Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things this week:

  1. I’m putting together a focus group of about 8-10 subscribers to help provide guidance about the future of The Whole Megillah. If you are interested in participating in a brief Zoom session after the holidays to share thoughts and ideas, please comment below or send an email to barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net.
  2. What genre interests you most for your own writing?
  3. I had a breakthrough in revising a short story this week. Find a place in your writing where your character glosses over something. Write the details of what’s been glossed over for 10 minutes. Now, find a place in your writing where your character poses a rhetorical question. List five possible answers to that question, including opposites. Choose one that generates the most energy for you. Write in the voice of your character for that response for 10 minutes. When I did this, I decided to get rid of a second narrator and change the main character’s voice from third to first. I think, too, I now found the core message of the story. Try it! Let me know how it goes.

L’shana tova!

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Author’s Notebook | The Assignment by Liza Wiemer

Wiemer, Liza. The Assignment. Delacorte Press, 2020, $17.99

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write The Assignment?
Liza Wiemer (LZ): On April 4, 2017, I visited Oswego, New York, for a book signing at River’s End Bookstore for my debut young adult novel, Hello? Before the event, I stopped at a local grocery store but couldn’t exit my car because of a downpour. So, I scrolled through Facebook. That’s when I saw the headline “Homework? NY Students Debate Exterminating Jews.” The article described how two teens, Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April, refused to do an antisemitic assignment requiring students to debate the merits of the Final Solution. To my shock, this took place in Oswego! How was possible that I ended up in a town where people supported an assignment advocating for the Holocaust?

I was horrified.

I decided to ask the bookstore owner to help me connect with the teens. I wanted to let them know them know that I thought they were brave. Four steps into the bookstore, there was Jordan, one of the teens from the article! It turned out she worked there. Later that evening, we had a three-way call with Archer.

For a more detailed explanation on how this novel came to be, check out my website post: The Story Behind The Assignment.

Author Liza Wiemer

TWM: Was there any reason to place the story in upstate New York?
LW: As I’ve discovered, this type of an assignment can be given anywhere. Any country, any town, any school. The assignment that inspired this novel took place in upstate New York, so I created a fictitious town that had similar demographics. In addition, I included scenes that take place by Fort Ontario and in the Safe Haven Museum, which is dedicated to the nearly 1,000 European World War II refugees that were held at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter. It was the only refugee shelter provided by the United States government and is located in upstate New York.


TWM: How did you come up with your cast of characters?
LW: I was inspired by Archer and Jordan’s courage, but from the moment I decided to write this novel, I made it very clear that it would be a work of fiction and would not represent them. For Cade, one of my main characters, I turned to the example of one of my aunts and uncles who owned a bed and breakfast. I imagined what it would be like for Cade to be raised in a similar environment. For my other main character, Logan, I decided her father would be the Mathematics Dean for SUNY-Lakeside. Lakeside doesn’t exist. I chose that profession to honor one of the people I met while I was doing research.

A former neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Jack Dygola, of blessed memory, had shared his harrowing story with me. I incorporated a great deal of it into the novel. We sat at my dining room table with tears streaming down our faces as he described what he endured and how he lived through the Holocaust.

At the end of my novel, readers are introduced to World War II veteran, Lieutenant Peter Franklin. His backstory was developed after I watched original footage and read about the real-life survival story of Navy Lieutenant Jack Taylor, who was enslaved at Mauthausen concentration camp.

From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to show a cast of characters that gave a well-rounded perspective on the impact an assignment like this can have on individual students, a class, a school, a community, and on a global level. Based on my research, I felt that the characters I chose represented a broad range of realistic perspectives and experiences.

TWM: What were your greatest challenges in writing this book?
LW: I did an extensive amount of research and it made me realize how very little I actually knew about the World War II and the Holocaust. I humbly recognize that I could devote the rest of my life to studying the topic and there would still be millions of stories and vast amounts of information I wouldn’t get to. As it was, I read thousands of pages, watched original footage and documentaries. I conducted interviews, spoke with experts, and traveled to some of the sites I included in my novel. The biggest challenge was having to decide what information to share, providing information I thought would be interesting and insightful without overwhelming the reader.

Another challenge was cutting some characters’ points-of-view. Originally, there were more Mr. Bartley chapters—the teacher in the novel. I also had chapters from the reporter’s perspective, the school secretary, and the New York Commissioner of Education that I deleted. Even though they were interesting, I have no regrets.

