Kar-Ben Kar-Ben Testing Jewish Chapter Book Waters

The Whole Megillah (TWM): When and why did Kar-Ben move into MG and YA publishing? What’s the relationship with parent Lerner and how does that contribute?
Joni Sussman (JS): Kar-Ben has published occasional MG/YA manuscripts but we haven’t made — nor do we plan to make — a concerted effort to seek them out. However, we’ve continued to receive manuscripts for this age group over the years despite our not soliciting them and I’ve reviewed them as I’ve had time and/or if they’ve come from an author or agent I know. We’re more interested in MG than YA, as that’s the age group on the next step up the ladder from picture books. So when I received a fun Passover-themed time travel adventure manuscript from Eric Kimmel, Scarlett & Sam: Escape from Egypt, a couple of years ago, I thought we’d give that a try. It’s done well, so I’ve decided to pursue a few other stories, including a follow-up to the first Scarlett & Sam book. We now have several MG stories in our pipeline, scheduled to come out in the next couple of years.

Regarding our relationship with our parent company, Lerner has always published books for this age group albeit not specifically Jewish-themed titles. However, when a Lerner title happens to have Jewish content, which occurs once in a while, we carry it in our Kar-Ben catalog and vice versa. For example, Kar-Ben’s new spring 2017 title, The Six-Day Hero, by Tammar Stein, who’s written several other well-reviewed MG/YA titles, is about a 12-year-old Israeli boy living in Jerusalem through the ramp-up to the Six-Day War, as his older brother becomes a soldier and the boy learns that there can be many kinds of heroes. That book became a Junior Library Guild selection, and Lerner is carrying it in their catalog, which tells me there’s real interest out there, even in the non-Jewish world, for good Jewish-themed MG stories that have universal content. I think this interest is reflected in the “We Need Diverse Books” movement; middle-graders will read about cultures different from their own as long as the story is good. Some of the MG titles we’re pursuing are geared very much to the Jewish community; others, like The Six-Day Hero have more universal appeal.

TWM: Do you solicit manuscripts or review those that come to you over the transom?
JS: I don’t solicit manuscripts as we already receive many manuscripts for both picture books and chapter books, over 800 submissions a year to fill about 20 publication slots per year. Picture books will continue to be Kar-Ben’s main focus, but we may do a chapter book or two a year. As for chapter book manuscripts, I’m interested exclusively in MG stories — not YA — with word count in the 10,000-30,000 range and subject matter appropriate for ages 8-12.

TWM: Is there anything in particular you look for?
JS: As with our picture books, I’m interested in all Jewish-related topics. There are already many Holocaust stories in the marketplace for this age group, so, despite my personal interest in the topic, I’m less interested in those for now. Other MG chapter books we currently have in the works, to give you some examples, include an All-of-A-Kind style story about a family with many kids that takes place in 1920s Poland, as oldest sister Adina is about to enter into an arranged marriage. Another is about a young girl with an American dad and an Israeli mom who dreads giving up her summer camp fun to go on a family trip to meet her intimidating (to her) Hebrew-speaking Israeli family for the first time. Another delightful MG story in the works, aimed at the younger end of the MG crowd, is a mystery about a stolen Kiddush cup a la the old Nate-the-Great stories.

TWM: Do you work at all with PJ Our Way on MG titles?
JS: PJ Our way, the PJ Library program for kids 8-11, has purchased some of our chapter books for their program.

TWM: Do you foresee your MG/YA program expanding?
JS: I’m looking at publishing perhaps one or two MG chapter book titles a year for now and we’ll see how it goes.

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March 2017 Jewish Book Carnival

The Whole Megillah is pleased to once again host the monthly Jewish Book Carnival!

Here are this month’s links:


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Author’s Notebook | Richard Michelson, The Language of Angels

language-of-angelsThe Language of Angels: A Story about the Reinvention of Hebrew
Written by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Karla Gudeon
(Charlesbridge, 2017)

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What got you interested in writing about the invention of modern Hebrew? I see you include a dedication to Neil Waldman. Can you tell us about that?
Richard Michelson (RM): Let me answer the first two questions together since they are intertwined. When artist/illustrator/educator/mensch Neil Waldman and I were having lunch fifteen years ago while collaborating on Too Young for Yiddish (plug for my previous Charlesbridge book!), during the writing of which  I learned that the Yiddish language had evolved out of a mixture of Hebrew, Polish and  German and that Isaac Bashevis Singer proudly claimed that Yiddish was the only language without a word for “armaments,” I asked Neil his thoughts about whether a language without specific words for weapons would inhibit thoughts of violence. I don’t recall his answer but I do remember him casually mentioning the life story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his quest to invent words and make Hebrew the daily language of the Jews.  I was fascinated.

