Four-in-One Notebook | Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Earlier in 2014, Random House/Wendy Lamb Books published a debut novel by Esther Ehrlich. The Whole Megillah posed some key questions to Esther, her agent Susan Golomb, publisher/editor Wendy Lamb, and Random House Children’s Books senior publicist Aisha Cloud. Nest is aimed at readers 10 and up.

nestThe Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write this book? Why place it in the 1970s?
Esther Ehrlich (EE)Nest began with an image that I couldn’t shake, that grabbed hold of me. I imagined two sisters dancing in the road in a summer rainstorm while their mother, a dancer who wasn’t feeling well, watched them from the porch. I felt pulled in by the characters, wanted to understand them better. Very quickly, I’d written what was originally the opening scene of Nest. (It became the second scene during the editing process.) Fortunately, after this initial scene I was still hooked, still eager to discover whatever the characters had to show me. And so I kept writing!

Why the 1970s? Well, the most obvious answer is that I was a kid then, so it was very familiar to me! But also, I wanted to write about a time when kids had a certain kind of freedom that most kids don’t have today, a time when they weren’t tethered to their parents by cell phones. It used to be that kids ranged around, exploring and playing and creating a whole world for themselves that was separate from the adult world. I wanted my characters to experience that, with all of its joys and occasional perils. And it pleases me to think that young readers today might be able to have a taste of that freedom, might live it vicariously through the book.

TWM: What led you to give Chirp an interest in birding?
EE: That’s a great question. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but I made very few conscious choices about who my characters are, what they’re like, including their interests. I don’t remember when I first “discovered” that Chirp liked birds. It just evolved, along with everything else about her. What I can say is that Chirp made a little chirpy sound as an infant that her parents adored and they occasionally called her “Chirp.” Then, when she was a toddler, she started noticing birds and pointing to them with excitement and so the nickname stuck!

TWM: Did you conduct research for this book? If so, please describe your process.
EE: Yes, I did research for Nest and I really enjoyed it. People often ask if I’m a birder and, though I like birds, I’m definitely not a “real” birder. I used resources that I got from Audubon on Cape Cod to make sure that this bird would be doing that thing at this time of year there. And I listened to birdsongs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. I wanted to do the birds’ justice—choose the right bird for the right mood/situation.

Since I grew up in the ’70s, a bunch of my research was just about double-checking the accuracy of my memories. What did it say on the box of Ring Dings? What Stevie Wonder song would Chirp and Sally most likely be dancing to in the basement? When did that commercial with the owl saying Give a hoot! Don’t pollute! run? I also dug up an old menu from Howard Johnson’s so Dad could order a “grilled-in-butter frankfort,” instead of just a plain old hotdog!

TWM: Was there anything in the writing process that challenged or surprised you?
EE: Yes, I was surprised that though I was writing about some heavy subjects, the experience of writing Nest was mostly a joy. I found the process of getting to know my characters—of discovering who they were, what moved them, what they wanted to do and say—a real pleasure.

TWM: Is there anything you would have done differently?
EE: Hmmm… I don’t think so. There was enough time and space in the shaping of Nest to make any changes that occurred to me. And I was in terrific hands throughout the process, first with my agent, Susan Golomb, and then with my editor, Wendy Lamb. The changes we made throughout the process only made Nest a stronger book.

TWM: Susan and Wendy, what attracted you to this manuscript?
Susan Golomb (SG): What attracted me to Nest were  the terrific characters—their authenticity, their joy, their dignity, and the incredible love they have for one another, Everything is brought out without any sentimentality. As a mother, I particularly related to Chirp’s mother and the excruciating difficulty of parenting through depression.

Wendy Lamb (WL): When I read Nest I was struck by the effortless and natural voice, and how this talented new writer immediately made me and other readers at my imprint  care about Chirp, her family, and Joey. I loved the use of birds—all the way to the final beats of the ending—and the surprises, the shifts from humor and warmth to the darkest moments a child can face. I knew I had to be the one to publish it. When I add a title to my small list, I ask: Will children like this, will they connect so deeply with the characters and story that they will reread it? Will they find something that echoes their private questions and feelings? Will it make them look at their world differently?  Does it have something fresh to say?  With Nest, each answer was Yes. 