TWM: What were your greatest satisfactions?
LW: When I began this journey, I had no idea if I would get an agent to represent this novel or if the manuscript would eventually get published. I knew that writing this novel would require a tremendous amount or hard work, determination, and dedication without any guarantees. It was a huge leap of faith, something I needed to do. After thousands of hours of research, writing, rewriting and editing, it’s tremendously gratifying to see it in print and to hold the book in my hands.

One of my greatest satisfactions was sparked by research. In Ruth Gruber’s book, Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America, I read about baby Elia Montiljo. She died during the voyage from Naples, Italy to New York, New York, leaving her parents devastated. Under normal circumstances, she would have been buried at sea, but the Montiljos were granted their request to bring her to America. A crew member of USNS Henry Gibbins built a tiny coffin, and when the refugees arrived in Fort Ontario baby Elia’s parents were able to give her a proper burial. This story impacted me deeply. As part of my research, I planned to visit Fort Ontario to get a better understanding on what life was like for the refugees. That was important to me, but finding baby Elia’s grave became my personal mission I contacted Reverend George DeMass, past president of Safe Haven Museum and Oswego, NY historian, and asked for his help. During my return trip to Oswego, he took me, Jordan, and Archer to the Jewish section of the Riverside Cemetery. Archer finally found a small corner of a stone marker buried under leaves, grass, and lots of dirt. We uncovered it, revealing Rochel (Rachel/Elia) Montiljo’s grave. Per Jewish tradition, I placed a small rock on the marker. Uncovering the gravesite was a powerful, important moment. I made a promise to baby Elia that I would not only remember her, but share her story. Incorporating this experience into the novel was profound and satisfying.

TWM: Please describe your research process (did I detect some Christopher Browning in here?).
LW: Research was my first priority. Although I had my cast of characters and a general idea of who they were, what they valued and why, everything in this novel was steeped in the research I did. Indeed, you did detect some Christopher Browning! One of the books I used to research the Final Solution was his The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. I also read several other books as well as many websites to learn as much as I could about the Final Solution. The United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website was an invaluable tool, but I also spoke with their experts to get clarification on questions I had or to get answers I couldn’t find detailed information on their site or anywhere else. YouTube has an incredible amount of original footage as well as interviews with World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors, white supremacists. I researched hate crimes, New York state’s history, and delved into the background of a novel I incorporated into mine—Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

As word spread about my research about antisemitic and racist assignments, people contacted me on social media to share ones they read about or experienced firsthand. It was eye-opening and disturbing to discover how prevalent these types of assignments are and that they’ve been given across the globe.

TWM: What was your own emotional journey like while writing this book?
LW: It was intense. Remembering the antisemitic incidents I’d experienced as a child and throughout adulthood made me realize how I’d compartmentalized them and kept them behind a closed door. Those doors flew wide open. Once again, I felt the impact of antisemitism on an intimate level and had to come to terms with the fact that I’ve done things in the past to hide my Jewish identity, especially when I didn’t feel safe. As someone who loves being Jewish, this realization was painful. Balancing Jewish pride while confronting that fear wasn’t easy. The hate is real. I could never have moved forward if I hadn’t confronted these issues and fortified my determination to share this story. What transpired at Charlottesville, The Tree of Life Massacre, as well as many other horrific crimes against the Jewish people added fuel to my motivation to finish and see it published. I started out wanting to make a difference—to show students in particular how critical it is to speak up against hatred, to offer examples of courage. I don’t know where this journey will take me. But I remind myself every day that I’ve given and will continue to do my very best.

TWM: Who inspires you?
LW: To this day, my grandparents, Jack and Lena Goldberg, of blessed memory, inspire me. My grandma grew up in the South, and after my grandparents were married and had children, they moved from Milwaukee to Birmingham, Alabama. They saw and took action against racism. They endured horrible antisemitism. On many levels, they were incredible role models, showing me the importance of speaking up against hatred and injustice. Their actions spoke volumes. Because of them as well as my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Don Goldberg, I had examples to help me become who I am today.

Elie Wiesel also inspires me as well as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist.

TWM: What’s next for you?
LW: In 1999, I had finished a picture book inspired by a story my grandfather had told me about his childhood. I turned down an offer from a small press to publish it because they wouldn’t guarantee that the illustrations would be done in color. I put the book in a drawer and would occasionally think about it, wondering how I could take the story out of the 1920s and make it modern. Recently, an idea came to me. I revised, revised, revised. It still has the spirit of my grandpa’s original story, but it’s set in today’s world. I have no doubt my grandpa would approve.

