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21st Century Oral Storytelling: How PJ Library Connects Kids to Their Heritage via Podcasting

For reasons entirely of my own, I’ve been fascinated recently with the role of speaking stories aloud, as it relates to human creatures. When we talk about oral legends or storytelling, we get visions of ancient humans crouched around a fire while one of them builds whole worlds out of words. You could see the storyteller, sure, but for the most part it was the audible aspects that were the most important.

And now we have podcasts.

That’s a leap. I’ll back up a bit.

I have two children, ages 5 and 8. And like many kids their age, on long car trips I eschew the screens (which, if I’m going to be honest with you, sometimes make them want to throw up) in favor of audiobooks and podcasts. My son could consume every last Captain Underpants uninterrupted if you asked him to (though where the HECK are the Dogman audiobooks, I ask you?) while my daughter loves Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest podcast (which I’ve only just learned has Season 2 only on Pinna, doggone it). The Gidwitz show is a particularly good use of the medium, actually. Think about it. Folktales began as storytelling. How perfect to have kids discover them the same way, right? And not just Grimm brothers stuff. What about stories in a specific tradition? What about stories that connect kids to their heritage?

Meet Have I Got a Story For You!

So every year, this organization called PJ Library ships more than 200,000 books out each month to families raising Jewish children. These books are carefully curated children’s books and are sent, for free, with the hope that they could, “help foster a love of reading along with child-friendly glimpses into Jewish history and culture.” Pretty neat, right? I mean, I’m a librarian. I like free books. I like the idea of someone out there sending good ones to kids. And then PJ Library launched this podcast. To what end?

To answer that I recently spoke with Meredith Lewis, the director of content at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (which started the PJ Library program).  Not just about the podcast itself, and what it means in the greater, grander scheme of storytelling, but also about that whole giving kids free books thing. What’s up with that?


Betsy Bird: So I love podcasts (I host two, so I’d better). Still, it’s always interesting to me when an organization thinks to start one. So I’ll ask you straight out – Why a podcast? Why now?

Meredith Lewis:  Well, PJ Library is all about families reading stories together but they realize that in 2020 families are on the go more than ever and it’s not always feasible for families to cuddle up. Stories are portable and podcasts can take stories that people love and put them in an even more portable format than books. Some kids even access devices on their own time. As a result, podcasts extend being able to share stories together.

BB: When I read a little into your podcast I saw that in its PR material it said that it, “lifts classic Jewish folk tales from the page, gives them a modern twist and brings them to sparkling life for families seeking an entertaining, enriching diversion from digital life.” Who rewrote these stories?

ML: That would be a group of script writers. Some are screenwriters, and some are comedians. The nice thing about folktales is that we have a lot of information about where they originated. So they’ve taken folktales that they’ve wanted to see but that didn’t work in a picture book format and now benefit from a looser oral translation.

BB: And how do you envision this podcast being used?

ML: Certainly during travel time and in the car. In cases where a parent who has read the same book 50 times before bed and is exhausted and the kid is still ready to hear stories, they could put the podcast on them. Sometimes I listen while I’m driving the kids to carpool and I’ll forget to pause after I drop them off. It really augments the book experience. After all, folktales were an oral tradition before they were a book tradition.

BB: Can you tell me a little more about the Harold Grinspoon Foundation program that sends books to families raising Jewish children? How did that start? How many families partake?

ML: Harold was actually inspired by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Around the same time he was attending his family’s Passover Seder and his daughter-in-law brought whatever books she could find about Passover. Harold had never seen Jewish children’s books before. He wondered if you could do a Jewish program like Dolly’s. The story goes that initially they expected about 200 families in Western Massachusetts to sign up. They got 700 kids. So many families wanted to connect to the community through books! It grew first in North America and now it’s gone beyond that. Currently it’s now in more than 26 countries, 650,000 kids each month. They’ll be going into their 6th and 7th languages in 2020. The program is totally free for families and goes up to age 8 and now has a middle grade program too. Anyone raising Jewish kids or kids with Jewish traditions can go to PJlibrary.org and find out that it’s totally, absolutely free for families. No strings attached. All of their booklists are totally available to the public. Right now there is a lot of talk about Anti-Semitism and they have additional resource guides for people who need them.


A great deal of thanks to Meredith Lewis for speaking to me today and to Beth Blenz-Clucas for connecting us. And just to round us out . . .

About The Harold Grinspoon Foundation/PJ Library

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation operates creative programs to engage the Jewish community by meeting people where they are at key life moments and by providing access to the best of Jewish culture and tradition, while using philanthropy to encourage others to invest in the Jewish community. To learn more, visit: www.hgf.org

PJ Library® is an award-winning program started by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that engages families in their Jewish journey by giving free Jewish books and music to children ages 6 months to 12 years. PJ Library has partnerships with philanthropists and local Jewish organizations in nearly 200 communities in the U.S. and Canada, and sends books to families in 21 countries around the world. To learn more, visit: www.pjlibrary.org.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

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