PJ Our Way: An Interview with Director Catriella Freedman

pjow-urban-91-2The Whole Megillah (TWM): What is PJ Our Way? What is its mission?
Catriella Freedman (CF): PJ Our Way is the next chapter of our free Jewish children’s book program, PJ Library, for kids ages 9-11. It’s designed to meet the developmental needs of older kids by letting them choose their own books each month, and by creating a platform to express themselves by encouraging them to post book reviews, ratings, and blog comments on the PJ Our Way website.

Its mission is to engage independent readers with high-quality books that have positive Jewish content. With PJ Our Way chapter books and graphic novels, kids can read about contemporary Jewish life, Israeli history, Jewish history, and Jewish ideas in a way that brings them into the larger conversation. Here are the books we’ve offered in the program so far.

TWM: How and why did it come about?
CF: PJ Library is such a wonderful and effective book program that engages the whole family in Jewish life. Many of our families and community partners felt that this positive experience shouldn’t end at age 8. So Harold Grinspoon (the founder and major funder of PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation) saw an opportunity to continue to reach and engage families with great books by expanding PJ Library through age 11.

As a result of his vision, PJ Our Way started as a pilot program in 10 communities in October 2014. In October 2016, the program became available nationally to all eligible kids. Now kids can sign up starting at age eight-and-a-half, and there are almost 20,000 kids around the country enjoying the program!

PJ Our Way Director Catriella Friedman

PJ Our Way Director
Catriella Freedman

TWM: How is the distribution of books different from books for younger readers?
CF: Unlike PJ Library where a specific book arrives automatically each month, kids in PJ Our Way get to choose their monthly books via our website, www.pjourway.org. Everything in the program is designed with the idea of putting kids in the driver’s seat—they need to be active in order to be engaged. Knowing that we can’t predict exactly how many kids will choose a specific book, we print many of our titles on demand (POD) once the orders have been received.

TWM: What kinds of books are you looking for?
CF: Page turners! Since PJ Our Way subscribers choose their books each month, the subject doesn’t matter as much as the pace and having stories and plots that kids can relate to, whether historical fiction or contemporary. Currently we are looking for more books with boy protagonists, written for a younger audience (ages 8-10). Great books for this age seem to be in short supply, and our book selection rates show that boys tend to choose books with male characters while girls tend to be more flexible in their book selections.

We get a lot of submissions with Holocaust themes, and for this age group we don’t consider books set in the camps or ghettoes; our Holocaust content needs to have a hopeful message.

TWM: How are you integrating kids’ feedback?
 CF: In all ways! After going through our book selection process, every book we offer in PJ Our Way is first vetted by kid reviewers from all over the country. We take their feedback very seriously. They will often raise an issue with a book that we may have overlooked, and we will raise those issues with the publishers and change actual text when possible. When we were considering the manuscript of The Six Day Hero by Tammar Stein, we ran it through a group of six tweens who shared important feedback with Tammar; she took their comments very seriously and made changes to the plot accordingly. It since has become a Junior Library Guild selection, and we are excited to be offering it as a PJ Our Way selection in May 2017. When deciding whether to offer a book a second or third time, we carefully review the kid feedback and ratings on the website for that book.

TWM: Are you accepting manuscripts? If so, how can writers submit?
CF: Yes! And we have great news! We are currently offering a $2,000 author incentive award for accepted manuscripts in addition to any payments made by a publisher. Potential authors can read our submission guidelines and send manuscripts to submissions@pjourway.org. The author incentive opportunity is available through December 2018.


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2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour | Final Stop

You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour, the culmination of a full week of insightful and inspiring award-winning author and illustrator interviews.

Read about the blog tour and all 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.

The wrap-up and virtual roundtable

Imagine, if you will, available award winners seated at a dais table with mics, poised to answer questions from the press. We have nine participants:

Sydney Taylor Gold Medalists

  • For Younger Readers—Author Debbie Levy and illustrator Elizabeth Baddeley for I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
  • For Older Readers—Author Adam Gidwitz and illustrator Hatem Aly for The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
  • For Teen Readers—Gavriel Savit for Anna and the Swallow Man

Sydney Taylor Silver Medalists

  • For Younger Readers

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!