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things this week:

  1. I’m going to be a featured panelist at early October’s Amherst Writers & Artists Leadership Retreat about sending out your work. I’ll be focusing on sending out book manuscripts and using Duotrope.
  2. After the holidays, I’m going to be administering a poll/survey to readers of The Whole Megillah to ensure I’m still delivering content you need and want. Perhaps COVID-19 has impacted this. But feel free now to tell me what you’d like to see by using the comment section below.
  3. For those of you interested in writing memoir, I do offer memoir prompts on Facebook.

L’shana tova!

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Two-in-One | Behind the Bookcase, written by Barbara Lowell, illustrated by Valentina Toro

Lowell, Barbara. Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place. Illustr. Valentina Toro. Kar-Ben, 2020, 40 pp., paperback $7.99.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write this book?
Barbara Lowell (BL): In 2016, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I had read Anne’s diary several times and of course, knew who Miep Gies was. When I was in the Secret Annex, I felt a connection to Miep – reading about her there and looking at her photo.

When I found her autobiography, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family, I put everything else I was reading away and read the story of this exceptional woman.

My favorite line in the Behind the Bookcase is one that my editor, Shaina Olmanson, wrote about Miep: “She knew how it felt to be young and leave everything in your world behind.” Miep’s experience as a child leaving her family in Austria to live with a new family in the Netherlands gave her great empathy and a strong desire to help others. I knew after reading Anne Frank Remembered that I wanted to share Miep’s and Anne’s story with children.

TWM: Valentina. What was your illustration strategy for this book?
Valentina Toro (VT): I tried a classic style to make the book look serious but not rigid. I experimented with the palette and tried to evoke some nostalgia. My intention was to transport the reader to a different time.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
BL: My greatest challenge was to tell a story about the Holocaust for children in a gentle way and show that despite the horror of their situation, there were moments of happiness that Anne, Miep and the others in hiding experienced. That’s why I added Anne sharing her feeling of joy when she showed off the red high heels Miep bought for her.

Illustrator Valentina Toro

VT: I wanted to be very respectful to the story itself, especially the characters, so I had to make a lot of sketches in order to deeply feel every one of them and honor them in the best possible way. Also, I had to be very accurate about The Hiding Place, the posters Anne hung on the walls, her writing desk, the cover of her diary, and all the places, corners, stairs, where the rest of the occupants spent their days. I had this feeling that I was giving life to Barbara Lowell’s words, to Miep Gies and Anne Frank‘s stories, such an important part of our history, and not only I had to be respectful to their memory, but also to the readers and every person that opens this book. So, that was a bit of a challenge, but in a positive way, because it made me very aware of every detail and I learned a lot in the process.


Author Barbara Lowell

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
BL: My greatest satisfaction was learning about Miep in books and in videos. One moment in a video stands out. Miep talks with Fritz Pfeffer’s son Peter, an adult at the time. Fritz Pfeffer hid in the Secret Annex with Anne, and in her diary, she called him Dr. Dussel. His son, Peter, was upset because of the negative things Anne had written about his father that were published in her diary. What Anne had written was certainly understandable given her age and the circumstances involved. But Miep didn’t defend Anne. She simply told Peter Pfeffer that his father was her good friend and a lovely, lovely man. Peter Pfeffer cried hearing this and thanked her. Sadly, he died two months later. Fritz Pfeffer died at Neuengamme concentration camp in northern Germany. He had sent Peter to England earlier in the war to escape the Nazis.

Another satisfaction was reading the Booklist review by Miriam Aronin who called Behind the Bookcase “a historically accurate but relatively gentle introduction to the Holocaust for elementary-age readers.” It’s such a joy to read a review by a reviewer who understands why I wrote the story the way I did.

VT: This has been one of the most amazing projects I have done. Anne Frank’s Diary was one of my favorite readings as a young girl, and it drove me to read a lot about World War II and the Holocaust. Not every day you have the chance to use your pencil to give life to stories like this one, when I saw the final cover on the internet, in pre-sale, I was so incredibly proud to see my name on it.

TWM: How did you go about conducting your research?
BL: When I begin with an idea, I first do some preliminary research to see if I want to spend time researching and writing about it. I also need to decide if the idea will make a good story for children. Then I check WorldCat.org to see what other children’s books are available on my idea. I read those books and decide if I can make my story different from those. Usually a slice of life works better than a birth to death biography.

If my idea looks promising, then I read everything I can find on the subject. I also look for books that out of the mainstream. When writing Daring Amelia, I found a book written by Amelia Earhart’s sister that gave me a great line for the book. With Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever, I read everything Charles Schulz had written about his life as a starting place.

