In a world far apart from “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Nancy Drew” lives a decidedly slender collection of literary series aimed at Orthodox Jewish girls. After a slew of books like “The B.Y. Times” and “The Baker’s Dozen” in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jewish girls from homes that shied away from secular literature had little new material to read. Faygie Holt decided to revitalize this underserved genre.
Holt was an avid reader at an early age. Her love of reading was complemented by an equally strong love for writing and a natural gift for storytelling. “I always want to know ‘the why’ or the ‘what if’,” she said. “That curiosity helped inspire my fiction writing.”
When she originally pictured herself as a fiction writer, however, it was for television or romantic suspense novels—but never kosher books for Jewish preteen girls. But a stint as a teacher in a frum girls’ yeshiva, where a fourth grade student informed her that she had already read every age-appropriate kosher book on the market, changed her mind.
“By that point in time, the boom in Jewish books that had been released to serve as comparable alternatives to “The Baby-Sitters Club” had slowed to a trickle,” said Holt. “Just for fun, I wrote the first chapter of a book, brought it to my class, and read it to my students. They all wanted to know what happened next.”
That chapter grew into “The New Girl,” which became the first book in Holt’s series “The Achdus Club.” Geared for third to fifth graders, the books follow fourth grade twins named Shulamis and Tova Green and their circle of friends at their school, Bais Naomi. The series is distributed by Menucha, a Brooklyn-based publishing house.
“Faygie was in the right place at the right time,” said Esther Heller, Menucha’s editor-in-chief, based in Israel. “Menucha had been interested in offering more middle-grade novels to kids, and ‘The New Girl’ seemed like a wonderful opportunity. We like the way Faygie’s books combine fun and interesting action along with realistic exploration of children’s feelings.”
The fifth book in the series is set to come out in 2021. Menucha is also publishing another series of Holt’s that follows an intrepid 9-year old girl, Layla, who solves mysteries.
Menucha is just one of the publishing houses releasing an expanded catalog of titles directed at Jewish children in recent years.
Holt welcomes the increasingly saturated market. “I’m thrilled that I have more competition now than when I first started,” she said. “That’s how it is in the general publishing world, and it shows how desperately these books are needed. I give a lot of credit to Menucha for being a game changer for the industry.”
Holt explores topics like bullying—a theme that pervades the series—financial insecurity, learning disabilities, balancing academics and extracurricular activities, and the vagaries of female friendship.
She hasn’t received any list of topics she can or cannot cover, and admits she self-censors herself, perhaps unconsciously, to stay on the side of caution. Because she is so mindful of the boundaries of this genre, she’s only had to readjust scenes to adhere to editorial guidance in her books a handful of times.
“One of my characters used a smartphone to video chat a friend, and I was asked to change that to a regular phone,” Holt recalled. “Having to change scenes like this one, and limiting certain things so it’s more palatable for this audience, makes me a better writer and forces me to think more creatively. I can’t take the easy way out.”
Holt makes sure to highlight the uncomplicated era to which this sensitivity harkens. “I think now, especially, everyone needs that calm reassurance of a simpler time.”
“The thing about writing for this genre is you simply have to not only understand, but accept that there are just some things you cannot write about,” she continued. “It becomes a fantastic challenge to find ways to approach topics that allow these children to see themselves reflected in the stories and characters.”
Like most authors, Holt clearly and profoundly loves the characters she’s created. She refers to them as if they were close friends, and goes to bat for them when she believes their integrity is on the editorial chopping block. When an editor at Menucha questioned one of the words Layla used so often—“gobsmacked,” undeniably an anachronistic phrase for a contemporary 9-year-old—Holt fought back. “That word is so Layla.”
Most of Holt’s readers are girls, though she does know of some male readers, and most live in the frum communities of Flatbush, Lakewood and Monsey, though she does know of some non-Orthodox and non-Jewish readers. “Modern Orthodox Jewish kids can turn on the TV and find so many stories that have relatable elements to them,” she said. “The kids I’m writing for have only these fictionalized outlets to which they can look to see themselves. I think I’ve definitely found my niche.”
No longer a teacher, Holt looks to her nieces and nephews, and her friend’s young children, for story inspiration. She’s also a stepmom (to Marissa, in her 20s), a dog mom (to Snickers, a golden retriever with a hearty appetite) and wife to Jeff, whom she calls her biggest supporter.
Readers may also know Holt as a professional journalist for the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) and Chabad.org. She also writes occasionally for The Jewish Link. Holt also holds a full-time position in which she directs communications for Friendship Circle’s LifeTown in Livingston. Earlier on in her career, she cut her teeth as a journalist for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
Holt is currently working on several Chanukah-themed feature stories for news outlets and a new children’s book of historical fiction, with the story taking place during the Civil War. It’s a new genre for her, and, with its young male protagonist, a new narrative voice.
“I’ve fallen in love with writing for kids in a way that I never thought I would,” said Holt. “Business-wise, it’s been great for me to tap into a market that needs professionally written, quality children’s books. I’ve always loved storytelling and creating characters, and writing for kids allows me to create stories that can impact a child’s life. That’s an amazing gift.”
Tova Cohen is a professional fundraising writer, a contributor to Tablet Magazine and other online publications, and a high school essay coach. Contact her at [email protected]