7 Reasons Why a Writer Should Attend the Annual Association of Jewish Libraries Conference

At the end of 2010, I was invited to apply for an open position of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. I was delighted when I was accepted. I joined a team of librarians and writers who shared my passion for Jewish children’s books. As a member of the committee, I was expected to attend the annual conference. Here’s my list of seven reasons why you, as a writer, should attend AJL:

Jo Taylor speaks about her mother, Sydney Taylor, and the All-of-a-Kind Family at the 2014 AJL Conference in Las Vegas

Jo Taylor speaks about her mother, Sydney Taylor, and the All-of-a-Kind Family at the 2014 AJL Conference in Las Vegas

 

  1. After editors, librarians are your best friends. This is advice I received from a veteran children’s book editor. Once your book gets published, librarians are the ones who order.
  2. Librarians are inherent problem-solvers. Faced each day with patron questions, librarians have the knowledge and the sources to solve your problems. Here’s an example: I needed to access a memoir written in German. The cost on Germany’s Amazon was close to 600 Euros. So I sent a note to some AJL friends. Not only did I learn where the book was held locally, but this librarian sent me a link to an online copy? I was reading the book that very night. This same librarian rattles sources—books, other libraries, subject matter experts—no matter what my writing project.
  3. Get the lo-down on the Sydney Taylor Book Award winners. Gain inspiration and expand your network. Meet and hear from members of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee and award winners.
  4. Meet and hear from Sydney Taylor’s daughter. At last year’s conference in Las Vegas, Jo Taylor showed pictures of her mother and her sisters, the inspiration for All-of-a-Kind Family. Listening to her is like touching history.
  5. Learn the current state of things. In workshops and sessions, hear what librarians have to say about the market, their patrons, and book content they need. Discover which books spark conversations.
  6. The book exhibit. This year promises to have a great exhibit presence. In Montreal, I was grateful I had driven, because I had bought so many books.
  7. Optional side trips. I would not have known about Montreal’s unique Jewish community had I not attended the 2011 conference. This year, the conference takes place in Silver Spring, Maryland, offering trips to important research institutions like the Library of Congress and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

At the 2015 conference, I will be chairing and participating on a panel, “Perspectives on the Holocaust: The Case Study of the MS St. Louis, 1939.” Panel members include Dr. Rafael Medoff of the Dan Wyman Institute, Scott Miller of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and memoirist Martin Goldsmith, whose grandfather and uncle had been aboard the doomed ship. I’ll also be speaking on panels as a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

My term on the committee is ending, but it’s been a great four years. I’ve come to know so many wonderful authors, illustrators, and editors and will miss immediate access to all the Jewish children’s books published in a given year.

Check out the conference on the AJL website. I hope to see you in Silver Spring!

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2015 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour | Final Stop

You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2015 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 2015 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 Book Awards

  • For Younger Readers — Author Jim Aylesworth and illustrator Barbara McClintock for My Grandfather’s Coat 
  • For Older Readers — Loic Dauvillier, Mark Lizano, and Greg Salsedo, creators of Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust 
  • For Teen Readers — Donna Jo Napoli for Storm

Sydney Taylor Honor Books

  • For Younger Readers
    • Author Barbara Krasner and illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley for Goldie Takes a Stand! Golda Meir’s First Crusade
    • Author Jacqueline Jules and illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard for Never Say a Mean Word Again
  • For Older Readers
    • Author Jennifer Elvgren and illustrator Fabio Santomauro of The Whispering Town
    • Donna Gephart for Death by Toilet Paper
  • For Teen Readers
    • Una La Marche for Like No Other
    • Lila Perl for Isabel’s War

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…


2015 STBA my grandfather's coatThe 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?

Jim Aylesworth: I am the author of over thirty books for children. My first book was published in 1980, and My Grandfather’s Coat is my most recent title.

These days, I’m thought of as an author, but some may like to know that for many years, I was a teacher. Yes, a first grade teacher from 1971 until my retirement in 1996, when I became a full time school presenter. I travel widely now — always doing my best to promote a love of literature in America’s school children. It’s the same effort that was always so much a part of my life in the classroom.

So if asked to discuss a strategy to promote the love of reading that would include My Grandfather’s Coat, I would say to pair the reading with Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback. As a teacher, I often used two versions of the same tale to focus attention on the similarities and differences in the stories – as well as the art. I would typically guide the experience by asking questions like:  “Do you prefer this part better than that part?” and “Why do you think that?”  The answers, even from very young children, are often quite literary, and they end up liking both versions better than if they had experienced just one. And it’s fun for all — including the teacher!