TWM: Chirp, like Harper Lee’s Scout, is a memorable character. What advice would you give for creating memorable characters?
EE: Listen. I think listening carefully to your characters is the key. What do they want? What are they really saying? What hints are they dropping that you shouldn’t miss? I think it’s important not to let your brain get in the way of the subtle art of hearing your characters. For me, the only times I lost my way writing Nest was when I’d get come up with what seemed like a smart idea, a deep, meaningful metaphor, or lofty point. If I forced that on the story, I’d get out of touch with my characters. I needed to keep my head, my heart, focused on all that the characters were revealing to me in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

TWM: School Library Journal called your prose lyrical. Do you have a background in poetry?
EE: My mom was a poet. She used to share her poems with me, beginning when I was a young teen. I learned a lot from her love of words. She used to always tell my siblings and me when we were struggling with school papers, “If you know what you want to say, you should be able to say it in one sentence.” That focus on clarity and “spareness” influenced my writing, I think. I also had a wonderful English professor at Vassar, Eamon Grennan, who is a tremendous poet. I loved working with him. He was really interested in my writing and gave me a lot of encouragement.

TWM: When did you know you were a writer?
EE: Wow, tough question. Part of me has always known it and part of me still doesn’t know it!

TWM: What were your favorite books growing up? What authors inspire you?
EE: As a girl, I loved to read books in which tough things happened to kids but they took matters into their own hands and turned life around. The Secret Garden is a perfect example of that. And books with strong, smart, imaginative kids like Harriet in Harriet the Spy and Claudia in From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I also loved the All-of-a-Kind-Family books, for a lot of reasons, including that I liked reading about a large Jewish family since I was part of one!

As an adult, I’ve read and absolutely loved Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio, all of which really brought me into the experience and heart of the young narrator. I recently had the pleasure of reading an Advanced Reader’s Copy of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and thought it was a lovely, tender book. Other favorites? The Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, My Antonia by Willa Cather, everything I’ve read by Alice Hoffman, Working by Studs Terkel, Bruiser by Ian Chorao…

TWM: Susan, Wendy, and Aisha, the book’s been getting lots of positive attention. To what do you attribute this?
SG: I think the book attracted so much press attention for the same reasons I was attracted to it. The writing is so honest, fresh, and profound.

WL: One of the great things about children’s books is that young readers and the adults who choose books for them respond to quality, and honest writing.  I’m so glad that reviewers appreciated Esther’s beautiful writing, her sensitive handling of complex,  sometimes challenging topics, and her wonderful characters. The story has sad moments, but it’s suffused with love, humor, and hope.  The Random House Children’s Book Group did a big marketing campaign to make sure people knew about it, including choosing it as our independent store “rep pick,’’ and introducing Esther to readers at pre-pub dinners on both coasts and at ALA. Esther of course, is the best advocate for Nest—when she hears you speak, she makes you fall in love with Chirp and Joey all over again. The great thing is that the buzz about the book has been heartfelt.  Readers, including acclaimed writers such as the very supportive and generous Karen Cushman, are sharing and talking about Nest.

Aisha Cloud (AC): I agree with Wendy’s answer wholeheartedly.

TWM: Aisha, what is the promotional plan like for Nest?
AC: Please know that there are a lot of factors and people in different departments that worked on the plan for Nest. There is educator outreach, advertising, social media, online promotions and publicity that are planned months before the book is on sale and when the book is in stores. For publicity, which is my department, galleys with galley letters are sent six months in advance to Top Trade Review Publications and long lead magazines. In addition, for pre-publication we featured Nest at BEA (Book Expo of America), that’s in May, and we set up a pre-publication Author Buzz Tour dinners in San Francisco (6/11), CA and Seattle, WA (6/12).  For the dinners, we invited sales accounts, media, and educators. For the Finished Book Mailing to Top Trade Review Publications and children’s online and print media outlets. We focused outreach to family outlets and also pitched as a mother-daughter book club / discussion book. In addition, we set up author appearances in Chicago and Boston in late September and set up school visits, in-store events, a library visit and a chat with students at Simmons college before their creative writing class.

And with every great review, I repitch to media outlets to see if they will consider reviewing Nest or interviewing the author.