We begin…


Gavriel Savit

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?
Gavriel Savit (GS): Bear with me on this one—I’m working on a theory that Harry Potter is some of the best Jewish kids’ lit ever written. Not, of course, because Harry Potter himself is Jewish (though Daniel Radcliffe is!), but he does represent a certain type of dual-identitied childhood that so many of us experience throughout our young Jewish lives. Do I say this bracha before eating lunch with my non-Jewish friends? Do I have to keep my magic secret in front of my muggle friends?

Richard Michelson and Leonard Nimoy at Nimoy's 80th birthday party. Photo: Sylvia Mautner Photography

Richard Michelson and Leonard Nimoy at Nimoy’s 80th birthday party. Photo: Sylvia Mautner Photography

Richard Michelson (RM): I think the yearly AJL recommendations are always worth the read, and I keep up as well with the latest offerings by my friends and Western MA neighbors—Jane Yolen, Lesléa Newman, Barbara Goldin Diamond, and Mordicai Gerstein. That alone can keep you busy reading all year.

Michelle Edwards (ME): For great Jewish children’s literature, I propose great stories. Great stories that make a reader feel joyful, empowered, thoughtful, generous, peaceful, civil, entertained, spiritual, and valued. Great stories, and whenever possible, have them paired with great illustrations. Great stories and great illustrations, then crafted into a whole object, that is the both the sum of its parts, and more than that, a third wonder, a book.

Joel ben Izzy (JBI): As a storyteller, I love re-reading books that delve into the rich world of Jewish Folklore.   Looking toward’s classics, I recommend picking up a copy of Zlateh the Goat by IB Singer, with fantastic illustrations by Maurice Sendak.  I write about the book in Dreidels on the Brain, as it was my earliest inspiration to become a storyteller.  Just check out this picture of “The First Schlemiel.”

As for modern collectors and writers of Jewish Folktales, none can compare to Howard Schwartz, past winner of the Sydney Taylor book award.  Both his story collections and picture books are wonderful.

TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
GS: I do my best to ignore trends, so I’m going for a long shot: Beis Hillel Werewolves vs. Beis Shamai Vampires Paranormal Romance.

Michelle Edwards

Michelle Edwards

ME: I think we will have more picture book biographies of major and minor Jewish figures, like Debbie Levy’s marvelous, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark , this year’s Sydney Taylor Award winner. I predict there will more books—picture books, middle grade, and young adult–that emerge from the multicultural parts of the Jewish community like Paula J. Freedman’s My Basmati Bar Mitzvah. I think we will continue to have books that explore Jewish history, our immigrant past, the State of Israel, and the Shoah. These new books will peer into corners of those experiences where we have not been before, like Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man, or Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Joel ben Izzy Photo: Ahri Golden

Joel ben Izzy
Photo: Ahri Golden

JBI: I think that recent catastrophic political events will have a marked influence on Jewish kids lit.  Storytellers in general—and Jewish storytellers in particular – have long taken a stand against the forces of ignorance and arrogance. With political leadership in direct opposition to the most important Jewish values—”welcome the stranger,” “act with humility,” “treat all people with dignity,” and “be a mensch,” to name a few—I’ll expect Jewish writers for kids and adults to stand up for these values, on behalf of Jews and non-Jews alike.

TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
GS: I’m just going to keep on writing stories that speak to me and hope they speak to other people as well. I’ve got several irons in the fire—drafts of novels, a huge epic play about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and even a developing idea for a television show…

RM: The next step is my book The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew, which will soon be featured on the wonderful The Whole Megillah blog!!!  I am also finishing the follow-up collection to More Money than God, my last poetry collection for adults; the core of the new collection is a series of poems reinterpreting the Haggadah. 

ME: I am about to begin a revision of a middle grade novel I started several years ago. I am still intrigued with the story’s possibilities. I can’t wait to dig in. I will fiddle with my inventory of stories, stirring the pot.  I will take a step most days towards creating something I call #studioscrawls, which I post on Instagram and Facebook. It’s my personal idea lab.