2015 STBA hiddenMarc Lizano: The Golem by Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (it will no doubt be more difficult for young readers), Bigman  de Mazzucchelli (a splendid and magnificent variation on that theme). I don’t know if there is an English version of the book. Isn’t it only published in his own self-published revue  Rubber BlanketLe Chat du Rabin (The Rabbi’s Cat) by Joann Sfar (funny, clever and also available in animated cartoon, even if i do prefer the books.

Donna Jo Napoli: Understanding the nature of faith, understanding how it can guide your life, these are critical things for a person of faith.  I therefore think any book that deals seriously with faith is great Jewish kids lit.  By climbing inside the skin of a person of faith in a book, no matter what the faith of that character may be, you will come to face and understand your own doubts and beliefs.  And your appreciation of your faith will deepen.

Jennifer Elvgren: Happy Birthday, Tree!: A Tu B’Shevat Story and The Schmutzy Family both by Madelyn Rosenberg, Chik Chak Shabbat by Mara Rockliff, and Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott.

Una La Marche: I don’t care if this dates me; my favorite kids’ book with a Jewish protagonist will always be Judy Blume’s wonderful Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. As far as more recently published YA, I think that Gayle Forman, David Levithan, and Stephanie Perkins have written — and continue to write — compelling Jewish characters.

2015 STBA stormTWM: What trends do you see coming our way?
Napoli: I’m pretty blind to trends — which is fine with me.

Jacqueline Jules: Since the BookExpo America Convention of May 2014, there has literally been a public outcry for more diversity in children’s literature with the We Need Diverse Books Campaign that made publishing headlines last spring. Another effort in this cause, Multicultural Children’s Book Day recently celebrated a second annual event on January 27th to raise awareness for the need for children’s books that contain “characters of color as well as characters that represent a minority point of view.” First Book  and other literacy organizations have supported these efforts and several prominent journals have printed articles on the topic. It is exciting to see these initiatives calling for books which better reflect the student population in our schools. I hope that Jewish librarians and families will add their voice to this chorus. Recommended lists of multicultural books should include minority religions, too.

La Marche: Diversity! We need diverse books (for everyone, but especially for kids), and that means characters of different races, religions, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and gender identities.

TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Napoli: Right now I’m working on a story in which the main character does truly wretched things, and to people she loves.  But she is going mad from mercury poisoning.  So she cannot stop herself — except through putting an end to her life.  So the big issue is: what does forgiveness mean? — how far can we extend it?  All of us make mistakes.  All of us do hateful things at some point in our lives.  Where would we be without forgiveness?

Goldie Takes a Stand (2)Barbara Krasner: I’m shopping around a couple of picture book biographies. This year I’ll be working on a YA Holocaust-related novel that takes place in Poland in November 1939 when the borders between the Nazi-occupied side and the Soviet-occupied side open for a brief period and a 16-year-old girl and her family are caught inbetween. I’ll also be working on a nonfiction book about Cold War spies.

Kelsey Garrity-Riley: I’m currently working on illustrating a book with Chronicle set to come out in 2016. I’d really love to be able to work more on developing my own illustrated stories!

Jules: I have completed a middle grade novel with Jewish identity themes that I hope my agent will be able to place this year. So far, I have board books, picture books, easy readers, and early chapter books out in this world. It would be very exciting to have a middle grade novel, too.

Lizano: I’m actually working on many projects as an adaptation of “Le cheval d’orgueil” from Pierre-Jakez Hélias, a trilogy with Benöit Broyart, “La pension Moreau” and also, as an author, on “Marcelin Comète.”

whispering townElvgren: To date I’ve written picture books and magazine fiction. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and working on a middle-grade novel about a rescue horse, which is based on a true story. I’m almost half-way through the second draft and hope to finish this spring before my children are out of school for the summer. Summer chaos makes a regular writing schedule nearly impossible!

Fabio Santomauro: The Whispering Town has been recently edited in Italy with the translation La città che sussurrò. At the moment I am thus promoting this new edition, through readings and workshops for children who are learning a lot about important themes and, in the meanwhile, enjoying the fun of drawings and stories.