When researching Behind the Bookcase, my focus was on Miep’s book, Anne’s diary, and the videos that included interviews of Miep, and friends of Anne and Margot who had survived living in concentration camps. Since I had been to the Anne Frank House and Amsterdam, these were also sources.

It’s helpful to experience the actual place(s) a person lived or where an event happened. I haven’t been to a concentration camp (which I hope to one day.) But I did visit sites in Riga, Latvia, which chronicled the horrors of the Holocaust. There I saw a Jewish ghetto, walked through a house that had stood in a ghetto, entered a train car used to transport Jews to a concentrations camp, and walked in a field where Jews were shot as soon as they excited a train. The train tracks are still there. Walking through the Anne Frank House, I felt a great sorrow which helped me write the book.

VT: The editors provided pretty much everything I needed: photographs, links to websites, special details like where the family spent the evenings, or how the furniture looked like. I did some research on my own, in order to be more accurate about the clothing, hair styles, the kind of food they ate when Miep was adopted by her new family, the train station, etc. I also read the diary once more, because I wanted to connect with Anne’s feelings and thoughts in order to illustrate a much deeper version of her.

TWM: Barbara, what is your writing process?
BL: For the most part, I work on some aspect of writing each day: researching, writing, my website, writing for my blog, or something to do with the business of writing or promotion. But I do actual writing each day only when revising the entire manuscript or if I have a deadline to meet. When I struggle with a manuscript, I talk to my character and ask questions. Of course, this is my subconscious answering, but it works for me. I also go for walks and think about the problem I’m having. It’s amazing what pops into my mind when I’m away from my writing desk.

I write and revise as I’m going along which contradicts the standard writing advice to write the first draft without stopping to do any revisions. But this works best for me. I also read my manuscript out loud constantly. This helps me hear the rhythm of the sentences. Since I write picture books, I paginate them, which means I break them down in spreads the way an actual picture book does. This helps me look at the pacing and see where I can add page breaks that make the reader want to continue to the next page.

I show my critique group my manuscript, get their input and go back to revising. I continue revising until I think the manuscript is right and then it goes back to my critique

TWM: Valentina, what medium/media do you use?
VT: For this book I used Procreate for iPad Pro. The first sketches were handmade with pencil.

TWM: Who inspires you?
BL: I am inspired by all my wonderful writing friends in SCBWI Oklahoma and SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) Without their support, I probably would have stopped writing long ago. Writing is difficult and for the most part, a solitary activity and having the support of writers and illustrators is necessary. My husband is very supportive also and looks at my manuscripts before anyone else does.

Children inspire me too. I love history and when I find a great story, I’m inspired to share it with children.

VT: My first inspiration is my dad, he is also an illustrator, and he has taught me everything about this profession. Then there is a great number of artists who inspire me: Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, Edward Gorey, Rebecca Dautremer, their work has guided me over the years. Also, I’m inspired by the voices of people who try to change the world, no matter where they are, no matter how loud their voices are, I feel deeply move by those who raise that voice and make a change that matters. I want my work to support those voices, like Anne’s, and to bring awareness of the things we need to change.

TWM: What’s next for you?
BL: I have a nonfiction picture book about the mischievous son of a very famous person in history that will be released in 2021. It’s funny and was lots of fun to write. I can’t wait to see what the illustrator adds to the story because he is very funny.

I am working on more nonfiction picture books and fiction picture books inspired by true stories. And I’m always learning how to be a better writer. I attend conferences, workshops, watch webinars, and read books about writing.

VT: Right now I’m working on two projects. The first one is a book I’m writing myself, a children’s novel (with a lot of illustrations). And the second one is an illustrated book written by Kate Messner, to be released next year.

For more about author Barbara Lowell, visit her website.

Visit Valentina Toro on Instagram, @valentinatoroilustracion.



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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things this week:

  1. Two new picture book biography critique groups have now formed. Now I’m looking to start a group for memoir/essay and another group for short fiction to get underway after the holidays. If interested, please comment below.
  2. Cycle 18 of The Whole Megillah’s online fiction-writing studio starts September 16. We write on a private Facebook page with weekly prompts for six weeks. If interested, please comment below.
  3. Want to know more about your writing voice? Write your own version of the following by Donald Murray in “All Writing Is Autobiographical”: “My voice is the product of Scottish genes and a Yankee environment, of Baptist sermons and the newspaper city room, of all the language I have heard and spoken.” My version goes something like this: My voice is the space between wooden shtetl slats, of ancestral specters lost to the Holocaust, of all the languages I have learned that my ancestors once spoke, of my othered upbringing in a north Jersey town where life revolved around the shul.