TWM: Esther, what’s next for you?
EE: I’ve begun a new book about a brother and sister living in Boston in the early ‘70s. It’s still a bit soon to know if it’s going to really turn into something, but I hope so!

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Poet’s Notebook: Poetica Chapbook Winners Debra Winegarten & Lois Barr

I met Lois Barr and Debra Winegarten as my students at the Highlights Foundation workshops on Writing Jewish-themed Children’s Books in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania. Turned out, as you can read below, they’re also poets—and now award-winning poets at that. Both won the Poetica chapbook contest: Debra in 2011 and Lois in 2013.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Why did you offer your work to the Poetica chapbook contest?
Devorah Weingarten (DW): A friend of mine saw the contest, emailed me and said, “Hey, you write contemporary Jewish poetry, you should enter.” So I did.

Lois Barr (LB): For a long time my poems all seemed like adopted children.  They all looked so different.  Then I began to see a pattern, and I had a group of poems I liked about Jewish themes, so Poetica seemed like a natural choice for the contest.

TWM: Was the chapbook already assembled or did you have to do that specifically for the contest?

Poetica Chapbook Contest Winner 2011

Poetica Chapbook Contest Winner 2011

DW: I assembled the chapbook specifically for the contest. But I was having trouble figuring out the title of the collection. So I looked to see where the contest judge lived and if there was anything I could do to help make the chapbook appeal to the judge.

Because what’s the point of entering unless you’re going to win? I saw the judge lived in Norfolk, Virginia.

As I feel asleep that night, I thought, “Norfolk, Virginia. I got nothing to connect myself with that…Virginia…” and as I drifted off to sleep, I thought, “Do they know there’s Jews in Texas?” And the light bulb went on in my head, I leapt out of bed, ran through the house to my study to type the title into my computer.

LB: No, I had a lot of Jewish-themed poems, but I had to winnow them out with severity and  a total lack of sentimentality.

TWM: What is your background in poetry?
DW: My first poem was published in my shul monthly newsletter when I was in third grade. It was called, “God is Everywhere.” Other than that, I took a poetry course in college and have dabbled on and off with poetry and song lyrics over the years.

LB: Pretty bleak.  Long ago I studied contemporary poetry in Madrid with one of Spain’s foremost poets and hated every minute of it.  I thought he was pompous and didn’t like his work.  I did always like Machado, Lorca and Neruda.  But I mainly read fiction and wrote my dissertation about a 19th century realist novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós.  I’ve also written a book about Latin American Jewish novelists.  About ten years ago I began writing short stories, and then somehow I joined a group of people who met at our public library to read and critique our poems. Fortunately, a few members of the group (especially Herb Berman our leader) have a strong background in classic and contemporary poets and are very helpful in sharing great poetry.

TWM: What is it about poetry that speaks to you as a writer?
DW: When I get an idea for a poem, the idea won’t leave me alone until I write the poem. I often get “snippets,” maybe a line, and if I don’t have time to sit down right then, I’ll write down the line in my smart phone and get back to it when I do have the time.

LB: Poems can lead you to discovery.  I like the surprise of reading a good poem and the surprise of writing one.  The process of writing is always engrossing.  As a language teacher, I’ve always been in love with the sound of words, and so sometimes things I hear just stick with me and seem to need to be in a poem.

TWM: What was the inspiration for your collection?
DW: I started writing what I call “therapy” poetry after my mother killed herself. My grief was so palpable that I couldn’t write anything for over a year. And I’m a writer. I started writing “bad poetry” as  a way to get me to write anything at all. I culled through all those poems and others I wrote during that seven-year period, and took the best ones and put them in this book.

Poetica Chapbook Contest Winner 2013

Poetica Chapbook Contest Winner 2013

LB: Biopoesis?  Hmm.  I think a writing group that I am in (four women poets) was working on the story of Genesis and a poem emerged about creation.  Then I fell in love with the word Biopoesis.  It may have even inspired the poem, which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

TWM: What does it take to produce a winning manuscript?
DW: I once took a workshop called, “How to Win a Chapbook Contest.” Here’s what I remember from the workshop:

  • Put your best poem first, because that’s what the judge(s) will look at first.
  • Put your best poem last, because that’s what the judge(s) will be left with at the end of your book.
  • Right in the middle, put your best poem, that way, if the book accidentally falls open, your best poem will show up in the middle.
  • Then, fill in all the other pages with your best poem.