Donna Gephart: I’ve written about a presidential candidate’s daughter, a boy (and his hamster) who make hilarious, successful YouTube videos, but barely manage to survive middle school, a Kids Week Jeopardy! contestant trivia whiz who misses her father and a contest-crazed, big-hearted Jewish boy, who will do anything to help his mom stay afloat and to keep a promise he made to his recently deceased father.  Next up is something very different; a humorous, heartbreaking novel about a transgender tween learning to live authentically in a world that can be less than welcoming.  I’ve never researched so much or worked so intensely as I have on this novel, due out from Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House in 2016.

La Marche: I have a comic essay collection, Unabrow, coming out March 31, and then a third, yet-to-be-officially-announced YA novel publishing around Labor Day.

TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote/illustrated your book?
Barbara McClintock: When I moved to northeastern Connecticut nine years ago, I fell in love with the area’s rural landscape and farm culture. There seem to be more cows than people, and the pace of traffic is often determined by the speed of a tractor driving down the road at the front of a long line of cars. What I didn’t realize initially was that many of the farm families in my neighborhood have roots going back to Jewish enclaves in Russia and Eastern Europe.

A few years  ago, my editor Dianne Hess at Scholastic Press sent Jim Aylesworth’s manuscript for My Grandfather’s Coat to me. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about taking on a story that had been so well illustrated by Simms Taback. Simms’ version of the tale is set in “the old country” — in fact, most picture books based on Jewish tales are set in Eastern Europe or in American urban settings. I recognized an opportunity to place this version in my own back yard, honoring the Jews who traveled across an ocean and found a new life and a drastically new line of work from what many of them had experienced back home.

My research began with interviewing my Jewish friend and neighbor who’s family had emigrated from Germany in the early 1900s to northeastern Connecticut. I discovered that many Connecticut Jewish farm families’ ancestors came  to America sponsored by a philanthropic foundation that had its beginnings in the 1890s. Baron Maurice De Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonization Association to help persecuted Jews establish agricultural colonies outside Russia and other Eastern European Countries. His organization continued to grow long after his death, and provided financial aid, training, and help purchasing farms to Jews immigrating to the United States, Canada, Argentina and Palestine. The JCA continued to help Jewish immigrants during and after the second world war; the association ended in the late 1970s.

The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford provided research, support, and help as I was developing the visual narrative for My Grandfather’s Coat. The society’s website has an abundance of rich materials about the JCA and Jewish life in rural Connecticut.

“The Jewish Farmer,” a newsletter published in the early 1900s was full of advice — one gem was, “Don’t become a farmer unless your wife likes the idea.” Life for farmers was full of unpredictable events, toil and trial, but faith and community helped many overcome the struggles inherent to agricultural life.

My friend’s parents still belong to the United Brethren of Hebron Synagogue in Hebron, Connecticut. The Hebron congregation initially met for Sabbath services in the homes of its members. The congregation eventually raised enough funding to build a tiny synagogue in the 1940s, constructed in true small town fashion by the Jewish congregation and their non-Jewish neighbors pitching in. The synagogue has seating for 40-50 people, and is much loved by the current congregation.

The United Brethren of Hebron Synagogue is the setting for Grandfather’s daughter’s wedding scene in My Grandfather’s Coat.

Illustrating My Grandfather’s Coat brought the American Jewish rural experience to vivid life for me. I have the added benefit of appreciating more about my home and friends in Northeastern Connecticut. And I’m able to be more patient with that pokey tractor driver on the road as I imagine his or her families’ background and story.

Garrity-Riley: I really enjoyed getting to learn more about what life for this Jewish immigrant family looked like in turn of the century Milwaukee. Its endlessly fascinating , and sometimes exhausting to research what details of life looked like for them. What did they wear? How would their homes have looked?  But more than just the visual fabric of their lives, I love how relatable Goldie and her family are even in our 21st century world. Her feelings of doubt, determination, and learning to work together to achieve something important are timeless.

Lizano: All the elements of a Jewish life provide from the work of Loïc in Hidden. In my personal artwork, the fact that the heads are so big is probably due to my studies (I did study Philosophy in University in the ’90s) because of the concept of otherness, of alternity, directly from my reading of Emmanuel Levinas’s texts.

Napoli: In a sense my story is “pre-Jewish” in that it is pre-Abraham. But it is a study dealing with the ancient peoples that surrounded the birth of Judaism, so in that sense it deals with Jewish life. The thing that struck me most in writing this book was how very hard it was for Noah and his family to keep their faith.  Any person of faith encounters challenges to their faith, yes.  But the challenges of the great flood were exaggerated.  They would have shaken most faithful people to the core.  How do you believe that a God who wipes out so much life is “good”?  How do you believe there is any “order” to his scheme of things, when the scheme seems mad?  It takes enormous optimism and great personal strength to hold on.  I ached for Noah, as I wrote this.  I ached for all of them, but perhaps most for his wife.