Continue to be safe, wherever you are.

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Two-in-One: The Eight Knights of Hanukkah, written by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Galia

Kimmelman, Leslie. The Eight Knights of Hanukkah. Illus. Galia Bernstein. Holiday House, September 2020, 48 pp., $17.99

The Whole Megillah welcomes writer Leslie Kimmelman and illustrator Galia Bernstein to the forum. We asked them a few questions about their book, The Eight Knights of Hanukkah:


The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come up with the idea for Eight Knights?
Leslie Kimmelman (LK): I’ve wanted to do a Hanukkah story for some time; my last one, The Runaway Latkes, was published in 2000. But what could I say that hasn’t been said? There are so many good Hanukkah books available now. Then I thought of the play on words—knight/night. I researched it and was extremely surprised that no one had taken that road yet. Once I had the title, the story came fairly easily. It’s so much fun to writeth knightly dialogue! (The book also gave me an excuse to buy some chain mail! Hopefully I can use it for some virtual visits this fall.)

Leslie Kimmelman

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
LK: My biggest challenge, I suppose, was that I wanted the book to do more than just tell a story. I wanted it to have a deeper meaning, without hitting readers over the head with lesson. Hopefully I succeeded in challenging kids to go forth and do their own acts of “awesome kindness and stupendous bravery.”  And of course, I wanted to imbue the story with humor. think I’m funny, but I wanted to make sure that readers did as well!

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
LK: My greatest satisfaction is the same as it always is—seeing the finished book. Galia Bernstein’s illustrations are absolutely fantastic—much more than I could have hoped for. They add a whole other layer to the story. She has a busy schedule, so I had to wait for her. But it was well worth the wait. Also, I am really happy the book is coming out this year. If ever there was a time for encouraging kindness, this is it. Without kindness, compassion, and grace, life will be very hard for us all.

TWM: Do you have an agent? What was your process in securing one?
LK: I have an agent, as of just a few months ago. I have been in the publishing field (as an editor) since graduating from college, so I guess I felt I had the contacts to do it myself. With the exception of a few years, I have done so and it’s worked out well for me. But lately I realized I would rather be spending my energy on actually writing. So I queried a number of agents, and I am really happy with the one I signed with. She has just sent out my first manuscript, and I’m crossing my fingers.

TWM: Do you have a critique group? How has that worked for you?
LK: I don’t have a formal critique group right now, though I do have writer friends, and we swap manuscripts on an informal basis. I have gotten some really good advice from them. I also have a daughter who is an avid reader and works with young children herself; she’s a terrific critic.

TWM: Who inspires you?
LK: Without being too political, these past few years have been terribly disappointing in terms of expecting moral leadership from most elected officials. Instead, I am inspired by all the things that people are doing on a grass-roots level: the front-line workers just digging in and doing their jobs, the BLM movement, the millions of people who are standing up and fighting injustice. Which is really the message of Eight Knights. You don’t have to slay a dragon to be a hero. You can bring chicken soup to a neighbor, or help around the house, or speak out when you see wrong, or just do your part—e.g., wear a mask—o keep everyone healthy. Even the youngest kids can understand what it means to do something kind or brave; small acts of heroics are in everyone’s reach. I am so desperately hoping that we can usher in a kinder era.

TWM: What’s next?
LK: I have a number of projects in the works. In Spring 2021, books three and four of an early reader series will be published: Bat and Sloth Throw a Party and Bat and Sloth Solve a Mystery.  They’re a lot of fun, and hopefully I can re-promote the first two, which came out this past April when most of us had other things on their mind. I am hard at work on a second draft of my first middle-grade book; I’m also working on a couple of nonfiction picture books. I don’t want to jinx things by saying more!

TWM: Thanks so much, Leslie! Now let’s turn to Galia. What was your illustration strategy?

Galia Bernstein

Galia Bernstein (GB): Since the book is written in the style of a medieval ballad, I immediately though of medieval illuminated manuscripts. That’s where the illuminated letters came from, as well as the parchment color pages. I also had a great time drawing the endpapers map, in the style of maps of that era.