JBI: I go back and forth between telling stories and writing, so I’ll be looking forward to performing more.  I have some ideas floating around for books as well, though I’m still deciding which ones are ready to put in writing. 

Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (SJ/LF): It’s not flashy!  We hope to continue to create artwork for stories written by and about people of all races, ethnicities, social class and experience.  We hope to continue to grow and learn and challenge ourselves as artists.

TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?

G. Brian Karas

G. Brian Karas

Brian Karas (BK): My Jewish in-laws of 20+ years made me “Honorary Jew” despite my non-Jewish background (a joke of course). I learned a lot about Jewish life in that time, so I had a head start on insights when working on A Hat for Mrs. Goldman. For me though, the book isn’t so much about Jewish life as it is about the spirit of mitzvahs. I love that Mrs. Goldman lives by that notion. And what better way to share your love than to knit someone a hat or scarf to keep you warm?




JBI: When I decided it was finally time to share a story I had heard at age 12, and treasured since then, I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it now. Over time—and a lot of writing and rewriting—I think I’ve come to see why I told this story:  It’s about finding light in the darkness.

And I think that’s my realization—all our stories are about that same thing: finding light in the darkness. It’s as though we’re somehow writing footnotes to that legend of the shards and the sparks, sifting through to find those that will catch on. And while it’s always important, it’s especially important now. 

Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis Pinkney (ADP): I’d often heard that many Jews changed their names as a means of assimilation, but when I researched the life and times of children’s book creator Ezra Jack Keats, I truly saw discrimination’s impact.  Ezra was born the son of struggling  Polish immigrants. His birth name was Jacob Jack Ezra Katz. He was proud of this name. When Jacob returned to Brooklyn after serving in World War II, he could not find a job. There were signs in windows saying “Jews Need Not Apply.” When Ezra changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats, he no longer faced job prejudice, and was able to find work as a comic book artist. While employment was a good thing, the very notion that Ezra was forced to hide his heritage to be able to support himself, is very upsetting. Ezra had experienced what it meant to marginalized. This was one of the reasons he so successfully incorporated people from all races and backgrounds into his books, and it’s why those books continue to stand the test of time, and are still beloved today.    

SJ/LF: We already knew a great deal about historic and contemporary Jewish life, so we didn’t learn a ton of new insights.  Primarily, we focused on authenticity in our art and honoring the legacy of Ezra Keats.

TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Adam Gidwitz (AG): When I was a kid, we used to sit around the dinner table and play what I now refer to as the “Jewish” Game. The game would start unexpectedly, usually when I was telling my parents about some fascinating figure from history that I learned about in school. “Guys, I read something amazing today by Sigmund Freud.” At which point my mom would interrupt: “Jewish,” she would say. And then I was free to continue. Or sometimes I would be asking a question: “Did Ralph Lauren invent the polo shirt? Is he even a real person?” “A real person? Yes, he is, and his real name is Ralph Lifschitz. Jewish.” I suppose, to an outsider, this game might have been marginally offensive. It wasn’t that Jews were the only smart ones. (“Darwin?” I’d ask, hopefully. My mother would just shake her head like we, as a tribe, had missed an opportunity.) The point of the “Jewish Game,” I think, was that my parents wanted me to see myself reflected among the most educated, the hardest working, and, yes, the smartest. But the hidden message of the  “Jewish Game”, the one that was never stated, and was never forgotten, was that there were some Jews worth talking about over dinner.

My mother wanted me, of course, to be someone worth talking about over dinner. She figured that law school was the surest path for me to get there. When I quit full-time teaching, at the age of 25, to pursue a career in writing books for children, she was hopeful that this little interlude would give me a chance to fill out law school applications. When my first book got published, she was slightly perturbed, concerned that this would delay the start of my law career. And when my book first hit the Bestseller list, she took me aside, very somberly, and said, “Does this mean you’re not applying to law school?”

