Seminar on Jewish Story | April Halprin Wayland, Children’s Book Author

On May 18, award-winning children’s book author April Halprin Wayland joins the children’s book panel at the Seminar on Jewish Story, held at Temple Emanu-El, 10 E. 66th Street, in New York City.

April Halprin Wayland with pencil by Webb Burns (2)The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to become a children’s writer?
April Halprin Wayland (AHW): My mother.  Isn’t it always Mom?  She and my father were in love with words, always words.  Stressing the correct usage, helping me rewrite an essay, doubling over with laughter as she read Thurber and Dorothy Parker aloud to us.

After college, I realized that I loved picture books.  Loved the duet of words and illustrations.  I was hungry to learn all I could about how to create them, so I took classes in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in writing for children—every class was stellar.

The spell was cast.  It was like that wild passion of first love: I didn’t need sleep, wasn’t hungry, floated along the sidewalk in my high heels and business suit.  And this is no joke: I’d been walking past a construction site for months during lunch.  After I enrolled in the class, I got whistles as I walked by.  Nothing—and everything—had changed.

I heard that Myra Cohn Livingston was teaching Writing Poetry for Children.  All I knew about her was that she was a very, very important children’s poet.  I thought that if I took her class in poetry, my picture book writing would become more poetic.  I would understand how to use words in new ways.

Also, I had heard that she was old.  I was afraid she was so old she might die, so I immediately signed up for her class.  She didn’t die.  She was a strict and uncompromising teacher—one of the best I’ve ever had.  I studied under Myra for twelve years.  She—and the poets in her class—changed my writing (and my life) forever.

New Year at the Pier by April Halprin Wayland illustrated by Stephane Jorish (2)TWM: Why do you write on Jewish themes?
AHW: I hadn’t thought about writing a Jewish-themed story until 2002, when one of my editors, Michele Frey, at Knopf, asked if I had any Jewish stories in me. Tashlich popped into my head; it’s my favorite Jewish celebration. I’ve dragged many friends to the pier so they could taste the poetry of this ritual. I wanted them to feel the wind, hear the gulls, experience the relief of tossing each piece of bread. How could I not share this in a picture book?

Dial Books for Young Readers ended up publishing that story as New Year at the Pier.

They’re publishing my next book, also Jewish themed—it’s about “dayenu,” and is coming out in time for Passover, 2016.

TWM: Which writers do you read and admire?
AHW: I’ll answer this in two parts.  These are some of the writers who shaped me: Crockett Johnson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joni Mitchell, Beverly Cleary, Leon Uris.  My best friend in middle school and I both read Uris’ Exodus; we were stunned by it.  She became a practicing Jew and lived in Israel for several years.  I was just inspired.

Currently?  There are too many, of course! Here are just a few that come to  mind, in no particular order: Jeri Chase Ferris, Michelle Markel, Steve Sheinkin, Amy Friedman, Bruce Balan, Janet Wong, Alice SchertlePaul Fleischman, Joan Bransfield Graham, Linda Smith, Ruth Lercher Bornstein, Sonya Sones, Alice McLerranJuan Felipe Herrera, Virginia Euer Wolf, Anne Lamott, Deborah HeiligmanBarbara BottnerDenise DoyenSusan Goldman RubinAnn ColeridgePat Brisson, Karla Kuskin, Valerie Worth, Michael Teig…also political cartoonists, columnists who write with humanity, and a newspaper called Funny Times, which has nothing but comics, political cartoons, and humorous commentary.

TWM: What is the single most important criterion for writing Jewish-themed children’s books successfully?
AHW: Tell the truth.

TWM: What are the challenges?
AHW: Although Jews buy lots of books, Jewish books are still a small segment of the children’s market, so when you set out to write a Jewish-themed book, you know from the start that your story will likely reach fewer readers.

Titling a Jewish book is a challenge, too.  If a children’s book were titled Yuandan (what Chinese New Year’s Day was traditionally called), I might not pick it up—I wish I wouldn’t, but I would probably unconsciously think, that book is for Chinese kids and their parents.

Thinking about this, I fought for the title New Year at the Pier, rather than The Best Part of Rosh Hashanah, because I didn’t want someone to walk by and think, “I’m not Jewish, so that book’s not for me,”—especially since New Year is more broadly about making amends, a topic for everyone.

In New Year, I learned to fact-check my story with religious Jews.  As a result, I changed the word “temple” to synagogue, changed the timing so that the main characters were not writing on Rosh Hashanah, and asked the illustrator, Stéphane Jorisch, to add more kippot on the central male characters. I’m convinced that it never would have won the Sydney Taylor Gold Medal Book Award without those changes.