TWM: The drawings are so nuanced and keep the humor alive. How did you make that happen?
GB: Well, it helped that Leslie’s writing is so funny. The knights take their tasks, no matter how menial, very seriously. Showing a knight carving a dreidel with the same intensity as he would ride into battle is funny and I tried to stay true to that spirit. Of course, I always add animals where I can, so each knight has a horse who is just as serious and dedicated. I’m pretty sure this book wins “Most horses in a Hanukkah book.” I’m proud of that.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
GB: All eight knights are dressed in armor for the entire book. Not something I’m used to drawing, especially in so many different poses. To prepare, I went to the Arms and Armor section of the Metropolitan Museum and made a lot of sketches. I was really inspired by the collection’s cultural variety. Since my knights are multicultural, I used elements of Asian and African armor, as well as “traditional” European, in their design.

TWM: Your greatest satisfaction?
GB: This is a religion-themed book, designed to look like an ancient religious text. It was very important to me, and I think to Leslie as well, to keep it modern and relatable. Humor is key, but also cultural representation and modern ideas of gender rolls. Sir Gabriel is peeling potatoes, while Sir Isabella is chasing a dragon. They go where they are needed and no task is more, or less meaningful than the other. Books about religion can often be stiff and old fashion, this book is not and I’m very happy about it.

TWM: Who inspires you?
GB: I am a fan of line illustrators for children, who were also cartoonists for adults. William Steig comes to mind. Their characters are so expressive in so few lines. For this book I also thought of Nancy Carpenter’s illustration for historic biographies picture books like Balderdash! and Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine. I love her characters and creative layouts.

TWM: What’s next for you (if you can talk about it)?
GB: I’m currently in the last stages of illustrating two wonderful picture books by two amazing authors. Lost and Found by Kate Banks and Ear Worm by Jo Knowles. I’m very excited about both and can’t wait for everyone to see them sometime in 2021. I’m also in the very early stages of writing my third book as author/illustrator.

TWM: Thank you both for a great interview!

For more about Leslie Kimmelman, see her website.
For more about Galia Bernstein, see her website.

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things this week:

  1. I’ve signed on to take Intermediate Yiddish at YIVO with instructor Nina Warnke. Can’t wait to delve in again and also continue with my translations. Class starts mid-September. Nina thought I should take the advanced class, but I don’t think I’m there yet.
  2. A new picture book biography critique group starts this weekend. I want to unlock those craft secrets of writing a powerful (and saleable) manuscript!
  3. I’ve been thinking this week of a comment once made to me by another writer at a retreat: “Don’t you think you’d have more success if you didn’t write ‘Jewish’?” It still riles me.

Continue to be safe, wherever you are.

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Poet’s Notebook | L’dor Vador, a Poetry Chapbook by Steven Pollack

Pollack, Steve. L’dor Vador, From Generation to Generation. Finishing Line Press, 2020, $14.99

The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did this collection come about?
Steven Pollack (SP): During a career as engineer and administrator, writing focused my thoughts and I developed skills to advocate and manage projects or report status. Upon retirement in 2009, I set a goal to write more creatively. These took short story form, narratives about places and events in my life, portraits of people I love, but despite months of revision were not completely satisfying. My path to writing poems and the longer journey to this collection is more improbable. I first found poetry by chance, on internet sites, where I could read, comment and post my own work and later, at Philly area readings and open mics. I was amazed to discover a diverse network of poets, across cyberspace and at the library close to home. Your Whole Megillah introduced me to Poetica Magazine and Michal Mahgerefteh, who published my first poem, “Poppy,” in 2014. Acceptance boosted my confidence, so I wrote more poems and submitted to more anthologies, not with easy success. The idea for this collection came several years later, at a full-day workshop I attended at Bucks County Community College. Chris Bursk, Professor of Language and Literature, energetic cheerleader for poets and poetry, grabbed my attention with his observation that poems “talk to one another.” I looked back through notebooks and hard drives, at hundreds of raw poems I had drafted, seeing themes repeat, key words and images connect. I started a list, a preliminary table of contents, and noted gaps that begged for new poems. My project had begun in earnest, but that was just the beginning.

Steve Pollack

TWM: What moves you to write about your Jewish heritage?
SP: I grew up in a multi-generational household, maternal grandfather my roommate. My parents were founding members of Beth Emeth congregation in their NE Philly neighborhood, where my father served as gabbai and bar/bat-mitzvah teacher. We were observant, not with the old world Orthodoxy of my immigrant grandparents, but an American approach respectful of tradition, while accepting of change. From a very young age, I sang in the High Holiday choir with my father, as he and his brothers had sung with their father, a Cantor in small South Philly shuls. The Passover Seder he led, one of my earliest memories, is reflected in the poem titled by his Hebrew name,“Chanina.” Today, I continue to sing with Nashirah: the Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia. My wife and I have chosen to be called Bubbie and Zayda, appreciating these honored names stand for people of blessed memory. I write to treasure our shared heritage, to pass stories forward, to create compositions as bridges, a collected memory for our grandchildren and their children, not yet born, those who may never meet us. As this manuscript took shape, “L’dor Vador – From Generation to Generation” became the clear choice for a title. Ubiquitous in Biblical liturgy, common in contemporary use, a phrase so deeply meaningful and so beautifully melodic when spoken in Hebrew.