Jules: Writing Never Say a Mean Word Again gave me the opportunity to research medieval Spain. I read Tales of the Alhambra and other books to imbibe the atmosphere of the era. I also scoured sources for information on Samuel Ha-Nagid and the legend of how he told the king he had torn out his enemy’s tongue and replaced it with a kind one. The Golden Age of Spain when Muslims, Jews, and Christians exchanged cultural ideas and lived in peace is a comforting historical period to remember. One of the things that attracted me to retell the legend of Samuel Ha-Nagid was the setting. And I am very indebted to Durga Yael Bernhard for her elegant illustrations which so beautifully evoked medieval Spain in Never Say a Mean Word Again.

Durga Yael Bernhard: Illustrating a book set in Spain a thousand years ago was truly a learning experience for me.  Although I have created several multi-cultural books before, I have never delved into this particular time and place.  Medieval Spain was a place that was bursting with creativity in terms of architecture, textiles, and other decorative arts.  I could have filled several books with all the arched windows, vaulted ceilings, gilded ceramics and intricate tapestries I discovered.  Yet it was also a time of drought, disease, and widespread oppression. Many of the creative forms appear “dark” by our modern standards.  My special challenge in this book was to lighten up the setting and see it through the eyes of a child.

Learning about Samuel HaNagid, upon whom two of the characters in the story are based, was even more fascinating.  In the context of Muslim-ruled Spain, he rose to the highest pinnacle of power ever reached by a Jew in his time.  I was so impressed by his accomplishments as a renowned poet, military leader, rabbi, Arabic scholar, and as royal vizier to the Muslim caliph — that I continued to study HaNagid’s life beyond what I needed for the book.

2015 STBA deathGephart: Since I wrote about a Jewish family that was similar to the family in which I grew up, I didn’t research that element of my novel (other than making sure I got the Yiddish spellings correct for the glossary at the back of the book.)  Most of my time was spent researching sweepstakes enthusiasts and finding fascinating toilet and toilet paper facts to head each chapter.  For example, did you know the first stall in a public restroom is the least used and therefore the cleanest?

Santomauro: Illustrating The Whispering Town was very interesting. I thought it was a special book from the very first time I read the story. Considering the historical importance of the Holocaust theme, it becomes pivotal talking about it to the new generations, mostly through the use of graphics and images, which is, through a form of art highly communicative and emotional for young readers.

2015 STBA like no otherLa Marche: I grew up, as my mother would joke, “marginally Jewish”; I’m only a quarter Jewish by blood, and completely non-religious. So deciding to write a Hasidic character presented (to put it mildy) a steep learning curve. I really came to it with zero knowledge or understanding, and what I learned really humbled me. I had always assumed that I had nothing in common with Hasidic women; it seemed like the rules (or lack thereof, in my case) that governed our lives would prevent us from relating to one another. But in speaking to women who had grown up in Hasidic homes, I realized something that, frankly, I should have already known: religion (or race, or sexual identity, etc.) doesn’t alter the fundamental experience of being a human being. We all share, to some extent, the same emotions and questions and desires. There are some things that all teenage girls do and feel, no matter where they’re from or what they believe in. I’m ashamed that this was a revelation for me, but it was.

TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Aylesworth: I am very proud of this honor! And I sincerely thank AJL and all who were involved in bestowing it! Folks who know me well may notice that I’m now walking a little taller, and that I have a shinier look in my eyes — all because My Grandfather’s Coat is the winner of The Sydney Taylor Award!

But by nature I’m a very modest person, and you won’t hear me doing a lot of bragging about it. However, I will admit that I’ve begun a list of modest ways to bring it up as dinner conversation.

Lizano: I hope we reached to find the “good” tone, the right correctness, sensitivity, and accuracy of our work. That mean a lot when this kind of book is well received by the readers.

Napoli: The members of the Association of Jewish Libraries are educated, intelligent, and thoughtful people.  How could they not be: they are librarians.  Librarians are the front line against censorship.  Librarians are the ones who reach out to individual children and put a book in their hands, knowing that book is going to matter to precisely that child.  Librarians are in the job of opening minds.  When I was a child, my elementary school librarian was my lifeline.

