2022 Sidney Taylor Award MG Roundup: How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, The Genius Under the Table, and Linked

The Sidney Taylor Award, named for the author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series, is presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries to “outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” Three categories are recognized: picture books, middle grade, and young adult. All three of the middle-grade titles are worth a look, so here they are:

How to Find What You’re Not Looking For explores family fault lines, interracial marriage, and finding a voice.

How to Find What You’re Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani. Kokila (PNH), 2022, 372 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-14

Ariel Goldberg’s family is Jewish, but not super-observant. Daddy works at his bakery on Shabbat, Ma fudges some kosher rules, and synagogue attendance is haphazard. So Ariel can’t quite understand why her parents are so opposed to her sister Leah’s new boyfriend Raj. Raj is Indian by parentage (though an American citizen), and Hindu by tradition (though, like the Goldbergs, not too observant). Leah’s decision to elope puts her family in a quandary: Ma and Daddy feel they should cut off contact, and Ariel veers between anger at her sister for deserting her and frustration with her parents for their stubbornness.

Problems at school pile on top of family trauma. Ariel has dysgraphia, which inhibits her writing, and one particular boy in her class bullies her with antisemitic taunts. She finds a refuge in poetry, in one good teacher who recognizes her talent, and one good friend. But it’s hard for her to open up to her friends and stand up to her enemies. Everyone has expectations she can’t meet, but “if you were who everyone wants you to be, would it even make a difference?”

This story covers a lot of ground: racial prejudice, self-doubt, finding a voice, making difficult choices, discovering the faults and vulnerabilities of family members (and yourself). But all the themes weave together and come to some sort of resolution at the end. There are no black-and-white solutions or personalities; only imperfect humans who make mistakes and are capable of reform. The narrative is in second person present tense, which takes some getting used to and wouldn’t be my choice, but the characters are worth knowing and the themes worth pondering.


  • Ariel’s father curses one time, under great stress.
  • Ariel’s take on religion is typical for people who don’t think about it much: “They all have good, and they all have places to pray, and they all have a better place to go if you follow the rules. It seems like the same ideas, just different styles” (p.206). This is worth a meaty 6th-grade discussion: what makes the major religions different, and how important is that?

Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Artistic/literary value: 4.5

Read more about our ratings here

Award: Sidney Taylor Medal for middle-grade fiction, Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

The Genius under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick, 2021, 201 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, Ages 8-10

Recommended For: ages 10-15

cover of Genius Under the Table

“The first time I saw real American tourists, they hopped out of a tourist bus in Red Square in Moscow and cut in front of us in line.” Eugene’s (Yevgeny’s) mother was so upset she yelled at them, but the six-year-old boy was entranced by the Americans’ clothes. Such bright colors were like exotic birds among the grays, browns, and olive greens of Russians lined up to see Lenin’s body. And the body in the glass casket didn’t live up to its hype—what the boy remembered most was the bandage on Lenin’s chin. Since he was dead, how could he have cut himself shaving? Perhaps that was his first intimation of the cruel irrationality of Soviet domination.

At home, the family of three adults and two kids lived in a single room, with a shared bath and kitchen shared by everyone else in their building. At night, when the beds and mattresses came out, the only place for Yevgeny to sleep was under the dining table, where he amused himself drawing on the underside with his dad’s stolen pencil. His father was a devoted communist who nonetheless realized that the only way his two sons could attain a better living standard was by displaying an outstanding talent that proved Soviet superiority. Brother Victor, a figure-skating champion, was already on his way. Their mother, manager of a world-class ballet company in St. Petersburg, dreamed of her younger son becoming a dancer like her heartthrob, Mikael Baryshnikov. But small, awkward Yevgeny showed little promise of that.

Growing up in the shadow of a talented older sibling is a common middle-grade theme, and common throughout the world. To normal growing pains Yelchin adds the surreal atmosphere of the USSR during the 60s and 70s. Like the illustrations, the text is quirky and exaggerated—but only slightly. Memoirs are creative reminiscences; I suspect not all the events he recalls happened in the time frame he implies, but all are true to the impressions they made at the time. As a child’s eye-view of life under communism, it’s genius.

Award: Sidney Taylor honor book. First reviewed in Redeemed Reader November 24, 2021.

Linked by Gordon Korman. Scholastic, 2021, 259 pages

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-15

Lincoln (Link) Rowley is known for his personality, athletic ability, and hilarious pranks. His father is not amused, however, when Link and a few pals deposit eighty pounds of fertilizer outside the office of the paleontologists from that snooty New England college. Long story, but the paleontologists discovered fossilized dinosaur excrement near Link’s little town, and his dad now dreams of boosting Chokecherry, Colorado into Dinoland USA. Soon, however, the town acquires a more unsavory reputation by another act of vandalism: a giant swastika painted on the school staircase wall.

Something has to be done, especially when more swastikas appear and a nationally-known YouTuber called ReelTok seizes on the story and won’t let go. “Tolerance Week,” cobbled together by the principal, just makes the kids roll their eyes. But an initiative by students themselves catches fire. Suppose they make a paper chain representing all the Jewish victims of the Holocaust? That adds up to six million links, an impossible goal, but worth a try.

For Link, the project takes on a personal dimension when he learns his own grandmother’s story. At the age of two, as WWII was breaking out over Europe, she was entrusted to French nuns by her Jewish parents. Their sacrifice saved her life (and her descendants). Researching his Jewish heritage, Link comes to the conviction that he needs to study and complete the requirements for a Bar Mitzvah.

His complicated reasons have nothing to do with the truth of Judaism, or any other religion (his family are nominal Christians). Committed Christians rightly have a problem with that, but Link is a work in progress, who has just realized that “My life should be about something, even if I haven’t figured out what it is yet.” It’s time for him to stop focusing on “dumb stuff” and build on something real and meaningful. He’s the emotional heart of the story, but other perspectives chime in: the school booster, the slacker, the creative spark, and the culprit. Linked becomes a story of redemption and forgiveness–and, without saying so directly, an answer to the “cancel culture” that Reeltok represents. All have sinned, and all need forgiveness. Or as one character says, “We all do jerky things. It’s what you do next that matters.”

Award: Sidney Taylor Honor Book. First reviewed at Redeemed Reader on September 21, 2021.  

Also at Redeemed Reader:

Review: See our review of Veera Hiranandani’s earlier novel, The Night Diary.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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