2023 Malka Penn Award Recognizes Beneath the Wide Silk Sky and The Tower of Life

Children’s literature selections honored for outstanding work addressing human rights issues and themes

The 2023 Malka Penn Award winning books, 'Beneath the Wide Silk Sky' and 'The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs'

A novel and a picture book have been selected as the two recipients of the 2023 Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature, presented by UConn’s Dodd Human Rights Impact Programs.

This year’s winning novel is Beneath the Wide Silk Sky, by Emily Inouye Huey and published by Scholastic Press.

In her acclaimed debut, Huey offers an intimate portrait of the bigotry faced by Japanese Americans during World War II through the voice of Sam Sakamoto, a young aspiring photographer grappling with family loss and societal changes following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Inspired by the author’s family history, the book offers a poignant view of the lead-up to Japanese incarceration, racism on the home front, and the relationship between patriotism and protest.

This year’s winning picture book is The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, by Chana Stiefel and illustrated by Susan Gal, and published by Scholastic Press.

In this stunning true story, a girl named Yaffa – who loved her family, her home, and her beautiful town – makes it her life’s mission to recover thousands of photographs from around the world after her town is invaded by Nazi soldiers and nearly 3,500 Jewish souls are erased. Using these photos, Yaffa builds the Tower of Faces, a permanent exhibit in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to restore the soaring spirit of Eishyshok.

“I am so grateful to Dodd Human Rights Impact Programs and the Malka Penn Award for this very kind honor and for the vital work they do,” says Huey. “Beneath the Wide Silk Sky is inspired by my family’s experiences during World War II, when 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned by the United States government. My grandfather called it a time of ‘hysteria and dread.’ It is a course that we must avoid in the future. That is why books, and access to books, matter so much, especially in today’s divided climate.”

Huey continues, “Stories allow us to immerse ourselves in the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others. They are a path to understanding, empathy, and even transformation. They help us see the humanity in those around us. They are one of our most powerful antidotes to hate.”

“I am tremendously grateful to Michele Palmer, Dodd Human Rights Impact Programs, and the award committee for selecting The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs as this year’s recipient of the Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature,” says Stiefel. “This award not only honors the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but also gives me hope that today’s children will be inspired to carry on Yaffa Eliach’s legacy of resilience, empathy, optimism, and faith in humanity.”

“I am profoundly grateful to have played a part in bringing Yaffa Eliach’s inspiring story to young readers,” says Gal. “I dedicate this wonderful honor to the memory of the children of Eishyshok who never had the opportunity to grow up and fill their lives with books and stories.”

The Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children's Literature

The Malka Penn Award is given annually to the authors of outstanding children’s books addressing human rights issues or themes, such as discrimination, equity, poverty, justice, war, peace, slavery, or freedom.

“We are delighted to be able to honor the authors and illustrator of two outstanding books for the 2023 Malka Penn Award, the first year we have recognized both a novel and picture book for this prize,” says James Waller, director of Dodd Human Rights Impact Programs and inaugural Christopher J. Dodd Chair in Human Rights Practice. “This award aims to draw attention to the remarkable children’s and youth literature addressing pressing human rights issues for young audiences. The volume, and quality, of this year’s submissions illustrates the growth of the genre and affirms the vital importance of books and stories in promoting and protecting human rights.”

Named in honor of author Michele Palmer – who writes under the pseudonym Malka Penn – the award recognizes works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, or biography and written for children from preschool to high school. Special consideration is given to stories about individuals who have been affected by social injustices and who, by confronting those injustices, have made a difference in their lives or the lives of others.

“We were delighted to realize that the theme of photography runs through both of the winning books and two of the honor books, which gives us an opportunity to bring awareness to its role in the quest for human rights,” Palmer says.

Huey and Steifel will formally accept their awards in a ceremony in November.

In addition to Beneath the Wide Silk Sky and The Tower of Life, the Malka Penn Award Committee has recognized the following selections as its 2023 Honor Books:

  • Amazona, by Canizales, published by Lerner Publishing Group/Graphic Universe – Andrea, a 19-year-old Indigenous Colombian woman, returns home to mourn her lost child – and on a mission to capture evidence of illegal mining – in this graphic novel.
  • Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party, by Jetta Grace Martin, Joshua Bloom, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.; published by Levine Querido – The origin story of the Black Panther Party – of Huey and Bobby, Eldridge and Kathleen, Elaine and Fred and Ericka – is meticulously researched and thrillingly told to young readers, filled with photographs throughout.
  • Today Is Different, by Doua Moua and illustrated by Kim Holt, published by Carolrhoda Books/ Lerner Publishing Group – In this inspiring picture book, Mai, a young Hmong girl, and Kiara, a young Black girl, are best friends. When Kiara misses school one day to protest an act of police violence against the Black community, Mai decides to join the protest, too, showing her parents that standing together makes all of us stronger.
  • Curve & Flow: The Elegant Vision of L.A. Architect Paul R. Williams, by Andrea J. Loney and illustrated by Keith Mallett, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House – A remarkable story of fortitude and hope, Paul R. Williams becomes obsessed with the concept of “home” as an orphaned Black boy in American. Overcoming all obstacles, he becomes a world-renowned architect and the creator of a number of landmark buildings in Los Angeles.

The Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature will be presented at The Dodd Center for Human Rights in Storrs, Connecticut, on November 15, 2023 at 5:00 PM.

In addition to the award ceremony, artwork from both winning books will be showcased in a coinciding exhibit, “Revealing Injustice/Inspiring Change: The Role of Photography in Human Rights,” also opening at The Dodd Center on November 15. The exhibit will also feature photographs by Dorothea Lange that parallel the events leading up to the Japanese American internment of Beneath the Wide Silk Sky as well as snapshots of residents in a Jewish shtetl before the Holocaust, as portrayed in The Tower of Life.

The Dodd Center is home to robust academic programs and innovative external engagement in human rights, including the Gladstein Family Human Rights Institute, its Dodd Human Rights Impact Programs, the University Archives and Special Collections, and the Center for Judaic and Contemporary Jewish Life.

For more information about Dodd Impact, visit humanrights.uconn.edu/dodd-impact.