What does the Sydney Taylor award mean to me? It means that maybe, in some household somewhere in America, and child will say to her parents, “I’m reading an amazing book called The Inquisitor’s Tale! It’s by this guy, Adam Gidwitz.” And her parents will nod and sagely say, “Jewish.” Also, now, maybe, my mother will finally put the whole law school thing to rest.

GS: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better place on the planet then a well-stocked library. To see my work accepted and celebrated by such a redoubtable organization of Jewish libraries, no less, is, in a certain way, like the best kind of homecoming.

FASCINATING_w final art (2)RM: I have been privileged to have been awarded both the Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medals previously and it is always an honor. I try to stay abreast of what is being published in the Jewish children’s book marketplace, but every year I discover gems I’ve missed, so I take the committee’s recommendations seriously, and consider myself fortunate when one of my books is singled out. We writers publish to find a readership, and those AJL stickers on the books certainly help. That said, awards are a nice temporary sugar high, but they do not change anything essential when you are facing the next white piece of paper or blank computer screen– you are back to struggling with yourself; and finding the perfect word is just as difficult each and every time regardless of prior recognition. I can promise all aspiring writers out there, that a Sydney Taylor Medal does not mean your next book will automatically be snapped up by a publisher (and if you are hoping for untold riches, you are plowing the wrong field). One can only get back to work on the next manuscript—and make it the very best you possibly can– so that you don’t let down all those the wonderful and dedicated AJL librarians. 

hat-for-mrs-goldmanME: It means a lot to mean. Receiving the Sydney Taylor Honor feels like what I imagine it might feel like to be in command of a tiny boat struggling to the shore, and to be surprised by a bright hopeful and helpful beam from a far away lighthouse.  The Honor Award is an affirmation of both my story and Brian’s soulful illustrations, and it is a wonderful feeling to hold onto that positive light as I head into my studio.

BK: It’s meaningful to me in that it recognizes books that authentically portray the Jewish experience. As an artist, authenticity is something I strive for. It’s impossible that I can ever truly know how someone else feels, but I can learn about them and their culture so that their experiences are relatable to mine. I know what happiness or sadness feels like, whatever the circumstances.

poemforpeter_jkt_final-3ADP: Sydney Taylor’s legacy is one that carries such sparkling beauty—such kid-friendly storytelling. So many threads that bring readers from a multifaceted tableau of  backgrounds and cultures together. It’s what every writer aspires to—the chance to unify, to inspire! And so, for this writer to have a book honored in Sydney Taylor’s name, is a true gift.

SJ/LF: If it results in more kids seeing this book, if it brings more children to write and tell their stories or to make art, if it spreads the word on a broader scale that literature matters now and forevermore, well, winning this award means that we’re part of a very, very cool, celebratory happening.

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?
ADP: Absolutely. Like the stories of African Americans whose heritage and culture are vital strands of history, so are the narratives of Jewish people. I hope to bring more of these stories into future writings.

GS: Hopefully the award will carry my work to new readers, but for me, the job is always the same: tell the best story I can, and make it true.

ME: I am not sure. For now, I plan to do the same thing I have done most every day for decades.  I will go to my studio and work.

dreidels-on-the-brainJBI: Dreidels on the Brain is about my forblondjet family, how we never fit in, and how I somehow survived Hanukkah 1971. Never while I was writing did it occur to me that my family’s mishegoss would someday be linked to her All-of-a-Kind family.
It’s a great honor—and a great gift as well, a sense of fitting in that I’d long since given up having. Thank you.
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.

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In the Spirit of Poetry Has Value | January 2017 Report

January bore the brunt of rejections from all those December submissions.

Poetry: Three submissions (Kelsey Review and two contests), no acceptances, and nine rejections to report (Bitter Oleander, Foundry, Redivider, Whale Road Review, Mom Egg Review, Jewish Literary Journal, Outlook Springs, Harpur Palate, and a chapbook competition). A couple of these rejections included a nice personal note to try them again. My Rust + Moth poem, “Call Me Chicken,” appeared today online.