My takeaway was, only put my very best poems in the book. Which is why my collection is only, I think, 17 poems, I left out the dead wood and only put in ones that really sang or spoke a message.

LB: Luck.  Persistence.  The poems must belong together.  Since a chapbook is so short, anything that isn’t your best work and doesn’t fit your theme, has to go. Also, many of the poems in my collection had already been published, and so I felt that they were ready to be out in the world as a book.  That is to say, they had been looked at and liked by a lot of eyes before I even thought of submitting them to a contest.

TWM: What advice would you have to The Whole Megillah audience about chapbooks and chapbook contests?
DW: After I won the contest, I wrote the judge to thank him and ask him why my book won. He wrote back and said he got a ton of entries, and that Jews were noted for their humor. But the books he got were filled with horror, and Holocaust stories, and guilt, and mine was the only one that made him laugh out loud, even when I was dealing with difficult subjects. So, surprise your reader.

And, the major complaint about There’s Jews in Texas? (which I’m selling on Amazon as an e-book right now for .99) is that it’s too short. So, you can buy the sequel, Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From on my website. And I’m working on the third in the trilogy, Have Torah, Will Travel, copyright Debra L. Winegarten 2014.

LB: When you have had some success getting your work out in journals, and you feel you have a group of poems that someone will want to sit down and read cover to cover, look around for places that publish poems like yours.  Try regional or special interest contests.  Don’t worry too much about rejection.  It means you had enough gumption and energy to put your best work out there and try. Don’t expect to get any feedback other than thanks but no thanks or we love your work and want to publish it.

Finally, I very much enjoyed the process of working with Michal Magerefteh at Poetica. She found a beautiful painting for the cover, and the copy editor took great care with the manuscript.

About Debra L. Winegarten

Debra L. Winegarten

Debra L. Winegarten

A native Dallasite, Debra now makes her home in Austin, Texas. By day, she teaches sociology at South University and works in the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin. By night, she writes award-winning poetry and biographies of Texas women for middle-school students. Her latest books are Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From and Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist, released in April from The University of Texas Press. Find out more about her: www.sociosights.com.

About Lois Barr

Lois Barr Photo credit: Ed Levin

Lois Barr
Photo credit: Ed Levin

Lois Baer Barr is a professor of Spanish at Lake Forest College.  Her poems and stories have been published in Persimmon Tree, The Examined Life, Journal of Modern Poetry, Flashquake, Poetica, Phat’itude, East on Central, Ekakshara, The DuPage Review, The New Vilna Review, The Jewish Literary Journal and Mochila.   Five anthologies have included her work.  She has received Pushcart nominations for poetry and fiction.  Her books, articles and reviews on Spanish and Latin American literature, with a special focus on Latin American Jewish Literature, have appeared here and abroad.  Her chapbook Biopoesis won Poetica Magazine’s 2013 contest.

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Online Fiction Class Coming Soon!

fiction-word-cloudOver the course of The Whole Megillah, I’ve been asked to teach a fiction writing class. So, here it is!

Beginning January 2015, I’ll be offering a six-week, online class in Writing Fiction. We’ll be exploring:

  • Week One—Imagery
  • Week Two—Characterization
  • Week Three—Point of View
  • Week Four—Setting
  • Week Five—Plot and Structure
  • Week Six—Revision

Lectures will be posted to Google Drive. We’ll chat about craft and an assigned short story reading per class through a private Facebook page. Each participant will be able to submit up to 15 pp. of fiction (through Google Drive) to the group for workshop. In subsequent classes, participants will be able to continue to work on these or other manuscripts.

Space is limited to 12 writers. Fee: $300 payable by check or via PayPal.

I teach introductory and advanced creative writing and fiction writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey. My fiction has appeared in Jewishfiction.net, Mused-Bellaonline Literary Review, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, and other journals. I hold an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Interested? Either leave a comment or shoot me a note at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net.