TWM: I noticed you incorporated a variety of poetic forms in this collection. What drives you to write a prose poem? Couplets?
SP: Thanks for noticing. I wanted that variety threaded through this collection as one way to sustain the reader’s interest. I rarely begin with a fixed idea how a poem will finally appear on the page. An exception is “Believe,” a poem for grandchildren, where I set a rhyme scheme in metered lines. Prose poems and free verse feel more liberating, especially in early drafts. But the creative discipline required to write in uniformly ordered forms is very good practice. Schooled in math and science, I like to experiment with poetic structures and styles. I can suggest no formula or definitive explanation. My revision process dissects, reorders stanzas and lines, alters syntax, until the words and white spaces look right on the page, until the rhythm flows when read aloud. “How Do I Know You?”, about my Dad’s struggle with dementia, took years of such editing, his Yahrzeit calling me to revisit. If I am listening carefully, the poem speaks and leads me to recognize the form that serves the content. It can be magical, like “December 26, 1960,” a list poem that remained so from the opening lines, but more often trial and error, reluctant machete, constructive feedback, the tangible reward of work.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge with this collection?
SP: Given my affinity for narrative, to internalize the most basic mantra of poets, “to show not to tell.” To articulate emotional moments and close relationships without being trapped like a dinosaur in the sticky tar pit of sentiment. To express both joy and tsuris in resonant details, metaphor and other poetic techniques. Even a fairy tale needs a wolf and a surprising turn.

TWM: Your greatest satisfaction?
SP: To finally hold my book in hand fills me with a sense of achievement, that joy diminished by losses due to virus and violence, diminished like drops of wine from a Seder cup symbolize ancient plagues. Perhaps, my greatest satisfaction has been the comments received from readers, the connections they discover to their memories from my stories. It is not surprising that cousins and the broader Jewish community were a receptive audience. It is remarkable and affirming that people whose parents or grandparents speak in different accents or favor different tastes, find our shared humanity in love, faith and details of everyday.

TWM: Do you belong to writers’ groups? Poetry groups? Please tell us about them.
SP: I am active in two poetry groups in neighboring counties, Mad Poets and Forgotten Voices. Each has met for decades, monthly (or did until March 2020). Recently, readings have resumed on Zoom. Mad Poets, coordinated by Sibelan Forrester, features two invited poets, previously in a gallery space at Wallingford Community Arts Center, followed by an open mic. Forgotten Voices circles with Joanne Leva at the Indian Valley Public Library, and includes a guest poet who talks about his/her writing life, reads and then, leads an exercise allowing each of us to share our rough work. The results after only 15 minutes are often a striking start to something good. Each group also runs separate workshops (presently suspended) for poems in progress. These collegial sessions exposed me to many poems, fresh perspectives and immediate response that sharpened my work.

TWM: Who inspires you?
SP: Facts revealed by DNA or ancestral searches leave me wanting more. Artifacts in museums or heirlooms on shelves arouse my interest, but also fall short. Emma Lazarus and Marge Piercy, poets of different eras, each illuminate Jewish experience with emotional depth and personality. Well told stories inspire me, the precision and beauty of language. Memories are re-cognized from our own experience sifted through time, from personal relationships, but also from photographs, from family lore spoken by parents, uncles and aunts, from details only older cousins remember. Comparing memories with my sister, and with cousins both younger and older, a few years made a dramatic difference. Studies indicate that “childhood amnesia” starts at age seven. Near that age, earliest memories fade gradually, almost entirely by adulthood. As previous generations passed away, and life’s next decade approached, I was more urgently inspired to save portraits, especially of immigrant grandparents, who younger cousins do not remember, who my grandchildren never met.

TWM: What’s next for you?
SP: Our grandaughter’s bat-mitzvah is coming in November. She is so beautifully prepared, and we are all very proud of her. I am practicing to chant a few verses of Torah, whether on the bimah or virtual. Covid has interrupted routines, cancelled events and separated us. I am looking forward to scheduling readings from my chapbook, when it is safe. Poetica Magazine has accepted a new poem, “An Evening Hour,” to be published in their 2020 Mizmor Anthology, “spirituality” the theme. I have ideas for other book length projects, content to let simmer for now.