Creative Nonfiction: Submitted a short essay to the Teacher’s Lounge at Whale Road Review.

Fiction: Three submissions of a flash fiction piece to Circa, The Copperfield Review, and one contest.

Academic: The editor of the peer-reviewed academic journal tells me my paper is back under peer review. If accepted, it will appear in the summer 2017 issue.

Question 4U: How do you find/make time for your writing? How do you handle rejections?

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Poet’s Notebook | Courtney Druz, The Hannah Senesh Set

Courtney Druz

Courtney Druz

The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come to write this book? What was the inspiration? Why Hannah Senesh?
Courtney Druz (CD): I didn’t know at first that I was going to write about Hannah Senesh.

Since finishing my previous book, I’d been writing various unsatisfying poems and fragments that seemed to hover just in front of something, but I couldn’t see what it was or how to get there. Then came Sefirat HaOmer, the period of the Jewish calendar marking the spiritual and historical significance of each day between Passover and Shavuot. Echoing that counting process in my writing was a method of finding direction.

Yom HaShoah, whose full official name in Israel means “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” falls towards the end of the second week of the Omer. I started writing about Hannah in connection to that day, and suddenly everything came together. I’d been thinking about the relationship between an individual life and collective history, and Hannah Senesh embodied and transcended the themes I was trying to explore. I realized then that I needed to write a whole book about her.

hannah-senesh-set-cover-2TWM: Not only did Sefirat HaOmer provide the initial prompt for writing this book, but it continued to provide the structure throughout. Did that present any specific challenges? Why did you keep that as your organizing and title strategy?
CD: This structure was essential for me. The concept of the Omer itself involves the same ideas as does the consideration of  Hannah’s  life story. The forty-nine days of the Omer combine the forward direction of history with those perpetually generative elements underlying it. And that’s a characteristically poetic structure, simultaneously repetitive and new. The challenge of working with it is the challenge of writing poetry, in the sense that you really can’t make poetry without engaging somehow with that paradox.

When I write I’m motivated not by narrative but by words. Trying to make sense of Hannah’s extraordinary life through a chronological framework only kept it impossibly distant from me. But looking at it through the seven words naming the sefirot let me begin to learn from her in a more personal way.

TWM: This is a beautifully designed book. You’re a graphic designer. How did you develop the look and feel of the book?
CD: Thank you! Making visual art has always been important to me, and I’m something of a visual thinker. That sounds like it contradicts what I said about words, but I don’t think it does. I just understand ideas more spatially than sequentially. That’s why I’m drawn to structures like this, and why the visual form of the book is an indispensable part of its content. It’s the modernist architectural principle of keeping the structure visible.

The cover design was also something I started imagining early in the writing, once I recognized the centrality of fractals to this book. The star is a recurring motif in these poems, and depicting the emergence of a Magen David shape within the Koch Snowflake fractal felt especially resonant.

TWM: Now let’s talk about poetry. When did you start writing poetry? What kinds of poetry are you attracted to?
CD: I started writing poetry around the age of thirteen. I was a reader and the child of readers; poetry was always around me growing up. When I was little my dad read me everything whimsical and rhyming, from Dr. Seuss to Victorian children’s poems, and it all stayed in my head. He sang folk songs and my mom, a former English teacher, introduced me to the classics that I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered until much older. So when I reached adolescence it was natural not only to keep reading, but to find I’d grown my own linguistic music that needed to get out.

I was first attracted to the way certain words strung together would magically transmit a kind of charged feeling, a vital but indefinable meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words. And that’s still primary for me, but as an adult I’m also concerned with what that meaning is. I’d say my favorite poetry investigates reality via serious playfulness at the level of the word.

TWM: A fair number of the poems in this collection had been previously published. Did you know all along you’d have a full collection? Tell us about your strategy for individual poems.
CD: I envisioned this book as a unified sequence from the start. I didn’t write it in linear order, but the overall pattern is a kind of poetic form, substantial as the form of a sonnet. In particular, the story of Hannah Senesh comes out most clearly when the whole set is there. But  I also recognized early on that the poems can work separately, and I made a point to submit individual poems to journals whenever I could.

