Review: Across So Many Seas

Across So Many Seas

by Ruth Behar

Nancy Paulsen Books (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2024

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Heather J. Matthews

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Following four girls in the same family line, Across So Many Seas explores important Jewish moments in history. Characters Benvenida, Reina, Alega, and Paloma bear witness to such events as the Expulsion of Jews from Spain following Alhambra Decree of 1492, the Cuban literacy campaign in 1961, and the flight of Cuban children to the United States via Operation Pedro Pan in 1962. Each girl, seemingly isolated within her timeline, is never truly alone. Throughout the novel there are the ever-present connections of music, heritage foods, and the use of Ladino words and phrases which help bridge gaps between each generation of the Sephardic family. Ultimately, the interconnectedness between each character in the book is brought to a head when Reina, Alega and Paloma all travel to Spain together in a final crossing of the seas. Throughout it all, each girl’s rebellions, dignity, faithfulness, and love of her family is tangible, no matter the distance in miles or years. The author’s note at the end of the book is followed by vital bibliographic and glossary content, in which Behar traces her sources and travels in an effort to bring her setting to life, as well as to fill any gaps in knowledge for readers.

Author Behar, herself a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jew from Cuba, has explored her familial and cultural history throughout her oeuvre. Combined with the back matter of the book where Behar cites her sources, the authenticity within this book felt unquestionable. As readers learn more about each character, the level of faith and practice for each character varies, providing a valuable glance into the many ways that each family and individual may choose to practice Judaism. At the same time, no elements of Judaism existed in the book which would exclude non-Jewish readers. It is possible that the many historical references may require readers to complete some research on their own, but this is not necessarily bad. As it so happened, I read this book while looking up words and events I was unfamiliar with, and I finished the book with a new soup recipe to try, which I felt added to the charm of the novel. Behar’s choice to ground familial connections within food and music felt natural, and helps any reader place themselves within the shoes of the characters as they reflect on their own family’s practices and traditions. This book, like many of Behar’s others, will likely make for a strong Sydney Taylor Book Award contender, adding vital Sephardic representation and Sephardic celebration into the 2024 contenders list.

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Reviewer Heather J. Matthews, PhD, is an assistant professor at Salisbury University. Her specialization is in children’s and young adult literature. She is specifically interested in diverse representation within children’s literature.