Imagine reviving Latin today and having everyone in Italy speaking it within two generations.  Hebrew had died out as a daily spoken language (aside from the prayers) during the time of the Maccabees. But Eliezer had this meshuggeneh idea that its rebirth could help unify the Jewish people. He had to make up words for everything that had happened in the past 200 years: ice cream, bicycles, and so on.  Imagine being Adam naming all the animals. And even more cockamamie, Eliezer wanted his son, Ben-Zion,  to be the first native Hebrew speaker in 2000 years, so he wouldn’t allow him to hear any language but Hebrew.  Which meant, of course, no friends. Ben-Zion wasn’t even allowed to hear the sounds animals make. His father would cover his ears when dogs barked or cows moooo-ed.   Child abuse for sure.  But how did it all end up? Read the book and find out.

Neil, who lived in Israel at one time, said: “I was going to write that story, but couldn’t find my way in. I now give you the idea as a gift.”  It took me fifteen years to find my way in. And so, the book is dedicated to Neil.

TWM: Thanks, that’s a great story. How do you decide what to write picture books about vs. some other form? Where do your ideas come from?
RM: I just think in the picture book form.  I am enamored of  the picture book, which combines my two greatest loves—art and poetry. When done well, it is a perfect marriage. I also write poetry geared toward teens and adults, and even the first drafts of my prose books are written in poetic form.  The language is always paramount, and that helps me get the rhythms down.  Later I will add the connecting tissue.

TWM: How much time do you devote to your writing? Do you write everyday? Who are your first readers?
RM: I wish I wrote every day, but I spend way too much time running my gallery, and checking Facebook, and walking the dog.  Then, as a function of age, I have to get in some stretching and exercising daily. Then dinners out with my wife, and I also like to sleep late.  And I accept too many speaking gigs and I answer too many questionnaires when I should be writing my books. These days we all seem to have full-time PR careers, and part-time creative jobs.  But in the end, I think a varied life is as important as spending all day writing.  The few times I’ve tried that I found I didn’t necessarily get more done in any case.

As to first readers, I don’t share much until I know the work is complete.  If I talk about it, I lose it. And I tend to know when something works, even though I often try to fool myself into thinking I am done, when deep down I know I am not. Then I will share with my wife and my editors.  And I learn that I still am not finished.

As-Good-as-AnybodyTWM: Who inspires you? 
RM: I am inspired by people who get down in the trenches to make the world a better place. Tikkun-Olam. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, I was in my study writing about it, while my wife went down to help poor families sheetrock and clean up.  (Bad on me.)  I am inspired by people I write about like Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel (As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom), both of whom who put their lives on the line, and fought the good fight even when they were shunned by their peers. Heschel famously said: Words must be followed by deeds,”  and when he was out marching he felt “like my legs are praying.’  This is advice we especially must adhere to in these difficult political times.  I am inspired by people who break barriers, reach for the stars and still remember where they came from, people like Leonard Nimoy (Fascinating), Lipman Pike (Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King), and William Powell (Twice as Good).

TWM: For this book, did it have to be vetted by an expert? Will you be speaking in Hebrew when you do author visits?
RM: By many. For one thing, I don’t actually speak Hebrew (what! How can that be? Nor do I speak Yiddish which made for an interesting book tour for Too Young for Yiddish.) The book was vetted by Rabbi Eliezer ben Yehuda, grandson of the man I wrote about, and a scholar of the Hebrew language himself.  We also had invaluable help from the PJ Library experts (PJ Library—all readers of this blog should know of them—check out their website if you don’t as it is a wonderful organization).  And luckily my friend and collaborator, the amazing artist Karla Gudeon speaks Hebrew  and promises to help we with pronunciatioToo-Young-for-Yiddishn before our book tour, so I don’t embarrass myself too badly.

TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring picture book authors?
RM: I gave my advice when you were kind enough to have me on your blog last fall, and I have learned nothing since then—so may I repeat: Read, read, read—and see what the best of your elders and contemporaries are doing. And more importantly, sit down and write. I mean right now. Still here? We all have a million reasons why we don’t have time “right now.” Since this is the last question and you are done with the interview, instead of scrolling back to Facebook, and checking your email: WRITE!!!