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Author’s Notebook | Kathy Kacer, World War II and Holocaust Fiction & Nonfiction Author

cover-secretofgabisdresserThe Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first discover you wanted to be a writer?
Kathy Kacer (KK): I always loved writing. As a kid, I wrote poetry, short stories, songs, you name it. I kept journals and still have the ones I wrote as a teenager. I sometimes go back and read them when I’m struggling to capture the voice of a young girl. I never thought about actually becoming a “writer.” But during a leave from my “real” job as a psychologist, I decided to try and write a story about my mother who had survived the war in hiding. That eventually became my first book, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser. It was only after that publication that I thought about this as a career.

TWM: I understand your parents were Holocaust survivors. How did that affect your worldview? How does that affect what you write?
KK: Being the child of Holocaust survivors has influenced every part of my life. I grew up not only in a family of survivors, but also in a community of survivors, many of whom spoke openly about their experiences during the Holocaust. I was incredibly curious about their lives and wanted to hear more and more. And I grew up passionate about that history and determined to write those stories down.

TWM: Some editors have said, “No more Holocaust stories.” What’s your take on that?
KK: My primary goal is to write compelling stories for young readers. And I believe that there will always be a market for these good stories. Mine happen to be set during the Second World War and the Holocaust. But they are universal in their themes of survival, struggle, courage, tenacity of spirit, etc. So as long as the stories are gripping and the themes are universal, I think you can write about anything, even the Holocaust, and there will always be a market.

TWM: What did you like to read while growing up?
KK: I guess it’s no surprise that I loved to read historical fiction as a kid. I read Margaret Mitchell, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk — pretty ambitious stuff for a teen.

cover-shanghaiescapeTWM: How do you prepare to do research? What is your process for note-taking, etc.?
KK: I do start off by reading everything there is to read on the topic that I am writing about — the Shanghai Ghetto, the St. Louis, Terezin. I read adult non-fiction, historical fiction, etc. Since I am often writing about a real person, I am constantly thinking about the questions that I will ask that person in light of all the reading that I have done. When I finally meet with the “subject” of my story, I am well-prepared with the history and with my questions. I don’t record my interviews. I take copious notes, inserting bits of dialogue (as the survivor recalls conversations), and key moments that will come together in the story that I will be writing. No matter how many questions I ask — and I ask a lot!! — as soon as I sit down to write, I realize all the things I failed to ask. So I go back for more interviewing. If I count up the hours of interviews that I conduct with one person, it probably adds up to about a hundred per book.

TWM: What challenges you the most in your writing?
KK: I think the thing that challenges most of us who write about real people in a real time is to maintain the delicate balance between staying true to this important history while trying to create a story that engages the audience.

TWM: What is your greatest satisfaction in your writing?
KK: I love the entire writing process. I love researching the history; I love interviewing survivors; I love creating the story and making sure that it is engaging and informative. I probably don’t like the re-writing part as much as creating the first draft. But writing in general is a joy and a passion.

TWM: Of all the books you’ve written to date, do you have a favorite? Why?
KK: I have to confess that this is a question that kids ask me all the time. But after 18 books, it’s a tough one to answer. I will say that because The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser was my first book and was a story about my mother, it holds a special place in my heart.

TWM: What book do you wish you’d written?
KK: There are two books that come to mind. The first is I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein. I often think about writing about my own personal experience of this, but I’m not sure how to do it justice. Bernice certainly did in this exquisite book. The second book that I wish I had written is The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer — also a Holocaust story. I read this sweeping historical fiction a few years ago and was mesmerized by the story and by her beautiful writing style. It made me wish that I wrote like that!

cover magician of auschwitzTWM: Please tell us about your new book, The Magician of Auschwitz?
KK: The Magician of Auschwitz. Another remarkable story! For some time I had wanted to write about Herbert Levin who had been known as Nivelli the Magician. But I couldn’t find a way into the story that would touch young readers. And then — through a whole bunch of circumstances and connections — I was introduced to Werner Reich. Werner had been imprisoned in Auschwitz as a young teen and was a bunk mate of Nivelli. It was Nivelli who introduced Werner to magic. In meeting Werner, I knew that I had found the way to write the story.

