when she was swimming in the ocean and got slammed by a forceful wave. But it was silent, and personal, almost like dreaming. It was nothing like saying actual prayers.

Here at camp most kids really knew the prayers; but that didn’t mean they always said them. Lots of kids just stood there holding their siddurs open to their chests and daydreamed. Others chatted under their breath to their neighbors until, every now and then, a counselor would turn around and shush them. Reena probably would have been one of the chatters, too, if it hadn’t been for Sharon. She was the only one that she felt like talking to, but she didn’t talk during prayers; she actually said them.

All kinds of wanting: wanting love (and competing for a love interest); wanting others (cousins, parents and their children) to love (or at least to like) each other; wanting in the sense of missing (a family member who, years earlier, died too young); and wanting (perhaps) to feel like you belong at a family seder, or at a religious summer camp. All these wantings are the woof and warp of On Blackberry Hill (CreateSpace, $11.99) an engaging debut novel by Rachel Mann.

Along with Reena, whose mother died when she was an infant, we readers gradually gain sympathy for three generations of her loving and conflicted family as we encounter the painstaking, satisfying filling-in of gaps in family history that caused the rifts.

In this otherwise realistic portrayal of pain and sorrow, leavened by the sweetness of young romance and friendship, there is also an additional, mysterious character, a male crush who’s magical, elusive, and functions as a sort of wise fairy-godmother, one who appears to both Reena and to her mother at the same age and at the same place. (Fun fact: there are hints that the setting for this novel was inspired by Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.) 

A Street-Person Rescuer

“Her Arms Are Raised Above Her Head”
         And she’s shaking her hips
        shimmying like a belly dancer,
        wiggling every part of her body. 
It’s probably fifty degrees outside,
but her rusty curls are damp,
her forehead dripping with sweat…
        Now some of the other couples
        stop dancing to stare at her.
        And soon everyone’s watching her.
She keeps gyrating while stripping off 
her jacket and flinging it into the crowd.
A rowdy cheer goes up. 
        Then she slips off her sweatshirt,
        twirls it over her head,
        and flings that too.
My mouth goes strangely dry…
I take a closer look at her eyes
and can suddenly see it so clearly.
        I should have recognized that look.
        She’s not just a wild girl—
        she’s crazy.
I mean, like actually crazy. 
The kind of crazy that you have to
take medication for.

In Saving Red (HarperCollins $17.99), Sonya Sones brings readers Mollie, who is doing her school-required community service at the last possible moment, counting numbers of homeless people in the wee hours of the night on the streets of Santa Monica. Along with her service dog, Pixel, she is assigned to a team with a couple of old hippies who startle a young woman in a sleeping bag who’s wearing many layers of clothing and smells unwashed. Mollie doesn’t know why she is so drawn to rescuing this charismatic but elusive street person who insists on remaining nameless, and whom Mollie dubs “Red.” Mollie’s school life and home life have been miserable lately; her mom has turned into a pothead and her dad into an absent workaholic. And though she doesn’t much mind, she realizes after returning home from an initial foray to save Red that her family had forgotten it was the first night of Hanukkah, which wouldn’t have happened back when things were normal.

This is Sones’s sixth novel in verse, and she draws on her own experience as a young person witnessing her sister’s nervous breakdown and bipolar diagnosis, engendering a lifelong concern for homeless people. Resources to help the homeless are included at the end of this important, heartbreaking, hopeful novel.

A Newcomer to New York

When we lived in Cuba, I was smart. But when we got to Queens, in New York City, in the United States of America, I became dumb, just because I couldn’t speak English.

So I got put in the dumb class in fifth grade at P.S. 117. It’s the class for the bobos, the kids who failed at math and reading. Also in it are the kids the teachers call “delinquents.” They come to school late and talk back and are always chewing gum. Even though they’re considered the bad kids, most of them are nice to me. “Here Ruthie, have some Chiclets!” they whisper and pass me a handful.

We aren’t supposed to chew gum in school, so we hold the Chiclets in our mouths until we go outside for recess. Then we chew the Chiclets to death and stick the gook on the bottom of our desks when we come back inside.

Most of the kids know I’m in this class because I’m from another country, not because I really belong there. Or maybe I do belong there? It’s been eight months since school started and our teacher promised I wouldn’t be in the class for long.

In Lucky Broken Girl (Penguin Random House, $16.99) by Ruth Behar, Ruthie Mizrahi’s homemaker mother wears her clothes from Cuba, always looking as if she is going to a party, and needs help negotiating grocery shopping. Her dad has several jobs to make ends meet, yet still makes big purchases, like the new car they can’t afford. Her grandparents unabashedly retain their old world ways. Her aunt married an American; her younger cousins seem Americans already and her neighbors are refugees from other countries. All are among the distinctive characters who populate this novel for middle graders by Behar, whose Jewish family immigrated to New York from Cuba following Castro’s 1959 rise to power.

A disastrous automobile accident, and Ruthie’s long, bedridden recovery, bring together themes of rupture and loss, love, affection, impatience, forgiveness, gratitude, courage and humor as our heroine is assimilated into a new world full of delights and imperfections, and in which her past, in Cuba “is like a dream you can almost remember.”

Though it takes place in the 1960s, Behar’s telling has a 2017 sensibility. In a world now overwhelmed with refugee crises and sorely in need of empathy, this is a most welcome read.

 Naomi Danis



In the teen books On Blackberry Hill and Saving Red, it seems somehow essential there be a perfect boyfriend (a knight in shining armor) who always has a good excuse for his occasional inattention. Is all this to make up for the other miseries, humiliations and social rejection our heroines endure?


  • Erika Dreifus

    Thanks so much for sharing this with the Jewish Book Carnival!