Read about the blog tour and all 2013 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.
The wrap-up and virtual roundtable
Imagine, if you will, all the award winners seated at a dais table with mics, poised to answer questions from the press. We have nine participants:
Sydney Taylor Book Awards
- For Younger Readers — Author Linda Glaser Hannah’s Way
(illustrator Adam Gustavson was unable to participate)
- For Older Readers — Louise Borden, author of His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg
- For Teen Readers — Deborah Heiligman for Intentions
- For Younger Readers — Author Sheri Sinykin and illustrator Kristina Swarner for Zayde Comes to Live and author Linda Leopold Strauss for The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale (illustrator Alexi Natchev was unable to attend)
- For Older Readers — Author Ann Redisch Stampler and illustrator Carol Liddiment for The Wooden Sword: A Jewish Folktale from Afghanistan
- For Teen Readers — Author Doreen Rappaport for Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust
The seating’s a little crowded, but we’ve saved room just for you. The energy’s high, although we know this will be a somewhat long discussion — there’s so much to talk about!
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Thank you all for joining us today and congratulations on your great achievement. Let’s just dive right in. What are your recommendations for great Jewish kids lit?
Kristina Swarner: Two very different books that I really loved as an older kid were Alan and Naomi, by Myron Levoy, and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself by Judy Blume. Two equally different and equally impressive picture books are The Golem by David Wisniewski and Joseph Had A Little Overcoat by Simms Taback—one spooky, the other joyful.
TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Ann Redisch Stampler: I see the world of Jewish children’s books as wide open. I see publishers open to books that deal specifically with Jewish phenomena, such as Jewish holidays and worship, all the way to books with characters who happen to be Jewish, but whose Jewishness is not central to the plot or theme of the story. Novels dealing with thorny problems and novels that are light and hilarious; fiction and non-fiction; prose and books narrated in verse; fabulous graphic novels; books that address topics like bullying that have tremendous relevance to American culture as a whole; and books that deal with topics that some would prefer to sweep under the rug, such as sexual abuse within our community; all have a place in our literature, and have found their way to publication and wide readership.
My advice to writers or people building book collections as regards trends would be fuhgeddaboutit. Write what you’re moved to write; acquire books that speak to you and that you think are good. (Although, as I respond to this prompt, I have a sudden vision of a really hot vampire in a kippah.)
Deborah Heiligman: I wish I knew! But I think librarians are going to be more important than ever. Because if we transition to more and more e-books and fewer bookstores (I am not saying I’m in favor of this!), the gatekeepers are going to be more crucial in getting the right books (in any format) into readers’ hands. And I think that’s already true for Jewish literature for children and teens.
Doreen Rappaport: I cannot predict trends but I hope that publishers will seek out books reflecting the true multicultural world we live in to broaden everyone’s understanding of the beauty of our differences. And I still love the feel of paper in books.
TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Linda Glaser: Currently, I have two Jewish themed books under contract—a board book and a picture book. I’m very excited about both of them. Aside from that, I’m working on a bunch of other stories—in various stages of revision—hoping that some of them will eventually become books.
Rappaport: To continue to write books about people and events that challenge stereotypes and myths, that show children what human beings are capable of, and to introduce them to “not-yet-celebrated” people who fought against the odds and made a difference.
I am equally committed to meeting with children and adults in public and private schools and synagogues to talk about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. I have been incredibly gratified already when visiting schools to see how much interest and children have shown about this subject.
Heiligman: I have two picture books coming out this year. The first is a biography of Paul Erdos, the great Hungarian (Jewish) mathematician. It’s called The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos. The other is a picture book, the third in a series, about Tinka our late great golden retriever. It’s called Snow Dog, Go Dog. I plan to dedicate it to our new dog, a Cairn Terrier whom we named Ketzie. (Yes, I know that Ketzeleh means little cat. We didn’t know that when we named her that—it’s a term of endearment in our family. She’s a great dog who might need therapy to deal with her name.) I am working on a nonfiction YA about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. On the side I’m also working on a novel that has strong religious themes. I probably shouldn’t say more than that.
Louise Borden: Publishing is in a huge sea change right now but people will always want to read good stories regardless of the format. I’m grateful to be working with some terrific and encouraging editors. I’m researching two new projects, both set in France during World War 2. One may be fiction and the other may be nonfiction. Things are still evolving in the structure of these books. The audience will probably be grades 4 to 6 for both books. One of these books involves escape and courage and I’ve written 40 beginning pages using the first person voice. The other project is still on the back burner of my desk while I’m gathering more research. No first draft yet! I only work on the text of one book at a time but sometimes do beginning research for something that I’m hoping to write about. I’m also working on a manuscript for very young readers. AND. . . I’m continuing to speak in schools to students about the creative life, the writing process, and how I work as a writer.