About Richard Michelson

Rich MichelsonRichard Michelson’s many books for children, teens and adults have been listed among the Ten Best of the Year by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and The New Yorker; and among the best Dozen of the Decade by Amazon.com. He has been a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award (3X), the National Jewish Book Award (3X), the Harlem Book Fest Wheatley Award, and he is the only author ever awarded both the Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medals in a single year from the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Richard Michelson-Personal Site

R.Michelson Galleries-Gallery Site

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Announcing Lilith Magazine’s 2017 Fiction Contest

From Lilith Magazine:

Lilith Magazine—independent, Jewish and frankly feminist—invites submissions of quality short fiction, 3,000 words or under, for our Annual Fiction Contest.  When selecting what you’ll submit, please remember our tagline.  The magazine proudly spotlights both emerging and established writers. Winner receives $250 + publication. Deadline:  9/30/17

Put “Fiction Contest Submission” as subject line and send to info@Lilith.org

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In the Spirit of Poetry Has Value | February 2017 Report

Not much activity to report for February.

Poetry: 1 submission (Salamander), 0 acceptances, and 3 rejections to report (Baltimore Review, Stillwater Review, Wherewithal). My Tiferet poem, “Chicken Fat,” was published this month. Also, my poetry chapbook manuscript was accepted by a publisher. More on that after I sign the contract. If you’d like to receive a promotional postcard, please send your postal mailing address to me at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net.

January 27 marked the debut of the Poetry Workshop at the Kearny (NJ) Public Library with co-host library director and poet Josh Humphrey. A wonderful community is forming and sharing its diverse voices through poetry to help commemorate the town’s 150th anniversary. We meet the last Friday of every month at 6 pm for an hour of prompt-based writing followed by open mic.

Creative Nonfiction: 0 submissions, 1 acceptance (Whale Road Review), 0 rejections. I have been writing a lot in this genre lately, and will shortly have three or four essays to send out into the world.

Fiction: No activity, although I’ve written a new flash fiction piece and am writing a new short story based in Prague.

Academic: No activity, although I am presenting at the Northeast MLA in Baltimore in March.

Question 4U: What conferences do you attend and why?

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Author’s Notebook | Linda Leopold-Strauss, A Different Kind of Passover

Linda Leopold-Strauss Photo Credit: Keepsake Photographers

A Different Kind of Passover
Written by Linda Leopold-Strauss and illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau (Kar-Ben, 2017)

The Whole Megillah (TWM):  What inspired you to write A Different Kind of Passover?
Linda Leopold-Strauss (LLS): When I was a child, Passover was one of my favorite times of the year—my family would drive from Philadelphia, where we lived, to New Haven, Connecticut to spend the holiday with my grandparents and aunt and uncle and cousins.  I remember vividly practicing the Four Questions in the car, reciting them over and over.  I remember running up the stairs to my grandparents’ second-floor flat, sleeping on the floor in the living room with my cousins, the bowl of nuts and the nutcracker that were always on the coffee table, washing the two sets of Passover dishes and worrying that I might mix up the meat dishes with the milk dishes, celebrating the end of the holiday with sundaes at Clark’s Dairy.  In addition to the formal rituals, these were the traditions that defined the holiday for me—always the same, despite the words about Passover night’s being different from all over nights.  And then one year my grandfather had a heart attack and absolutely refused to stay in the hospital and eat chometz, so they let him go home after he promised to stay in bed; at that time, heart attack patients had to stay in bed for something like six weeks.  So something about the holiday traditions had to change.  That set up the conflict in the story—“the same” v. “different.”  The way the story played out in A Different Kind of Passover is fiction, but the inspiration for the story is in that piece of my family history.

a-different-kind-of-passover-cover-2TWM: How do you get your ideas for picture books?
LLS: The idea for A Different Kind of Passover, as noted above, came from my family history.  The idea for The Princess Gown (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) came from my husband’s family history—his great-great grandfather in England, Victor Abraham, was Embroiderer to the Queen, and the story that was passed down was that each of the many children in Joseph Abraham’s family put a stitch in Queen Victoria’s wedding gown.  The actual story, as I pursued it, seemed to be that Joseph Abraham embroidered the covering for the throne Queen Victoria sat on for her coronation, and each of the children put a stitch in that, but I went with the wedding gown version for my story.

elijah doorThe idea for The Elijah Door (Holiday House, 2012) was a visual:  I was taking a walk and a break from preparing for Passover one year, wondering where we were going to put the guests, thinking about how many families had even larger seders and therefore larger logistical problems, when I saw two houses side by side up on a hill.  What if the owners just opened the doors and let the seder spill out? I wondered.  And what if the two side-by-side seders met in the middle?  I’m not sure why I decided to set this story in an Eastern European shtetl—it just came out that way.  (As stories sometimes do!)