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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things this week:

  1. Two of the five manuscripts I’d sent out into the world were rejected. I had been specifically asked to write them for this one publisher. They were both picture book biographies. I aim to make a study of them and unlock their secrets! Any you recommend?
  2. I am now officially done with my PhD coursework! I’m on my second draft of my dissertation proposal about Holocaust children’s lit, but I’m also interested in the lives of displaced persons in postwar America and in Yizkor books (memorial books) written by landsmanshaftn (town-based societies). I’m working on a paper that presents a new model where narrative and historical truths co-exist based the eastern migration of refugees from my grandmother’s shtetl of Ostrow Mazowiecka, Poland that several Yizkor books (e.g., Zambrow, Slonim) discuss specifically.
  3. The semester has begun. I’m teaching a vast array of undergrad classes: English Comp I, English Comp II, Children of the Holocaust, Historical Methods, and US History II. My goal is to dedicate weekends to my personal writing.

Continue to be safe, wherever you are.

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Author’s Notebook | Judah Touro Didn’t Want to Be Famous, Written by Audrey Ades

Ades, Audrey. Judah Touro Didn’t Want to Be Famous. Illus. Vivien Mildenberger. Kar-Ben, 2020, 32 pp.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Audrey Ades (AA): I started writing this book in 2016, when I felt the moral compass of our country was moving in the wrong direction. I wanted to offer kids a role model to counter the images they might see on TV or hear about from grown-ups.

TWM: What was your research process?
AA: Judah Touro was a private man. As far as we know, he did not keep a diary, and he had all his private papers burned when he died. So the research process was tricky. There were a few books written about him in the 1940s, and there are several articles available online. But I was also lucky to connect with two knowledgeable, generous people who had studied Judah’s life for years. They helped me bring him to life.

Audrey Ades

TWM: Do you have a critique group? If yes, how did that help?
AA: Yes. I have two critique groups. Those kind souls listened to versions of this book for two years while I tried to find the voice and the correct level of detail to fit the theme. I would also be remiss not to mention the grandson of a dear friend, who read a mid-process version and gave me this invaluable feedback: “It’s the most boring thing I ever read. It’s like every boring thing they make you read in Hebrew school.” If that’s not a call for revision, I don’t know what is!

TWM: In general, please describe your writing process from start to finish.
AA: I try to read as much as possible about my subject. With Judah, this was easy to do, as there isn’t much written about him. I’ve usually got a theme in mind from the start, and I look for accomplishments or events in my subject’s life that specifically support the theme. Then I say a small prayer and start to write.

TWM: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
AA: Do I have to pick just one? The first challenge was to decide when to start the story in the course of Judah’s life. I wrote several full versions beginning in his childhood before deciding to start with him already an adult. That felt a little scary for a picture book. I also wasn’t sure how much “God” to put into the story. There are no contemporaneous sources describing the role God played in his adult life. And then, as in every book, I struggled with how much detail to include. That’s always tricky when you have under 1000 words to develop character, plot, and theme.

TWM: What was the most satisfying?
AA: The most satisfying moment of the writing was when the last line of the book popped into my head and I knew it was right. The first and last pages of a story are usually the ones I agonize over the most.

TWM: I understand that this book was selected by PJ Library. Did you send in the ms. or did Kar-Ben?
AA: In 2018, PJ Library and SCBWI co-sponsored a Jewish book contest. This story won the contest. It was an amazing honor. Kar-Ben bought the manuscript after that.

TWM: Do you have any tips for writers of picture book biographies? Do you have any favorites?
AA: My chief bit of advice would be to keep your eye on the prize. Don’t get distracted by the accomplishments of other writers or twist yourself into a knot from all the advice out there. Just put in the hours and write the best work your heart and brain can produce.
I have a lot of “favorite” picture books. There’s some terrific writing out there! The ones I seem to go back to over and over are by Donna Bowman, Gary Golio, Gene Barretta, and Candy Fleming.

TWM: What’s next for you?
AA: Kar-Ben will publish my second book, The Rabbi and the Reverend: Joachim Prinz, Martin Luther King Jr and Their Fight against Silence, in the fall or winter of 2021. And I have another PB biography that will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux the following year. Right now, I am on my 800th revision of a book about a subject I love, but who apparently wants me to fight for the privilege to write about him!

For more about Audrey Ades, visit her website.

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