To get an award from the Association of Jewish Libraries makes me cry every time I think of it.  Even now as I am typing this.  I am so very lucky and so very grateful to be recognized by a group that I respect so inordinately much.  Writing is a lonely business, and feedback is infrequent and often disheartening.  Getting this award means I can feel I didn’t waste people’s time with that book.  It means I can stop pacing, I can sleep at night… at least till the next book.

Garrity-Riley: It’s such an incredible honor!

Jules: I won a Sydney Taylor Honor for Sarah Laughs in 2009 and for Benjamin and the Silver Goblet in 2010. I was not able to attend the 2009 awards banquet but I did attend the 2010 AJL convention in Seattle. I still remember that trip as one of the highlights of my year. As a former synagogue librarian myself, it was a true pleasure to meet so many wonderful Judaica librarians. A night I particularly enjoyed was a Kosher Chinese dinner with members of the Sydney Taylor Award committee. Everyone was so warm and so clearly committed to Jewish children’s literature. A great deal of thought and deliberation goes into the selection of books honored by the Sydney Taylor committee. Receiving a third major recognition from this award committee is indeed a milestone for me. I have the other two certificates with the silver seal framed on the wall of my study. I look forward to placing a third frame for Never Say a Mean Word Again beside them.

Gephart: This award means the world to me.  I’d be delighted if Benjamin Epstein’s story of hope, hard work and humor to overcome his family’s serious challenges gets into the hands of more readers.  I’d love to visit Jewish schools and Jewish book festivals and talk about his story and how it might matter to young readers.  I’d also like to share my story of growing up poor and overcoming challenges with a sense of  hope and creativity and frequent trips to the Northeast Regional Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Benjamin’s story mirrors mine in some ways, right down to the contest entries and the unfortunate toilet paper situation!

La Marche: It’s an enormous honor, especially given my marginal Jewish identity (see above). I will also take it as a challenge to continue to write complex and strong Jewish characters in my fiction moving forward.

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?
Napoli: Everything is always different.  :-)

Krasner: I posted the honor to Facebook, where at least two editors have seen it. When congratulating me, one asked me what other manuscripts I have. How encouraging! I think I will always hold Goldie up as the, pardon the pun, gold standard for myself.

Lizano: It is too early to say. We are far from USA. Today, we are pleased and proud of being honored. The publisher told us it was a huge honor and opportunity for the “life” of our book. I hope it will possible for me to come one day in USA to meet the American readers.

Elvgren: Because of this award, a new group of children will discover The Whispering Town and learn about occupied Denmark. In 1943, the children that were hidden and the children that helped the hidden showed extraordinary bravery and kindness. I hope today’s children are inspired by that history and look for opportunities around them to be brave and to be kind.

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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Author’s Notebook | Erika Dreifus, Quiet Americans: Stories

erika dreifusThe Whole Megillah (TWM): Why write short stories vs. longer forms?
Erika Dreifus (ED): For me, the question is formulated slightly differently. I’ve always wondered what, for instance, made F. Scott Fitzgerald realize that “Babylon Revisited” was meant to be a short story but that The Great Gatsby demanded a longer form. In other words: How does an author know, or intuit, which form suits the material?

I’ve never quite been able to answer this question definitively. Sometimes, I’ve literally had to begin writing not knowing which form the work would ultimately take. More precisely: There have been times I’ve hoped that I might have a novel on my hands, only to discover, down the road, that the material would not budge from short-story form.

TWM: Did you always have a collection in mind?
ED: If I did, it was only in the back of my mind. I did not set out to write a story collection, but I certainly loved (and still love) reading them.

TWM: What was your process for placing the stories in journals before the collection?
ED: I followed what I think is a tried-and-true process: I researched journals to find likely matches, and I began sending the stories out. It was really that simple, and that labor-intensive.

One note: The start of my immersion in the world of literary magazines and journals began around the turn of this century, which is to say before journal websites and online publications were anywhere near as omnipresent as they are today. I was lucky to have an amazing university library nearby, where I could sample virtually any journal I wanted, plus wonderful local bookstores that stocked an array of them, too.

book-cover-mediumTWM: At my MFA program, instructors believed it’s best to get your arms around a short story and learn fiction writing with that first before attempting a novel. Do you agree with that? Why/why not?
ED: I don’t know. For me, non-MFA classes, workshops, and conferences provided a pre-MFA training-ground where I learned fundamentals of fiction-writing, for both the story and novel forms. Just as I entered my MFA program, I’d signed with an agent who was beginning to send out my novel manuscript to editors/publishers. (That novel never sold.) I focused on writing stories in the MFA program mainly because I didn’t want to workshop the novel any further at that time, I didn’t have any ideas suggestive of a new novel, and I had deadlines coming up!