TWM: What do you hope to bring to the upcoming Seminar on Jewish Story?
AHW: I’m honored to be on the panel with Deborah Heiligman, Susan Lynn Meyer, Rebecca Short, and will be talking about how my upcoming book changed (partly because of the current picture book market)—from initial idea to final draft.

To learn more about the Seminar on Jewish Story, contact Barbara Krasner at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)com.

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Finally! A Retreat for Jewish Writers – July 13-16, 2014 in Amherst, MA

IMG_2409[1] (2)Space and time to write your own megillah!

Connect to your Jewish memories or bring Jewish-themed manuscripts that just haven’t worked. In this multi-genre workshop, you can create new material or revise a work in progress. The choice is yours.

Join workshop leader, Barbara Krasner, certified in the Amherst Writers & Artists method, for a retreat you’ll never forget.

Where: Hampshire College, Amherst MA with an inspiring day at the National Yiddish Book Center (where we’ll also write)
How: Time-based prompts that generate organic, powerful writing
Cost: Early-bird registration extended to May 15, 2014 at price of $1125. After that, $1200. Checks payable to The Whole Megillah LLC.
Meals: All meals included from Sunday dinner through Wednesday lunch (Note: Only lunch on Monday at the Book Center is kosher)

For more information and to register: Contact Barbara Krasner at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net.


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Poet’s Notebook | Janet Ruth Heller, Exodus

Janet Heller photo (2)About Janet Ruth Heller

Janet Ruth Heller is president of the Michigan College English Association.  She has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.  She has published three poetry books:  Exodus (WordTech Communications, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011).  Her scholarly book, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama, was published in 1990 by the University of Missouri Press.  Her fiction picture book about bullying for children, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), has won four national awards.  For more information, please see her website.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to put this collection together?
Janet Ruth Heller (JRH): I have always found the stories in the Jewish Bible fascinating, and I often compare my own experiences to those of the matriarchs, patriarchs, and other people in the Bible. I have been writing modern midrashim (reinterpretations of Biblical characters and events) since the 1970s. This impulse to create poems and stories that revisit the Bible is a long tradition in Jewish literature. When I chant Torah and haftarah portions at my synagogue, I frequently write a poem about the passages. I have read midrashic poetry by Israeli writers Chaim Gouri, Rachel Bluwstein, Amir Gilboa, Yehudah Amichai, Chaim Nachman Bialik, etc., that has influenced me. After four decades of writing my Biblical poems, I finally had enough for a complete book of poetry. The central theme in Exodus is the departure from Egypt, which represents the journeys that people take: trying new experiences, leaving a bad relationship, finding a new job, taking risks.

TWM: How long have you been writing poetry? What attracts you to this genre?
JRH: I have been writing poems since first grade. My wonderful first grade teacher did a unit on poetry and dittoed for the class a poem that I wrote about flying a kite with my father. This was my first “publication.”  I had supportive teachers throughout elementary school and high school who nurtured my writing. I like wordplay and the challenge of condensing ideas into poetic lines. My mind tends to compare and contrast everything, and this generates metaphors, similes, and analogies. Also, I love music, and poetry is the form of literature that is closest to music. In Hebrew, shira means both poem and song.

Heller-Exodus_cvr.inddTWM: What sparked your interest in writing poems about Biblical characters?
JRH: When I was an undergraduate, I minored in Hebrew language and literature at Oberlin College and at the University of Wisconsin. When I went to the University of Chicago for my doctorate in English, I studied modern Hebrew poetry with Rabbi Daniel Leifer (may his memory be a blessing) at the Hillel Foundation. Danny was especially interested in Israeli poems that presented midrashim. I particularly liked the poem “His Mother” by Haim Gouri, which reflects on the Biblical conflict between the Jews and the Arabs with much sympathy for Sisera’s mother, who waits in vain for her son to return from battle and then dies shortly after mourning her son’s death.

TWM: In many poems, you weave in contemporary themes. Frankly, those are my favorites, such as “Vacation Cruise.” Please say a few words about these poems.
JRH: Most of the poems in Exodus deal with contemporary themes, especially women’s issues. For example, in “Leah,” I portray the matriarch as a modern woman with children whose husband is cheating on her. Similarly, “Peninnah” presents the conflict between women like Peninnah who focus on their families and career women who work outside the home. The contemporary reference in “Sarah and Abraham Consult a Fertility Specialist” is obvious. “A Job Interview with Mr. Isaacs” concerns a woman having a job interview with a biased male employer. “Jana” is about a modern female Jonah whose boyfriend has just dumped her. Because I know women who suffered rape and I co-founded the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, Wisconsin, several poems depict women who were threatened with (“Yael”) or who endured rape (“Dinah,” “Rahav”) and the rapist himself (“Amnon”). I volunteered for a while at a shelter for battered women, and “Sins of the Fathers” concerns one child I babysat for there. “David” is about a caring rabbi I knew who committed suicide. In “Sunday School Lesson,” I recount what I learned about custody battles from a six-year-old student. “Abraham” is about a man who lost his son to leukemia. Other poems emphasize a humorous perspective on a Bible passage, such as “Vacation Cruise” (Noah’s ark) and “An Ultimatum” (a passage from Psalms).