The challenge here was creating an accessible picture book about the Holocaust for young readers. There is no hiding where this story takes place — or how terrible were the circumstances there! And yet, this is a story about magic, even in the darkest of places, and the gift of friendship and kindness that can exist alongside the horrors of this time. That’s what I wanted to capture here.

Werner lives on Long Island. He is 87! Strong, vibrant, funny! I continue to be in awe of his optimism and generous spirit.

About Kathy Kacer

Kathy Kacer, head shot 2015 (2)Kathy Kacer is a children’s author who is dedicated to writing about the Holocaust in a way that is sensitive to the age and stage of development of young readers. Her many books include The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War, The Underground Reporters, Hiding Edith, The Diary of Laura’s Twin, To Hope and Back: The Journey of the St. Louis, Restitution, and Shanghai Escape.

A winner of the Jewish Book Awards in Canada and the United States, as well as the Yad Vashem Award for Children’s Holocaust Literature in Israel, Kathy has written unforgettable stories inspired by real events.  Her books have been translated into 20 languages and sold to Germany, China, Italy, Thailand, England, Japan, Korea, Israel, Brazil, Belgium, and other countries.  Her novels are stories of hope, courage, and humanity in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Although she has been writing for many years, Kathy only became a published author in 1999. Before that, she worked as a psychologist with troubled teens.  Kathy teaches writing at the University of Toronto, Canada (Continuing Studies). She also speaks to children in schools and libraries around the world about the importance of understanding the Holocaust and keeping its memory alive. In addition, she lectures in universities and colleges on the topic of teaching sensitive material to young children.

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Two-in-One Notebook Special | The Whispering Town

Today The Whole Megillah speaks with The Whispering Town (Kar-Ben, 2014) author Jennifer Elvgren and illustrator Fabio Santomauro.

whispering townThe Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Jennifer Elvgren (JE): I have always been drawn to Holocaust literature. As a child, my grandmother shared her copy of Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place with me: my mother, her copy of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.

Over the years I continued to ponder these books as I finished college, then graduate school. I worked as a print journalist for a number of years before I began writing exclusively for children. Around that time another nonfiction Holocaust book was published, Ellen Levine’s Darkness Over Denmark. This book told the story of the Danish resistance and how the Danes worked together to smuggle nearly all of the 8,000 Danish Jews out of the country.

About 1,700 Jews escaped from the small fishing village of Gilleleje. One moonless night, the town’s citizens whispered directions to a man making his way to the harbor. That image moved me deeply. A story seed was planted in my mind, and I knew I wanted to write about the Holocaust for younger readers.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
JE: The fear factor was my greatest challenge with this book. How could I portray danger without really frightening the youngest readers and without diluting the story? In an early draft, Anett did not come face to face with soldiers. I had done a mock-up of the story with some stick figures (thank goodness for Fabio!) and read it to my critique group. One person commented that the tension thread could be heightened with some sort of confrontation. I knew then that Anett had to dig deeper, drawing on her bravery and ability to stay calm. That was when I added the scene where her parents were out and Anett had to answer the door when the soldiers banged. I’m glad I did because, in the end, Anett faced her greatest fear and triumphed.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
JE: I really struggled between 1st person and 3rd person with this story. I eventually settled on 1st person. I felt it drew the reader closer to Anett. Sometimes, in picture books, 1st person can seem too sophisticated prompting suggestions of expanding the story into a middle grade novel. I was very committed to this being a picture book, and I’m very glad that I didn’t have to compromise.

TWM: How did you research this story?
JE: I researched this story through non-fiction books and Internet accounts of the time period. I also asked some Jewish friends to read drafts to make sure that I was culturally accurate.

TWM: Why do you write for children?
JE: I write for children, because I remember what it was like to be a child who loved books. I remember Saturday mornings at the library with my father and the excitement of choosing new stories. I remember summer afternoons reading under a favorite shade tree. I remember the thrill of receiving books as presents from my parents and grandparents. I connect all of these books with certain grades and events in my childhood. Happy times. Sad times. Learning times. Dreaming times. I have carried my favorites with me all of these years. They have become friends. I hope my stories encourage children (perhaps children who haven’t enjoyed reading in the past) to dream, to explore their feelings, and to better understand themselves and the world.

