I like to think of myself as open-minded and young-at-heart. For instance, I listen to my kids’ music and read their social media posts in an attempt to better relate to their world and keep up with pop culture trends.
For that reason, I enjoyed being immersed in the modern-day lives of the young adult characters in Atlantan Laura Silverman’s latest fiction: “You Asked for Perfect,” released Tuesday, and “It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories,” an anthology of short stories coming out later this year. Silverman is a contributor and co-editor.
“You Asked for Perfect,” set in Atlanta, explores the pressures and high expectations of over-achievement many of our kids face. “It’s a Whole Spiel” is a compilation of young adult struggles for acceptance, love, identity and understanding.
I have to admit I had to look up a few terms, social media slang and shorthand. But otherwise, both books were page-turners, exploring the awkwardness of being a young adult in a world that stresses perfectionism in school, relationships and communication.
In 2017, Silverman won a first-place Simon Rockower Award for an AJT column she wrote about anti-Semitic threats she received online after tweeting criticism of President Donald Trump.
I caught up with Silverman about her latest books, having read her first novel, “Girl out of Water,” released in 2017. Silverman told me how her teenage years and Jewish upbringing in Atlanta influenced her fiction, and how she chose her subject matter and audience.
“I really enjoy writing about these teen ‘coming-of-age’ moments – it’s such a rapidly changing and intense time of life,” said Silverman, now in her 20s. “I was a voracious reader as a teenager. … I’ll never be able to feel as completely immersed in a book as I did when I was a teen. There’s something very special about how teenagers feel things so strongly. I love writing for such an engaged and passionate audience.”
Silverman explains, too, why she focused on interfaith relations in “You Asked for Perfect.”
“Growing up, one of my very best friends was Muslim, and I, of course, was Jewish. … We bonded over having certain food restrictions and different holidays than our gentile friends. As I got older, I found out that some people think it’s strange or even impossible for Muslim and Jewish people to be friends. So, I wanted to reflect in this book how very normal our relationship was.”
The main character, “Ariel, dates a Muslim boy, Amir. And their younger sisters are best friends, so the two families are already very close,” Silverman said.
“I’m very sad to say that my friend, Raya Siddiqi, passed away suddenly while I was still working on this book. She helped me with some of the details of Amir’s character and his family, and the book is now dedicated to her.”
The quest for perfection is obviously a theme of the book and a major issue for today’s teens, as cited in some of the AJT’s articles on childhood anxiety in the past year.
“I went to an academically competitive high school. Although I wasn’t as high-achieving as my protagonist Ariel, I was still encouraged to take as many AP classes as possible and excel in them. And I took zero period and online P.E. to fit in extra electives.
“Many teens are put under an extraordinary amount of pressure to be perfect, and it’s unhealthy and dangerous. I want to send a message to teens that their grades do not define them. And I want adults to read the book and examine the ways they add to the pressure in teens’ lives.”
The book is set in an Atlanta suburb with local landmarks such as the University of Georgia, Buford Highway and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
She admits her experience at Walton High School and her synagogue, Congregation Etz Chaim, also guided her writing hand.
“Some people say writers take their characters from people they know in real life, and while I don’t feel like I do that, I do sometimes pick up setting details from places I’m familiar with.
“Ariel, the protagonist, grows up just like I did – as an observant Conservative Jew. I really enjoyed putting these details of my culture into the book. We’re printing my Nana’s (great-grandmother’s) matzo ball soup recipe in the back of the book!”
Silverman’s latest fiction, “It’s a Whole Spiel,” set to be released in September, contrasts with the Holocaust books she read as a teen. “Although these types of books are very important and should be written and read, it’s important Jewish teens also see themselves outside the context of our trauma. An anthology is a way to get many varied and diverse Jewish stories on the shelf all at once!
“We wanted to represent as many facets of Judaism as possible, so our contributors range in sexuality, race, ability, and level of religious observance.”
The stories tackle teen hang-ups, anxiety, episodes of bravery, independence, travel, sex, anti-social behavior and feelings of being an outcast, among other weighty subjects.
“Read on and find your place among those of us who are proudly and undeniably lost as wanderers of a nation that was once a stranger,” actress Mayim Bialik, who had a connection with the publisher, states in the book’s foreword.
What’s been the reaction to the anthology so far? “Since announcing the book, we have had an incredible amount of excitement,” Silverman said. “There’s definitely a thirst for Jewish books, and I hope readers will love these stories as much as I do!”