As for actually writing the poems, it would be disingenuous to pretend I have a “strategy.” I’ll be drawn to certain ideas, feelings, images, rhythms, and words, and I’ll try to find how they relate.

TWM: Do you work with a critique group?
CD: No, I need to be alone with the poem.

TWM: What poets inspire you?
CD: I’ve been inspired by many different poets at different times in my life, but Gerard Manley Hopkins stays with me wherever I go.

About Courtney Druz

Courtney Druz is the author of four books of poetry including The Ritual Word, an exploration of the Book of Psalms in the context of contemporary experience, and The Light and the Light, bringing Paul Celan’s Die Niemandsrose to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. She holds a degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and has worked in architecture and graphic design. She was born in Boston, and lives in Israel with her husband and three children.

Courtney’s newest book, The Hannah Senesh Set, is inspired by the life of Hungarian-born Zionist heroine Hannah Senesh, a poet and agriculturalist most remembered for her daring WWII parachute mission into Nazi territory, where she was captured and executed at the age of twenty-three. For more information, please visit her website.



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Author’s Notebook | Susan Lynn Meyer, Skating with the Statue of Liberty

Susan Lynn Meyer

Susan Lynn Meyer

The Whole Megillah welcomes back Susan Lynn Meyer, author of the 2011 Sydney Taylor Honor Book Award Winner for Older Readers, Black Radishes and now its sequel, Skating with the Statue of Liberty (Delacorte/Random House, 2016).

The Whole Megillah (TWM): How do you plot your novels?
Susan Lynn Meyer (SLM): I figure out the climax and then I work backward from there, building all the different threads up to it.  Sounds easy, but it’s HARD!

Skating Statue of Liberty CVR Sketch.inddTWM: Did you know when you wrote Black Radishes that you’d be writing Gustave’s journey to and experiences in America?
SLM: No, I didn’t have any such idea. I also didn’t know, when I wrote it, that Black Radishes would ever be published—it is just a book that I absolutely had to write, no matter what.  But then, after acquiring Black Radishes, my wonderful editor, Rebecca Weston at Delacorte, asked me if I might want to continue the story.  And my father (whose life inspired both novels) had some more good anecdotes—and I decided I did!

TWM: I understand you’re a professor of English at Wellesley College. Does your academic life affect your personal creative writing? If so, how?
SLM: One big effect, of course, is that my job takes a lot of my time.  It’s really hard to find enough time to write.  But there are also wonderful advantages.  I’m an obsessively meticulous researcher, and I have access to a terrific academic library and research librarians, who have been tremendously helpful.  I also have contact with young, eager students, many of them aspiring writers—and that can be really energizing.

TWM: When did you know that you wanted to write about your father’s experiences for children?
SLM: I think it had been growing in me a long while before I began writing.  I grew up hearing my father’s stories about his French childhood, his family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Europe and his early experiences in America.  Those were very foundational stories for me, ones through which I made sense of the world.  It was so hard for me as a child to get my mind around the fact that people would want to kill my father and his family.  My father made sure to reassure me and my brothers and sisters that it was a long, long time ago and that it could never happen here.  I also remember him telling me that I didn’t look Jewish—I didn’t want to hear that, but for him it seemed to be a good thing—it meant safety.  Now that I am an adult and my own childhood feels still very close, I realize that those days couldn’t possibly have felt as remote to him as he reassuringly made it sound to his young children.

My father was deeply grateful to America for saving his life, but he was also dismayed by racism against blacks in America.  The idea that blacks couldn’t eat at certain restaurants and lunch counters particularly made his blood boil.  My parents took some of us kids when we were very small to civil rights rallies in Baltimore, where he remembered hearing John Lewis speak and he also remembered seeing men from the FBI with telephoto lenses taking photographs from inside a store front.  (I really wish I had those photos now.)

TWM: How did you combine the oral histories of your father, aunt, and other refugees with written memoir as your source materials?
SLM: For this novel, I found far fewer relevant memoirs, though I did read some from other immigrants who arrived here from other countries and at other times just to get a sense for what the immigrant experience felt like.  I used more oral history for this novel, more interviews with my father and aunt.