Swarner: As long as I keep getting great stories to illustrate, I’m happy! I’d like to write and illustrate my own book at some point, once I’ve built up my courage.
Stampler: I’ve been moving into new areas as a writer, and it’s been challenging and fun. Drawing from folklore beyond my own tradition is new for me, and I’ve just published a picture book that isn’t a folktale, a cat story set in modern-day Tel Aviv, The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street (Kar-Ben, 2013). I don’t seem to be able to escape completely from some of the conventions of folktales, but writing a picture book with a story I actually made up, taking the story wherever I want it to go, has been wonderful! My first novel, Where It Began (Simon Pulse, 2012) published last year, and I’m in the process of revising the second. So I guess my next steps are to explore new traditions in folktales, to be open to writing picture books that aren’t folktales, and to continue to write novels that explore more facets of the modern teenage experience.
Carol Liddiment: At the moment I am working on the illustrations for a book called Rabbit’s Revenge. This is to be the first children’s book ever to be published in Nyungwe (The language of Mozambique ). As Mozambique has a population of around 400,000 people I am amazed at this situation, and very honoured to have been chosen for this project.
TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote/illustrated your book?
Glaser: I was inspired to write Hannah’s Way after reading a small anecdote in a museum exhibit in Minneapolis called “Unpacking on the Prairie: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest.” The entire exhibit, gave me tremendous insight and respect for the Jewish women who came before us and paved the way for a much more comfortable life for the rest of us. I think of Hannah’s Way as part of their legacy.
Heiligman: I read a lot of books while I was working on Intentions, and I talked to many people, most especially three rabbis (whom I thank in the acknowledgments). I learned about the concept of kavanah and I thought a lot about forgiveness and atonement. I think Jews are much more about atonement and Christians more about forgiveness, but those two things are two sides of the same coin. Since I wrote the book I feel like I have been living with much more kavanah than ever before.
Rappaport: I learned about the incredible tight-knit world of the shtetl and of the variety of Jewish experiences during the twentieth century up to the Holocaust. I became more connected to understanding my own “variety” of being Jewish and feeling a new pride in Jewish accomplishment. I have always understood the importance of “the book” and learning for Jews, but I marveled upon learning that even in the ghettos and camps, starving and weakened Jews were writing their histories and teaching their children their heritage. I remembered in the 60s the incredible pride that my black friends felt when the stories of African-American resistance, resiliency and accomplishment finally appeared in books. I felt similar pride when uncovering the courage and inventiveness of the Jewish resisters.
Borden: Reading about the suffering of Jewish families in Budapest during World War 2 was quite heartbreaking and overwhelming at times. Separation, deportation, death and survival. In a small way, as I worked at my desk, I was a witness to their suffering as I read deeply and widely about this time period in Hungary. Such courage of Hungarian Jewish families during these desperate and evil times!
Stampler: The Wooden Sword (Albert Whitman, 2012) is the first folktale I’ve worked on that comes from outside my own tradition. My family is mostly from Eastern Europe; the version of The Wooden Sword I loved comes from the Jewish community of Afghanistan. The opportunity (and necessity) to learn about centuries of Jewish life in Afghanistan gave me a deeper appreciation of the tremendous diversity of Jewish traditions, and of some of the commonalities that bind us together.
Sheri Sinykin: I knew nothing about the Jewish view of the afterlife when I set about to write this book for my child-self, who was terrified of my mother’s impending death. As I read about and interviewed several rabbis, I became more peaceful about the circle of life. I hope this emotional shift has been reflected in the text of Zayde Comes to Live.
TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Glaser: Awards are wonderful affirmations—especially big ones like the Sydney Taylor Award. I’m deeply grateful to the Sydney Taylor Award Committee for selecting Hannah’s Way. I honestly hadn’t expected it. As you know, there are so many wonderful Jewish children’s books published each year. So I am thrilled that Hannah’s Way has received this honor. I put my heart into the story. And I hope that because of the award, Hannah’s Way will reach many hearts.