I suspect that in many MFA programs, stories simply fit the workshop structure better. It’s difficult to get an entire novel workshopped in a single semester, and it can be tricky (and frustrating, for both the student writer and the critiquers) to workshop discrete novel segments beyond the opening chapter(s). I lost count of how many times my own novel’s first couple of chapters were workshopped; I’m not sure the closing chapters were ever reviewed by anyone other than the manuscript editors I hired myself.

TWM: From your posts, it’s clear you read voraciously. How do you find the time for that? How important is that for your own writing?
ED: It’s essential. Maybe I find the time by writing a little less? Alas, that may not be an inspiring answer. But it’s the truth.

About Erika Dreifus

Based in New York City, Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which is an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. A member of the advisory board for J Journal: New Writing on Justice, she has taught for Harvard University, the Cambridge (Mass.) Center for Adult Education, and the low-residency MFA programs in creative writing at Lesley University and the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts. In August 2014, Erika joined Fig Tree Books LLC as Media Editor.

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Author’s Notebook: Carol Matas, Tucson Jo – National Jewish Book Award Finalist

Carol Matas, Fictive Press publisher Morri Mostow, and husband Per Brask at launch of Tucson Jo, 2014

Left to right: Carol Matas, Fictive Press publisher Morri Mostow, and Carol’s husband, Per Brask, at launch of Tucson Jo, 2014

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Tucson Jo is a marked departure from the last book I read from you, Dear Canada: Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, the epistolary story of a young Holocaust survivor. Please tell us about why you chose to write about a Jewish girl growing up in Tucson in the 1880s.
Carol Matas (CM): It is true that Tucson Jo and Pieces of the Past are very different but I’ve always had a fascination with history, with stories from the past, and in particular Jewish history and Jewish stories. My novel Sparks Fly Upwards is the story of a young Jewish girl in turn of the century Winnipeg, and The War Within is about a Jewish family during the Civil War. In 2002 my husband Per Brask and I were traveling in California and I happened to notice there was an exhibit on at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles called Jewish Life in the American West. We couldn’t wait to go. The exhibit was fascinating but one particular picture was riveting.  It was a picture of a father and a son and they were cowboys! Jewish cowboys! That picture was of Charles Strauss and his son taken in Tucson Arizona in 1882. From that moment I knew I had to write a book about them. It took until 2006 for us to make it to Tucson to start researching the book and another 8 years until the book was finally finished. So quite a work of love!

TWM: How did you conduct research for Tucson Jo?
CM: The first thing I did was research on line so I would know where to research. It quickly became clear that the best sources were going to be original materials, and those were housed in the Arizona Historical Society, in Tucson Arizona. We, my husband and I,  visited there and with the help of the staff were able to read original documents, letters, even recipes from the Strauss family and other families of the time. We toured the Jewish Museum in Tucson and were given lots of background on the Jewish community and we visited bookstores and gathered local history books to take home with us to read. We also did local tours in Tucson, for instance, seeing a restored house from the era which was largely the basis of Jo’s house and a replica of a local grocery store at the Historical Society.   We also visited the Los Angeles City Library and a map store filled with original maps from the era, some of which we brought home with us.

When we returned home I started reading all the books and other materials I had collected on the trip. I also read anything I could find on line as well as books I  had ordered. And finally I felt I had enough of the history under my belt for a first draft. But in some ways the research had just begun. When Morri, my publisher at Fictive Press took on the manuscript she began to press me on certain facts and times and dates in the manuscript. Some of them I couldn’t pin down, like the trousers issue — was it actually against the law to wear trousers? If so when did that happen? When we discovered the answer it actually changed the story and necessitated a fairly big revision, which Morri and I both believe made the book much better. In fact we contacted  The Arizona Historical Society so often they were considering charging us for the information! We pinned everything down just before that was deemed necessary! And by the way most of the information about the trousers that was on the web and even in books was wrong —  it took quite some detective work and a very persistent editor to get it right. We were also in touch pretty regularly with The Pima County Librarians, and the Tucson City Clerks who were very kind about answering questions as well. To name a few of the things we had to get right: what the streets and squares were called at the time, what ordinances were in effect such as gun regulations, the dates of the mayoral race, (that was really hard as every book had a different date), the times and dates of the shoot out at the train station, the description of the schools and number of students who went there — well, you get the idea.

