NO VACANCY (Groundwood Books, 2020), a middle grade novel by Tziporah Cohen, takes us through a budding friendship, a seemingly innocent ruse that fools a community, and an emotional journey that leads to a young girl’s realization of people’s differences and her first real connection to her Jewish identity.
Miriam’s family moves from Manhattan to a village upstate when her dad loses his job in the city. The draw to this particular boring little town? A motel for sale that Miriam’s parents decide to move into– a motel that, it turns out, gets no business at all. People don’t visit this place for anything.
Therefore, Jewish Miriam and her new Catholic friend Kate must hatch a plan to draw people, as they try to save both the motel and Kate’s family diner. They conspire to bring attention to a stain that looks like the Virgin Mary on the old dilapidated drive-in screen, a plan that ends up filling Miriam with guilt and confusion about religion’s role and the meaning of faith.
Catholics have their own libraries?
Father Donovan looks up.
“Yep. So do Jews. Your people may be called the People of the Book, but the rest of us like to read too.”
He smiles and I know he’s making a joke, but still, I think, your people? Aren’t we all one people? Why does everybody keep talking about us and them?
It’s like he reads my mind. “I’m sorry, Miriam It’s been a tough couple of days, hasn’t it?”NO VACANCY, Tziporah Cohen
The book introduces Jewish concepts in a way that is accessible to those who are unfamiliar yet doesn’t feel explanatory for those who aren’t. And although the pace seems slow for a bit while the reader takes in Miriam’s thoughts, observations, and worries, the payoff is great as they all come together in the most satisfying way. (This reviewer may have cried a little toward the end, but by the time I closed the book had a goofily broad grin across my face.)
Kelly Yang fans will love this one too. Yang’s FRONT DESK, also about a family moving into and running a hotel, has a similar premise and dynamic, but is varied in feel and weight. NO VACANCY is a quick read even for middle graders (8 to 12) and is introspective and sweet. A lovely book for kids or families.