TWM: What do you hope kids take away from this book?
JE: I hope The Whispering Town encourages children to investigate history and cultures different from their own. I hope children, no matter their situation large or small, will choose bravery in the face of injustice and kindness always.

TWM: What books and authors have inspired you?
JE: There are too many to name all of them, but here is a list of my childhood favorites that are still on my bookshelves today.

  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
  • Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
  • The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  • Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
  • A Very Young Rider by Jill Krementz
  • The Thanksgiving Treasure by Gail Rock
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • Ruffian by Edward Claflin
  • The Story of Helen Keller by Lorena A. Hickok
  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
  • Beat the Turtle Drum by Constance C. Greene

TWM: Fabio, now let’s turn to you. How did you decide on your medium for illustration (and please describe the medium)?
Fabio Santomauro (FS): The great thing of illustration is that you have lots of possibilities as to devices: paintings, digital, highly tactile.
All the above makes it possible for your style to develop in different ways. Than you can choose which one better fits the project you are dealing with. As for The Whispering Town, I chose a totally digital technique, which makes the whole process faster and perfect for any changes,definitely frequent when dealing with illustrated books.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
FS: My greatest challenge in this project was facing such an important issue, as the Holocaust. Even if my generation has not experienced that historical period, looking into it is fundamental if you want to understand contemporary issues and the present world.The pivotal point was telling dramatic situations in a new way, which is both beautiful and hard to do. Moreover, you have to consider that the story is told from a child’s point of view for a target of young readers.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
FS: For an illustrator, there are multiple sources of satisfaction. But maybe the most relevant is that you have the privilege of telling a story through your art, communicating values to children all over the world. When a child looks at your illustrations and smiles – well, that’s my greatest satisfaction!

TWM: What (and who) inspire you most?
FS: My inspiration spouts from what surrounds me. I like observing and commenting through my sketches common behaviors and contradictions of the world we live in. If you don’t feel inspired, just step out of your room, walk, talk to people, watch around you. What’s better than this?

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Writing Jewish Historical Fiction Not Set in ‘Oy-Vey’ Times | Guest Post by Novelist Maggie Anton

maggie anton enchantressEarly in my Talmud studies, which I’ve been doing for over 20 years now, I came across an intriguing and remarkable passage. Rav Hisda’s daughter is sitting in her father’s classroom when he suddenly calls up his two best students and asks her, “Who do you want to marry?” Astonishingly, she replies, “Both of them,” and more astonishingly, that is what ultimately happens — she does marry both of them.

I couldn’t get this audacious girl out of my head. Whatever made her say “both of them,” when asked which suitor she preferred? Especially in 4th-century Babylonia where most Jewish girls had little or no choice in husbands.

I had to tell her story.

Before I could start writing, however, I had to do enough research about her family and community to answer what for me was an all-important question: Did they live in relative peace and prosperity? I would only write a book that I wanted to read, one providing a vacation from all the horrible things I, and my readers, can see in the newspaper and on the internet every day. For despite American historian Salo Baron’s opposition to what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” it seems that too many Jewish historical novels focus on our well-known intervals of trial and tribulation.

But there were many times and locations where our people flourished; those were the ones I wanted to write about.

maggie anton cover 1Luck was with me. Rav Hisda’s daughter lived near the height of the longest halcyon period Jews have ever enjoyed. This was our over 2000-year sojourn in the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which began under Cyrus the Great in 6th-century BCE and lasted until Jews were expelled from Arab lands when the State of Israel was established.

My novels about her, Apprentice and Enchantress, would be set in third and fourth century Babylonia, just as the Talmud was being created there. Though the Talmud has been the source of Jewish law and traditions for over 1500 years, today only a few scholars are familiar with the educated rabbinic community who produced it.