TWM: Was your writing process any different for this book than your other books? If so, how?
CM: I’d say the process for this book was very different from my other books. First of all, I almost never write a book that I haven’t signed a contract for and with this book I was writing it on my own over many years. I would go back to it in between my other projects, until finally when Fictive Press took it on it became the priority.

But more importantly the initial research almost destroyed the book. I had become so tied to Charles Strauss and his family and his story that the book was never able to take off properly  It wasn’t until Morri took over as editor that I realized I had to change the story from “Based on Charles Strauss and family” to “Inspired by Charles Strauss and family.” It was at that point that I made the chronology of events fit the story rather than the other way round and was able to more fully develop my characters. I think that was the turning point for the writing of this particular book.

TWM: Did anything surprise you while writing Tucson Jo?
CM: Absolutely! I would have to say the most surprising thing was to discover that my original inspiration for the story, the picture of Charles Strauss and his son dressed up as cowboys was nothing but fiction! He was a dandy from Boston and he had rented the cowboy gear and dressed him and his son up to send the photos as postcards to his friends and family back East – just  for fun!

TWM: Did anything surprise you while trying to place the manuscript with a publisher?
CM: I was disappointed  of course, when my usual publishers passed on the manuscript, but to be fair to them the book you see is nothing like the book they passed on. On the other hand Morri believed in the book from the moment she read it. And she was the editor who was able push me to see where the real story was and how to get there. I do have a stubborn streak and  I never wanted to give up on this story. Especially over the last few years — it has become so apparent that we need a conversation about law and order vs freedom and what that really means. I, for instance  cannot understand regulating and licensing a car, or even the food we eat but not a gun. And it was instructive to learn that the “Wild West” was far less wild than it is now, and that only the lawmen were allowed to carry fire arms in the city. What is more central to freedom than life itself and yet anyone can take that away from you in the name of freedom.  I am also a passionate advocate for women’s rights and this was a terrific venue to explore that topic.

tucson jo national book award finalistTWM: Tucson Jo recently earned recognition as a National Jewish Book Award finalist in the children’s book category. Mazel tov! As the author, what do you think makes the book stand out?
CM: I honestly can’t answer that question! I am just thrilled that the book was recognized by such an auspicious organization. I always try to write on two levels. The first is to write an exciting story the reader can’t put down. The second is to put in lots of questions about the world we live in now. Questions that will make my readers think. And I figure some readers will be happy to read the book just for the story and others will get something deeper from it. And for me, historical fiction is relevant only if it says something about our lives in the here and now.

TWM: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
CM: I never go back and re read my books once they are done. And I think of them all as my children — they may not be perfect — okay they aren’t perfect — but I love them all as they are. Before publication though, I have been known to write as many as 30 drafts just trying to get it as right as possible. Tucson Jo was right up there in terms of multiple drafts — certainly over twenty.

TWM: What authors and books inspired you while growing up?
CM: The one author that inspired me more than any other was Frank L. Baum. I read all the Oz books — or most of them — and just adored them. I still do. They had a strong female hero, two if you count Ozma of Oz as well as Dorothy, and lots of action and adventure and humor and imagination! The things he came up with- lunch boxes that grow on trees and princesses who could change their heads and when they did that change their personalities etc etc. He instilled in me a love of reading, a delight, a pleasure, that I would be so happy to be able to pass on to my readers.

TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists and novelists of historical fiction?
CM: I think you have to write the truth. If you are always honest and if you respect your readers then all else should follow.

About Carol Matas

Carol Matas Photo courtesy Bonnie Brask

Carol Matas
Photo courtesy Bonnie Brask

Carol Matas is an internationally acclaimed author of over forty-five novels for children and young adults. Her best-selling work, which includes three award-winning series, has been translated into over fifteen languages from all over the world.

Carol writes contemporary and historical fiction, as well as science fiction and fantasy. She has often written about Jewish themes, and is well known for her books concerning the Holocaust, writing Daniel’s Story at the request of The United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Carol’s books have received over 100 awards and honors, including, most recently, a Sydney Taylor Honor Award, a Canadian Jewish book Award for Pieces of The Past, and Finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards for Tucson Jo. She has adapted some of her books into plays and has had productions in Tel Aviv, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg.