And one more: The idea for Preschool Day Hooray! (Scholastic/Cartwheel, 2010) came from the label on a bottle of barbecue sauce!  Sticky Fingers barbecue sauce!  I loved the sound of that; thought children would, too.  So one day while I was walking (my favorite time for inspiration), I started playing with sounds:  prickly rose, licky lolly, clucky hen, lucky clover.  After I’d assembled a bunch of these phrases, I realized I could pick and choose and create a kind of poem that was “a day in the life of” a small child.  And then my editor at Scholastic asked me to pare it down to a school day, which I did.

TWM: You’ve been writing for children for more than 40 years. What changes have you seen?
LLS: The change that perhaps has affected me most is the demand for manuscripts that are shorter and shorter.  Picture story books, which are what I started out writing (and which I still love to write, and read), are increasingly harder to sell.  I’ve been very lucky to get a few under the wire, but they seem to be a dying form.  Also, I think the fact that library and school budgets have been drastically cut has put the bookstore consumer more in the driver’s seat in terms of marketability of manuscripts.  And finally, with cutbacks in staff, many fewer publishing houses are accepting submissions from non-agented authors.  The number of houses to which an author without an agent can submit is significantly smaller than when I started writing.

TWM: Do you have an agent? Tell us about how you found one and how the process works for you.
LLS: I do not have an agent.  I did for a year—long ago.  My agent was a former editor, and she worked with me on revising A Fairy Called Hilary to her specifications, but the manuscript that resulted didn’t sell.  Ultimately I sent her the original manuscript again and at her suggestion, submitted it to Cricket magazine for possible serialization.  Cricket accepted it, and after the first episode appeared, Holiday House contacted me about publishing it as a book.  As originally written.  At that point, my agent and I amicably parted ways, and I’ve been submitting on my own ever since.

TWM: What is your advice for aspiring picture book authors?
LLS: First of all, read, read, read.  Read what’s being written and published today: Today’s books are probably shorter, snappier, possibly edgier, more “modern” than that books you read as a child.  Also read about how to write a picture book—there are lots of books out there with good advice.  Format matters:  how a picture book is structured, 32 pages, focus on page turns, memorable character and story arc needed, etc.  A picture book is not just an illustrated story.  Unless you are an illustrator yourself, you will be leaving choice of illustrators up to an editor who buys your manuscript, but you need to leave room in your manuscript for illustrations.  Polish your manuscript till you are certain it’s the best you can offer before you send it out.  Join or form a writers’ group to get some outside opinions on your work.  Go to writers’ conferences; nowadays, editors who speak at such conferences often invite attendees to send them work, though otherwise the house may be closed to non-agented writers.  It’s a good way in. And most of all, be patient; be persistent; don’t give up!

For more about Linda Leopold-Strauss, please visit her website.

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Who Sponsored Your Jewish Literacy?

6161469290_8e7a32ab3d_oI’ve been reading Deborah Brandt’s “The Sponsors of Literacy,” and wonder now about my own sponsors of Jewish literacy. I think the library at my Hebrew school, Congregation B’nai Israel, in Kearny, New Jersey was responsible for my love of Jewish history. They had a book about Jewish women that must have had some impact, because when I saw it on a bookseller’s table a few years ago at the Center for Jewish History, I bought it. It was at this library I came to know and love Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family.

I don’t recall anyone recommending I read Elie Wiesel or Isaac Bashevis Singer, but I suppose my father was a sponsor since he would take us on Saturday night to Korvette’s in West Orange to the books and records department. I always wanted the Bobbsey Twins to be Jewish.

Please think about your own sponsors of Jewish literacy and comment below. Think about your parents, siblings, teachers, supervisors, friends. Think about home and school. Think about how your Jewish literacy may have changed over the years. To help you, here are some questions:

  1. What was the first Jewish book you remember reading? Did anyone suggest it or read it to you? Where did this experience take place?
  2. What Jewish book or author holds the most meaning for you? Why?
  3. What places do you associate with your own Jewish literacy?
  4. Who were your sponsors, who introduced you to Jewish writing and reading? At what stages of your life did this take place.
  5. Do you know Hebrew or Yiddish? How and where did you learn? Do you use these languages today? How?

To read Brandt’s article, click here.

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