Heiligman: This Sydney Taylor Award means more to me than I can even say. But I will try! I’ve been working on Intentions for almost two decades, off and on. (It used to be called Kavanah, by the way.) There were many reasons why it took me that long to finally finish it and (thankfully!) get it published. One of my biggest challenges was the character of the rabbi, as you can imagine. I wanted to show that moment in a kid’s life when her idol (in this case a rabbi) falls off of his pedestal and threatens her faith and her belief in the goodness of people. But I wanted to do so in a way that was realistic and not offensive. I needed to portray a flawed rabbi, but I didn’t want him to be one dimensional. I wanted the reader to come away with the insight (among other things) that good people can make mistakes, that there is a lot more gray to life and to every person than we want to believe, and that we can go on after that realization. I wanted to write a portrait of a flawed rabbi that was honest and nuanced. But I was really concerned that I would offend people in the Jewish community. I kept talking with my rabbi friends and my editor (who, like me, is Jewish and majored in Religious Studies at Brown) to make sure that I was showing a rounded picture of this moment. Growing up, my Judaism, my Jewish life, meant so much to me and gave me such joy and happiness, that I wanted that to come across in Rachel’s life, too. So this award is such validation and affirmation, that when I heard about it—Aimee can testify to this!—I cried. With joy and with relief. Then my husband and I celebrated with a dinner of bagels and lox— and Veuve Clicquot!
Rappaport: First of all, it’s wonderful to be honored by librarians who are the lifeline to books for all our children. It means that I successfully found a way to communicate by the written word this important and still too neglected subject of Jewish resistance. The AJL committee has honored not only my work but the incredible people, including children, whom I wrote about.
Borden: I feel that Raoul Wallenberg’s life story and moral compass has been affirmed by people who care deeply about literature, Jewish life, and young readers. Thank you for this great honor. I hope that my writer’s voice will add to the conversation among students about standing up against evil. Yes, one person can make a difference in the world. There are many terrific books that have not received awards this year. . .I applaud those books as we all work together in the children’s book field to bring stories of courage, hope, and universal meaning to young readers.
Stampler: This award is like an encouraging voice, saying that I can move successfully into folklore that resonates for me, beyond the boundaries of Eastern Europe. I don’t plan to abandon tales from my own tradition, but I feel encouraged to reach beyond borders in ways I hadn’t fully embraced.
Sinykin: The Sydney Taylor Honor Award means respect and professional validation after over twenty years of publishing in relative obscurity. I am humbled and grateful to be recognized for this book, in particular. I always hoped Zayde Comes to Live would be a source of hope and healing for young children, as well as a bridge to a difficult, inter-generational conversation. This award helps shine a light on one path to that painful but necessary discussion about death.
TWM: And now for the final question for today’s discussion: Will anything be different now that your work has been recognized by the Sydney Taylor Book Award?
Heiligman: I hope that I will be able to speak with Jewish teens about this book and the questions and issues it raises. During the writing of the book I visited one of my rabbi friends and sat in on his confirmation class. He’s so wonderful with them, and they were so honest with him, I kept thinking: these are my readers. I was jumping up and down inside. I hope that as the book becomes better known (which this award will help happen, thank you so much!) I will be able to hear what Jewish teens are thinking and feeling, and talk with them about how they are dealing with growing up Jewish today.
Rappaport: Since the book was published, I have received many emails from strangers thanking me for writing this book. Relatives of Jews who were murdered or survived have thanked me for giving them and their children these stories so the world could know not only the nightmare of the Holocaust but the courageous and inventive ways Jews rescued themselves and other Jews. The award will help my book reach a larger audience in both the Jewish community and in all communities. The events and people I wrote about need to be shared and integrated into the study of world history. The people I wrote about are heroes whom children and adults need to learn about and cherish.
Borden: On the long days at my desk, I will feel the gracious presence of Sydney Taylor and the community of Jewish libraries cheering me on. Thank you for your belief in Raoul, in his courageous work on behalf of those in need, and in my work.
Sinykin: Who can say what the future will bring? But I do hope my novel, Saving Adam, about a Jewish family in crisis in 1963, might be looked at with fresh “editorial eyes” now that my work has been honored with this Sydney Taylor Honor Book Award for Younger Readers.
Linda Leopold Strauss: There’s one thing that I hope will be different. I learned as I was presenting The Elijah Door in schools that today’s young children are almost totally unfamiliar with the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Although it wasn’t my conscious intention in writing the book, I hope The Elijah Door (and the attention brought to it by the Sydney Taylor honor) will introduce these children to a culture and traditions too rich to be sacrificed and forgotten. And for those Cincinnati-area readers who want to have their memories refreshed, Alexi Natchev’s remarkable original hand-colored woodcuts of the village and villagers in The Elijah Door are currently on display at Hebrew Union College’s Skirball Museum. Alexi will be at the closing of the exhibit on March 31 and will discuss and demonstrate his woodcutting techniques. The event is family-friendly, free, and open to the public!
The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion. Readers, please check out the preceding blog tour and get to know these winners and their works even better — their techniques, their approaches, their inspirations. And thanks to all the wonderful bloggers who volunteered their time and space to interview these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.