I did find a memoir or two that mentioned Joan of Arc Junior High, and I found a memoir about the Stage Door Canteen, a volunteer-run free canteen in New York for the entertainment of U.S. servicemen.  This was relevant when I was researching what the likely response would have been to a cross-racial couple dancing together.  The young women who volunteered there were told to dance with any GI who asked them to dance, regardless of race.  The implication was that this was not how they would otherwise have behaved.  Skirmishes broke out a few times because of inter-racial couples dancing together.  This confirmed my sense that Gustave and September Rose likely wouldn’t have been able to skate hand in hand without some harassment.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing Skating with the Statue of Liberty? Your greatest satisfaction?
SLM: The greatest challenge was that nothing compares in drama to escaping from the Nazis, which happens in Black Radishes.  In writing Skating with the Statue of Liberty, I needed climactic events that would both show Gustave’s sense of connectedness to America and his ambivalence because of the things that are wrong with America.  It’s a more complex plot and a more complex novel emotionally. 

My greatest satisfaction was how vividly the character of September Rose came to life for me!  I also really enjoyed inhabiting and telling some of my father’s stories, like the singing test by the music teacher on Gustave’s first day, the girl who came up and flirted with him, to his bewilderment, and the incident on the train with the man with the gold corners on his suitcase.  All quite true!  (Though I did change what the girl said to make it more intelligible to present-day kids.)

TWM: Please describe any special challenges in writing a sequel.
SLM: I found the change in mood from the first novel to the second to be quite difficult.  In the second novel, Gustave really had to face what may have happened to his best friend Marcel, who is still in France—and I did too.  I had to make a clear decision.  I had deliberately left that ambiguous at the end of Black Radishes.

TWM: Did anything surprise you in writing Skating?
SLM: I was surprised that I found it in some ways harder to imagine the 1940s in New York than the 1940s in France.  This is partly because the little French village where much of Black Radishes is set is still very much like the way it was in the 1940s.

TWM: What authors inspire you?
SLM: I really admire Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming series and Jacqueline Woodson’s books, especially Hush and If You Come Softly.  Both of them have characters who feel absolutely real and alive to me.  So do some of Madeleine L’Engle’s characters.  And they write novels of substance—ones that you think about long after you finish reading them.

TWM: Is there a third book in the making about Marcel in hiding?
SLM: Right now I’m working on a new novel on a completely different subject—it is set in the general Boston area in the early twentieth century.  I needed a break from the emotional intensity of writing about my family’s history.  But my editor, Rebecca Weston, had been very interested in a third novel connected with these two.  Maybe at some point!  Or it might be about Nicole and her work in the French Resistance.

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Year of the Book | Critique Group Results

critiqueThe possibility for critique groups now exists for the following:

  • Contemporary YA
  • Historical YA
  • 7-10 year olds
  • Personal essays

If interested in joining one or more of these groups, please comment below.

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Year of the Book | Need a Critique Group?


A group of Yiddish writers: Bialik, Ben Ami, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Yankev Abramovich (Mendele) (Source: Benny’s Post Cards)

When I announced 2017 as The Year of the Book, among those The Whole Megillah readers who wanted to participate, two write picture books. I suggested we form a critique group. Within the two weeks, we’ve shared and commented on at least eight books between the three of us.

So I began to wonder whether other readers are also interested in forming “virtual” groups. In particular, perhaps fiction (MG, YA, adult) or creative nonfiction (MG, YA, adult).

Why a critique group? If you’ve never participated in one before, having another set of eyes read your manuscript can give you new insights into your work. Reading someone else’s manuscript helps that author and it helps you. You may become inspired by what someone else wrote or you may see issues you have in your own writing.

Why a Jewish critique group? Because you don’t have to explain why you place your characters at Camp Mishigas, why your characters lament the Holocaust, or why your characters struggle with Jewish identity.

Just comment below and I’ll try to match you up, depending on the response I get.


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