I couldn’t wait to see what I’d learn. Not only would I be delving into a subject that I, and my potential readers, knew almost nothing about, but it was a crucial time in Jewish history. Historical fiction set there is pretty much nonexistent, but I would remedy that.

maggieauthorpix2014About Maggie Anton

Maggie Anton is the award-winning author of the historical fiction series Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter. She is a Talmud scholar, with an expertise in Jewish women’s history. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Two-in-One Notebook Special | The Patchwork Torah with Author Allison Ofanansky and Illustrator Elsa Oriol

patchwork-torahThe Patchwork Torah is a global collaboration between U.S.-based publisher, Kar-Ben, author Allison Ofanansky in Israel and illustrator Elsa Oriol in France.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Allison, what inspired you to write this book?
Allison Ofanansky (AO): The book was inspired by a real patchwork Torah which our community in Tzfat, Israel bought several years ago. Our scroll is also made up of parts of old and damaged scrolls which were put together to make a whole, kosher Torah. But we don’t know any of the stories of the parts of our Torah scroll. The stories of the scrolls David collects are made up, even if some of them are based on real events.

TWM: Most of your books are contemporary, realistic narratives illustrated with photography. Why this book?
AO: It also started from a ‘contemporary realistic’ issue—the Torah our community bought. But it wasn’t possible to find out the histories of those fragments, so the story became more like historical fiction, going back to the times at which the various scrolls were written and damaged. It became obvious that it wasn’t suited for being illustrated with photographs, as my other books are.

TWM: What do you want young readers to take away from this book?
AO: Mostly I hope they enjoy the story. But there are a few ‘messages’. One is ecological—that damaged things can be restored rather than thrown away. Another is that even difficult parts of our history can be brought together into something new and beautiful. Also, I intentionally included David’s granddaughter (rather than grandson) in the last scenes to show inclusion of girls and women in celebrating with the Torah.

TWM: Did you conduct any research for The Patchwork Torah? If so, please describe your process.
AO: I spoke with several soferim (scribes) although I was not able to get in touch with the one who put together the Torah which we bought. Also, I sent the story to friends and asked them to read it to their children. The feedback I got was very helpful. For example, an earlier version had more about the scene during the Holocaust, but it was too upsetting for young children.

TWM: How do you choose the topics for your books?
AO: The ‘Nature in Israel’ series came out of a desire to show the connections between Jewish holidays and the natural cycles in Israel. This is something I’ve learned a lot about and experienced personally during the 20 years we’ve lived in Israel. As the series has developed, I speak with the publisher to find out what they need and want. For example, the last two books are about Shavuot and Rosh Chodesh—there are very few children’s books about these holidays.

TWM: What books or authors have inspired you the most? Why?
AO: I’ve always been a huge reader, so it’s hard to pick a few. I love the Laura Ingles Wilder books for showing so clearly and simply the details of her life.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
AO: As I got feedback from friends who read the story to their children, I realized how difficult it was to make the changes in time periods clear to kids who may not understand references to events like the Depression, World War II, Hurricane Katrina, etc. It took a lot of revision to make it flow in a way that kids could easily follow.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
AO: Getting nice feedback from readers.

TWM: Elsa, now let’s turn to you. Your artwork is stunning. What was your approach to the illustration? What medium did you use and why?
Elsa Oriol (EO): It was important for me to translate the emotion and tenderness of this story. I used my favorite technical: oil painting on paper, brushes and palette knife to give vibrant colors. Before, I had made all drawings with charcoal on paper.

TWM: Did you have to conduct any research? If so, please describe your process.
EO: Yes I did, I was lucky that one of my best friends, Isabelle, works at the Art and History Museum of Judaism in Paris, and her husband, Steven, is a Rabbi from New York, working and living now in Paris. Both of them learned me precious instructions. Also the publisher, Joanna Sussman, gave me good directions. So I could find the right elements by internet and at the Museum’s library.

TWM: Were there any particular challenges in illustrating this book? Please describe.
EO: I didn’t know too much about Simchat Torah and scribes, so I had to learn this important tradition. That’s why I created the pictures in a classical style. I was glad the publisher thought about me for this project and I wanted to take care of this very nice story.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction in illustrating this book?
EO: It was my first book for the United States, and this story is so beautiful… I hope Allison Ofanansky enjoyed my illustrations!

TWM: What inspired you to illustrate children’s books?
EO: As a painter and mother, I looked for some books for my son when he was a child. I like art when it’s timeless, and some children’s books, allowing real painting style, give lovely results… So, I decided to explore that way. If illustrating for children could also help them to grow up, that would make me happy!

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