Author interview'It seemed there was a lot I could get wrong'

Dating, zits and bigotry: UK’s 1st YA novel to cover anti-Semitism gets it right

When Keren David was approached about breaking ground on a tough topic, the hit author and journalist had concerns. But ‘What We’re Scared Of,’ out this week, is right on key

'What We’re Scared Of,' by author Keren David. (Courtesy)
'What We’re Scared Of,' by author Keren David. (Courtesy)

LONDON — With a fiction track record of writing about “crime and money and sex and drugs” for teenagers, British journalist Keren David has become one of the best-known and most prolific writers in the crowded young adult (YA) market.

But even though she has previously written about Jewish teenagers, she has never dealt with anti-Semitism in any of her books.

Her twelfth novel, “What We’re Scared Of,” is different. Out on January 21, its central theme is contemporary anti-Semitism, and it is the first YA book on the subject to be published in the UK. It is also the first book for British teens to contain direct testimony from a Holocaust survivor.

As David explains, the impetus for writing about anti-Semitism came not from her, but from her publishers at Scholastic publishing.

“There’s been a lot of talk about what’s known as ‘own voices’ in YA,” David tells The Times of Israel. “These are books which look at marginalized, minority voices, that haven’t been heard, and getting the authentic stories from people’s experience. Scholastic were thinking about this and wondering about the groups which are least represented [in teenage fiction]. They realized that in Britain, there are very few Jewish writers for YA audiences, writing about Jewish kids.”

David is one of those few writers, so Scholastic approached her and asked if she would write a novel about anti-Semitism and how it was experienced by Jewish teens. Her first response was not enthusiastic.

I felt enormous responsibility to get it right. I worried that not only would any such book bring out the anti-Semites, but also that Jewish people would say they didn’t think I’d done it properly

“I was scared and worried and anxious,” she says. “I was asked at the peak of [concerns being aired about British] Labour [Party] anti-Semitism, so I was scared of putting my head up above the parapet. And I felt enormous responsibility to get it right. I worried that not only would any such book bring out the anti-Semites, but also that Jewish people would say they didn’t think I’d done it properly, that I hadn’t tackled it in the right way. It seemed to me that there was a lot I could get wrong.”

Additionally, David says, writing this book meant “going to places in my imagination that I’d rather not go to. The peak of the book is an attack on a synagogue and I really had to force myself to see how I would put that into a story — it wasn’t a fun plot.”

Keren David, author of ‘What We’re Scared Of’ and features editor at the Jewish Chronicle. (Courtesy)

Actually, there is a lot of fun to be had in the early part of the book, since David’s protagonists are 14-year-old twin sisters, as unalike as possible yet sharing a home life with an unspoken Jewish background that emerges as the driving force of the story. Readers learn about vicious online trolling, physical anti-Semitic attacks, and wild conspiracy theories — as well as the rollercoaster of teenage hormones and school life.

One twin, Evie, is dimly aware of their mother’s Jewish origins, but refuses, initially, to consider making Judaism part of her own life. The other sister, Lottie, meets a Jewish friend at school and discovers a new and fascinating world which she embraces with abandon, accompanying the friend to synagogue and going to her home for Friday night Sabbath meals.

David is really good on the horrors of teenage school life, the importance of hanging out with the right crowd of friends, or of unfulfilled teen crushes on completely unsuitable boys. Adult readers will find the near universal embarrassment of their teenage years rushing back with a vengeance — the wrong things said to the right people, the wrong clothes, the fear of being laughed at, the inexplicable sulks.

“I had lots of ideas as to how I wanted to deal with this,” David says. “But there were really too many issues to fit into one character. I wanted a character who was a bit of a smart mouth, who deflected things through comedy, and she became Evie. But I also wanted to have a character who was open to exploring Judaism, quite a serious girl. So I realized that they were two separate girls, and having twins gave a bit more dynamism to the plot.”

Twin Lottie’s friend Hannah, who introduces her to North London Jewish life, has an entertaining — if daunting — checklist of what being Jewish means: “One, going to shul [synagogue]. Two, keeping kosher. Three, living in the bubble. All my friends are Jewish apart from at school. Four, youth group. Five, tzedakah — that means charity — I volunteer at my shul’s drop-in centre for asylum seekers. Six, we go to Israel every year. Seven, since my bat mitzvah, I’ve carried on studying and I can pretty much pray the whole additional service, not that anyone lets me at my shul…”

‘What We’re Scared Of,’ by Keren David. (Courtesy)

David says there are lots of real-life young Jews just like that, who, particularly if they don’t attend a Jewish school, have a whole, separate life. Her character, Lottie, finds this world attractive and wants to join it — but Hannah herself is frustrated at the restrictions imposed by Orthodox society on young women and longs for more equality.

David is well acquainted with the “outsider” status of her fictional twins: brought up in a small town outside London with an equally small Orthodox Jewish community where her parents were leading and active members, she was one of only three Jewish pupils in her school. Because her family kept kosher dietary laws and the Sabbath, David was obliged to take packed meals to school — and sit, by herself, at the designated lunch table for students who brought food from home.

She’d planned to major in English at university but had “disastrous” exam results. At the age of 18, though, she was “saved” by a job as a messenger girl at the Jewish Chronicle, becoming a reporter and then working for a variety of local and national newspapers. (She did get into university, but decided she enjoyed journalism too much, ending up on the news desk at the Independent.)

When her husband got a job in Amsterdam, David and their baby daughter moved with him to Holland, where she worked at a photojournalism agency. The couple had a second child and lived in Amsterdam for seven years before returning to the UK in 2007.

An evening class in writing for teenagers catapulted her into her YA career — though for the last five years she has also been a leading journalist at her first newspaper home, the Jewish Chronicle, where she is now associate feature editor.

The two parallel careers have come together in her latest book. David made a very calculated decision to put the real-life experiences of Mala Tribich, one of Britain’s best-known Holocaust survivors, in the novel.

Mala Tribich, far right, with UK students at Galicia Museum, Krakow. (Photo credit: Sam Churchill Photography)

“I knew quite early on that there would have to be a Holocaust element in the book, and I wasn’t really prepared to fictionalize something so important,” David says. “Why make something up when it’s so important that people understand the facts and know the truth? I’m absolutely repelled by the growing tendency to make things up on this issue. In an era of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, you can’t pretend. What happened to Mala is so much more dramatic than any fiction. We’re living in a very precious era, where survivors are still alive to tell their story — so why not tell it to as many people as we can?”

I wasn’t really prepared to fictionalize something so important. Why make something up when it’s so important that people understand the facts and know the truth?

David is not worried that her readers will be unable to make the distinction between Mala’s story and the rest of the book. She hopes that Jewish teens, reading the book, will feel proud and stronger in their Jewish identity, while for non-Jewish readers, “I’d like to create allies and have people think about anti-Semitism, and educate themselves about Israel and Judaism,” she says. “There’s so much ignorance. And there are also bigger questions about what fear does to us. Fear creates prejudice and anxiety — we don’t like to talk about it very much.”

But with a unique seat at the table — commissioning writing on an array of subjects each week for the Jewish Chronicle — David has a good take on the pulse of British Jews. She thinks that the community has emerged from the era of controversial Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was accused of letting anti-Semitism thrive in his party, “a little bit braver, a little bit stronger — and a bit readier to think about what it means to be Jewish.”

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