Suffer the Little Children

Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature

253 pages

April, 2015

ISBN: 9781479822294



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Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University (PA).

All books by Jodi Eichler-Levine

This compelling work examines classic and contemporary Jewish and African American children’s literature. Through close readings of selected titles published since 1945, Jodi Eichler-Levine analyzes what is at stake in portraying religious history for young people, particularly when the histories in question are traumatic ones. In the wake of the Holocaust and lynchings, of the Middle Passage and flight from Eastern Europe's pogroms, children’s literature provides diverse and complicated responses to the challenge of representing difficult collective pasts.
In reading the work of various prominent authors, including Maurice Sendak, Julius Lester, Jane Yolen, Sydney Taylor, and Virginia Hamilton, Eichler-Levine changes our understanding of North American religions. She illuminates how narratives of both suffering and nostalgia graft future citizens into ideals of American liberal democracy, and into religious communities that can be understood according to recognizable notions of reading, domestic respectability, and national sacrifice.
If children are the idealized recipients of the past, what does it mean to tell tales of suffering to children, and can we imagine modes of memory that move past utopian notions of children as our future? Suffer the Little Children asks readers to alter their worldviews about children’s literature as an “innocent” enterprise, revisiting the genre in a darker and more unsettled light.


  • "Exhibits an impressive command of multiple disciplines to offer a compelling of reading of Jewish and African American children’s literatures. . . . Eichler-Levine's close readings of youth literatures and reader responses are always clear and often delightful as she deftly works at the crossroads, providing new signposts for navigating vexing questions at the intersections of religion, citizenship, trauma, and redemption." 

    —Liora Gubkin, author of You Shall Tell Your Children: Holocaust Memory in American Passover Ritual

  • "Jodi Eichler-Levine’s insightful book illuminates the importance of fear and suffering in shaping African American and Jewish children’s literature. Her book gives a cogent understanding of how each  community's difficult historical narratives coupled with their religious and social lives have helped to prepare children to engage an American civic life that has been hostile at times to their ethnic groups."

    —Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania

  • "What’s so exciting about Suffer the Little Children is that it brings a deeply grounded religious studies perspective to bear on contemporary American children’s literature in ways that enrich both the study of literature and our understanding of childhood’s role in U.S. Judeo-Christian cultures. By focusing on American children’s books by and about Jews and African Americans and the core tropes that interweave through these texts—from the idea of 'chosenness' to the haunting spectre of genocide—Eichler-Levine gives new meaning to the idea of the `sacralized child.’ Suffer the Little Children sheds new light on the relationships between race, religion, citizenship, and childhood. It also reminds us once more of why children’s literature provides such a revealing lens for analyzing American culture."

    —Julia Mickenberg, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the U.S.

  • "In this startling analysis of children's literature written by African Americans, Jews, and African American Jews, Eichler-Levine (religion/Jewish studies, Univ. of Wisconsin, Oshkosh) claims that 'redemptive' stories about victimization are a necessary part of these works in order to gain acceptance."


  • "This rich and rewarding study invites fresh thought about the political religiosity of stories for children and the potential of contemporary children's literature to help forge a new politics of American childhood."

    —Amy Fish, Children's Literature

  • "Eichler-Levine exhibits mastery of this genre in a scholarly, comprehensive book that brings a literate, impassioned, interrogative analytical lens to familiar and lesser known children's books."

    Catholic Library World

  • "Eichler-Levine's appreciation for the art and transcendent possibility of children's books will inspire other scholars of religion, American history, and literature to pick up childhood favorites.  In so doing, Suffer the Little Children promises to spark a broader investigation of the wide-ranging contributions Jewish writers have made to this understudied literary tradition." 

    American Jewish History

  •  “Jodi Eichler-Levine sets out to make the connections between African American and Jewish children’s literature, a potentially fruitful area of study because of the two groups’ shared inheritance of similar Biblical stories.” 

    Children's Literature Association Quarterly