TWM: Sometimes you take on the voice of the Biblical characters as in “Isaac.” Please say a few words about these poems.
JRH: Many poems in Exodus are dramatic monologues from the perspective of a character in the Scriptures. I try to empathize with each character and find some aspect of his or her life or personality that I can identify with. I also fill in gaps in the Biblical narrative. For example, we don’t really know much about young Isaac’s perspective in Genesis. My “Isaac” poem presents a modern youngster’s view of his dysfunctional family. Similarly, Genesis does not tell us anything about the relationship between Rebekah and Rachel. In “Rachel, to Rebekah,” I have Rachel speaking to her mother-in-law while in labor with Joseph.

TWM: Your list of acknowledgments for individual poem publication is impressive. How do you know when a poem is ready to send out?
JRH: I revise most poems at least three times before I show them to my writers’ group. After getting my fellow poets’ reactions, I often revise again. If I’m pleased with a poem’s structure, conciseness, imagery, and development of my ideas, I will send the piece out to editors. If not, I will keep reworking it. As time passes, I may get new insights on how to improve a poem. For example, the four sections in “Haiku for Yom Kippur” were originally separate poems, but I later realized that they all refer thematically to the Days of Awe, so I combined them.

TWM: Who are your favorite poets? Who inspires you?
JRH: My favorite poets are British writers William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W. B. Yeats; American writers Edna St. Vincent Millay, T. S. Eliot, Lisel Mueller, Maxine Kumin, Alicia Ostriker, Adrienne Rich, Judith Minty, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jim Daniels, Marge Piercy; Israeli writers Chaim Nachman Bialik, Yehudah Amichai, Rachel Bluwstein, Chaim Gouri; and Hispanic writers Sor Juana, Federico García Lorca, Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, and Dámaso Alonso.

TWM: What’s next for you?
JRH: I’m working on a memoir, a book of nature poems, and a book of secular poems. I’m also trying to publish more stories for children.

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April 2014 Jewish Book Carnival

The Whole Megillah once again hosts the monthly Jewish Book Carnival!

Here are this month’s links:

Happy Passover!

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Guest Post by Nancy K. Miller | My Memoirs Made Me Jewish, or How Jewish Is Enough?

nancy millerIn the year 2000 I received a phone call from a real estate broker who informed me that I had inherited a small plot of land on the outskirts of Jerusalem from my paternal grandparents. The phone call led to years of research and traveling because it opened the door on a family history I knew nothing about. What I found—and didn’t find—ultimately made me want to write a book.

This is the first paragraph of that book: What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past.

When my father died, I became a middle-aged Jewish orphan. It wasn’t that I wasn’t already Jewish, of course, or that I had set out to say Kaddish for him—I had no idea how to do that, even if it had been a daughter’s place. But now that the last keeper of my Jewish past was dead, I began to worry about the future of my Jewish self.

Miller covers_rev-1-1It was only when I read this passage aloud while giving my first book talk that I realized I had used the adjective “Jewish” four times in three sentences. I had reread and rewritten the paragraph many, many times in the editorial process, and never noticed. And what could be more important in a book than an opening paragraph? But it was too late.  I was Jewish in print. Repeatedly.

Thinking about the paragraph now in retrospect, I would say that my unconscious was telling my writing self that I was anxious about whether I was Jewish ENOUGH to justify the book’s subtitle—“pieces of a Jewish past.” True, I had grown up immersed in Upper West Side New York Jewish bagels and lox culture, and I had archival proof of my origins, but my Jewish self and my writing self belonged, I had always thought, to separate domains. What They Saved made me understand how they were joined.

breathlessBookCoverI composed Breathless: An American Girl in Paris a decade before publishing What They Saved, and when I returned to that story almost immediately after the “Jewish” book I saw for the first time that the “American Girl” who went to Paris, was not simply an American girl, a la Jean Seberg. The girl whose adventures I had narrated was, as we used to say, “a nice Jewish girl,” and what she wanted to leave behind in New York was the Marjorie Morningstar fate that had become shorthand for an entire generation of girls. The memoir could well have been called: A Nice Jewish Girl in Paris, but the publishers thought that was, well, “too Jewish,” too niche.

What’s not Jewish enough and what’s too Jewish? I learned from What They Saved and then Breathless that I could only solve the Goldilocks problem—the “just right” of Jewishness—through writing itself, in other words by not solving it at all.

