Faygie Holt still can’t believe her books are real. Religious children’s fiction is not exactly the genre she had imagined for herself back in high school when she dreamed of writing for sit-coms or soap operas, or even as a young adult when she was offered the opportunity to write for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And yet, Menucha Publishers just published Trouble Ahead, the second installment in her Achdus Club (Unity Club) series for children.
Sitting in a Starbucks on Route 10 in East Hanover, Holt touched Trouble Ahead and its predecessor, The New Girl, lightly, as if the physical copies might disappear. A veteran journalist, the Livingston resident has worked as a staff writer at JTA, Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, Chabad.org, and Mishpacha Magazine, and now serves as director of communications for the Friendship Circle in West Orange (which supports families of children with challenges mainly through a teen volunteer recruitment program). She calls stumbling into the niche of frum kids’ literature a “happy accident” and is already at work on the third installment.
She acknowledged feeling “weird” and “uncomfortable” being on the other end of the recorder as she spoke with NJJN on a recent morning about the books, having achieved somewhat celebrity status (at least in shul) and writing for a religious audience.
The series follows the girls of class 4B at Yeshivah Bais Naomi, as they navigate the challenges of girlhood friendships rife with jealousy and cliques, but also as they face some larger issues like economic instability, and, for religious kids, peers from less religious backgrounds.
Some elements in the books came directly from her personal experiences. She recalled, growing up in the ultra-Orthodox community of Monsey, NY, that when she was in elementary school, they used to sing a song with lyrics “Achdus is our goal, and we will achieve it.” She said, “We used to sing at the top of our lungs,” but there was always a certain cognitive dissonance.
“Even as a girl I understood there were girls on the outside who didn’t have friends or were not part of a clique. And they were singing as loud as everyone else,” she said. That led to the core questions of the first book, as Holt put it: “What if there’s a girl completely on the outside? What would make someone an outsider? And how could we get her to be part of a greater group?”
While that book attracted the target group of third- through fifth-graders, it also appealed to a younger audience (surprisingly, according to Holt, a large number of grandmothers read the book to their grandchildren and became fans as well). In fact, the demand grew so much that the publication date for the second book, originally in time for Rosh Hashana, was delayed to enable a second printing of the first book.
Holt said she works hard not to make the books preachy; a common criticism of religious children’s literature is that it offers too much moralizing and too little storytelling.
“I hope my books are first and foremost entertaining,” Holt said. “I’m not writing morality. I’m trying to give kids some fun and entertainment.” She acknowledged that the characters are very nice, even “goody-goody,” but, she added, she tries to find a balance.
“They are idealized, but I try to be realistic while keeping in mind the audience. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to show kids behaving appropriately, taking responsibility, and knowing when they’ve crossed the line,” she said. And she hopes her readers will take away from her books the directive to “treat everyone with respect, and also, that just because someone is not in your circle, you can still reach out; you don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but you do have to be friendly.”
After the academic year came to a close, Holt finished the manuscript and sent it out to publishers. When the rejection letters came, she thought nothing of it — she has boxes of work that met the same fate. And then, “I got an e-mail asking if the book was still available.” She was stunned.
FHolt has become a popular figure at the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, the Orthodox congregation where she is a member. Girls approach her at shul, she said, “and they say, ‘I loved this book!’ And their parents say, ‘Oh my daughter could not put it down. I had to take it away at bedtime.’ It’s a little weird but also flattering, sweet.”
Many people ask her if books for frum boys are in her future. She’s skeptical, but open. “I might toy with it because I’ve had so many requests.” Or maybe that’s someone else’s niche to fill. “This population really needs good fiction. These people are not watching TV or going to the movies. This is their entertainment.”