Nancy K. Miller serves on Memoir Panel at upcoming Seminar on Jewish Story

Nancy K. Miller presents on the Memoir Panel at the Seminar on Jewish Story, May 18, 2014 at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Just 12 seats remain! To register or for more information, contact barbarakrasner(at)att(d0t)com.



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New Jewish Writer Service | Would You Be Interested?

I’d appreciate your response to this very brief survey to help gauge interest in a new writer service from The Whole Megillah.

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Agent’s Notebook | Mira Reisberg, Hummingbird Literary

mira reisbergThe Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to read and write while you were growing up?
Mira Reisberg (MR): My parents were Holocaust survivors who taught us that the only things that couldn’t be taken away from you are the things that you carry inside; things like heart and creativity. We were also raised to help make the world a better place and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do a little of this in my former job as a university professor and through both making and helping others make children’s books.

TWM: What attracted you to picture books?
MR: I survived the difficulties of my childhood by going to the library and also by drawing. While most things were 3rd or 4th hand by the time I got them, even though we were poor, my parents didn’t skimp on books or art supplies. As an adult, I fell into illustrating from an exhibition that I had that my former publisher saw. It was really edgy work but she invited me to illustrate children’s picture books and it changed my life. I learned that it really is never to late to have a happy childhood. From there I began writing and then I went and did a Ph.D. studying children’s books. Picture books combine so many great loves for me on so many levels — intellectually in exploring the subtle but deep themes often embedded in the images and words, creatively in either creating or helping others create or in admiring the creativity that goes into other’s work, viscerally on enjoying the humor, beauty, skill, and/or heart in picture books. Now that we’re making a chapter book course for Children’s Book Academy, I’m falling in love with chapter books. They still have some pictures but are much more language-driven for that magical age when kids decide whether they are going to be readers or not.

TWM: How did you develop your classes and your following?
MR: I taught in universities for six years and then decided that it wasn’t for me so I started the Academy. Fortunately I had a 25-year background in the industry working as an art director, an independent editor, a designer and as a writer and illustrator constantly taking courses to improve my skills. I had also taught extensively in non-academic environments. I have a weird love of tech plus expertise in teaching from my Ph.D. training so it was this quirky mix of skills that all came together. Initially the school was called the Picture Book Academy but since then it has morphed into the Children’s Book Academy offering courses in more than just picture books. This year I am training  experts to develop and take over courses so that I can focus more on agenting. I like to think that I developed my following from my work and from being generous with as much as I can.

TWM: Great that Karen Grencik offered to mentor you! What would you say the biggest learnings have been for as an agent?
MR: How incredibly hard it is. How much work it is. How little it pays. How hard and heartbreaking it is saying no to people. How long it takes to actually sell work. All big shockers. The other side is how incredibly gratifying it is helping birth wonderful books and getting to work with clients in an ongoing manner. Karen is an exquisite mentor and I feel very blessed.

TWM: What are the most common mistakes PB writers make?
MR: Not taking their writing seriously enough by studying their craft, taking lots of courses, making multiple revisions, and getting it critiqued before submitting. Also writing in rhyme when they haven’t studied the form (heads up for our outstanding upcoming poetry course with PB poetry queen Sudipta Barhan-Quallen). And finally not editing for brevity. Picture books are becoming shorter and shorter for younger children with more interest in chapter books happening for 2ndgrade up, although plenty of picture books for K-4thgrade are still being published.

TWM: What are you looking for as an agent?
MR: I would love to find a hilarious Jewish writer who has really studied their craft and who writes non-religious, non-Holocaust related children’s books infused with Jewish culture and humor for a broad audience.

TWM: Please comment on where you see the market for Jewish-themed children’s books.
MR: I think that there’s a fabulous audience for brilliantly-written, highly original Jewish-themed children’s literature in mainstream publishing. Especially funny stuff. Think of Jerry Seinfeld, John Stewart, Bette Midler, Larry David but for children. Lemony Snickett, Ezra Stein, Daniel Pinkwater, and Gary Clement are Jewish children’s authors whose books have all done really well with secular markets.

Many non-Jews are fascinated by Jewish culture while many editors happen to be Jewish and would love to see themselves reflected. The key is to not be too niche by tapping into universal themes that affect all children while hopefully writing something exquisite that hasn’t been done before with distinctly Jewish characters and a captivating writer’s voice.

About Mira Reisberg

Mira Reisberg has a Ph.D. in Education and Cultural Studies. She is also the founder/director of the Children’s Book Academy, which uses a pedagogy of pleasure to provide in-depth university-level courses at a fraction of the price. With the success of her students, Mira was encouraged to become an agent and founded Hummingbird Literary. She is now transitioning out of teaching to focus on agenting. Mira has worked as an art director, illustrator, consulting editor and author for over 25 years.

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