For more information about Carol, visit her website>>>

 

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Editor’s Notebook: Morri Mostow, Fictive Press

fictive-press-colophon_red--UNCROPPED-001 (3)The Whole Megillah (TWM): What is your business model?
Morri Mostow (MM): Like any venture still in its infancy, Fictive Press is still somewhat fluid in terms of its business model as we discover what works and what doesn’t.  As a digital and print-on-demand publisher, we essentially split the risk and the revenues with our authors. An author submits a manuscript in ready-to-publish form, and we handle the rest: proofing, formatting, layout, cover, etc., and publishing it on various online platforms, in print-on-demand and e-book formats. While illustrations, advertising and all other out-of-pocket costs are at the author’s expense, we only charge a fee for editorial services if a manuscript requires substantial editing and/or rewriting.

TWM: What kinds of manuscripts are you looking for?
MM: We’re open to virtually any compelling piece of writing, appropriate for age groups ranging from children to adults, but we are not equipped to handle picture books.

TWM: How do you decide what to publish?
MM: We only publish books that we consider worthy and believe in, and that in our judgment should sell a reasonable number of copies. Although we “only publish what we like,” our appreciation for good writing is based on our decades of writing and editing experience, and thousands of books read.

tucson jo national book award finalistTWM: How do you market your books?
MM: Every title is different but we expect the author to be fully involved in the marketing effort. We also expect submissions to include at least a preliminary plan of how the author will market his/her book. We then elaborate a plan together with the author, which could include a formal launch at a public venue, social media postings, blog tours, media emailing, newswire press releases, submissions to media for book reviews, submissions to book awards, strategic ad placement, speaking tours, conferences, etc. The author is responsible for any out-of-pocket costs associated with these activities.

TWM: How should authors submit to you? Do they have to be from Canada?
MM: While we are a Canadian company, we will consider English-language manuscripts from any country. Authors can email manuscripts to Fictive Press for consideration, in PDF or Word format, along with their marketing plan. Their plan should answer the following questions: Who is the intended audience for the book? What makes it unique? How does it compare to similar books on the market? Why will it be a publishing success?

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Morri Mostow of Fictive Press

TWM: Where do you want Fictive Press to be five years from now?
MM: We expect to continue publishing two to three titles per year, so that in five years, we should have a catalogue of some 20 or so Fictive Press titles. We want to be able to look at our list of published books with pride, knowing that without us, some great books may never have been published.

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National Jewish Book Award Winner| The Patchwork Torah with Author Allison Ofanansky and Illustrator Elsa Oriol

patchwork-torah

Winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Illustrated Children’s Book Category

The Patchwork Torah is a global collaboration between U.S.-based publisher, Kar-Ben, author Allison Ofanansky in Israel and illustrator Elsa Oriol in France.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Allison, what inspired you to write this book?
Allison Ofanansky (AO): The book was inspired by a real patchwork Torah which our community in Tzfat, Israel bought several years ago. Our scroll is also made up of parts of old and damaged scrolls which were put together to make a whole, kosher Torah. But we don’t know any of the stories of the parts of our Torah scroll. The stories of the scrolls David collects are made up, even if some of them are based on real events.

TWM: Most of your books are contemporary, realistic narratives illustrated with photography. Why this book?
AO: It also started from a ‘contemporary realistic’ issue—the Torah our community bought. But it wasn’t possible to find out the histories of those fragments, so the story became more like historical fiction, going back to the times at which the various scrolls were written and damaged. It became obvious that it wasn’t suited for being illustrated with photographs, as my other books are.

TWM: What do you want young readers to take away from this book?
AO: Mostly I hope they enjoy the story. But there are a few ‘messages’. One is ecological—that damaged things can be restored rather than thrown away. Another is that even difficult parts of our history can be brought together into something new and beautiful. Also, I intentionally included David’s granddaughter (rather than grandson) in the last scenes to show inclusion of girls and women in celebrating with the Torah.

TWM: Did you conduct any research for The Patchwork Torah? If so, please describe your process.
AO: I spoke with several soferim (scribes) although I was not able to get in touch with the one who put together the Torah which we bought. Also, I sent the story to friends and asked them to read it to their children. The feedback I got was very helpful. For example, an earlier version had more about the scene during the Holocaust, but it was too upsetting for young children.

TWM: How do you choose the topics for your books?
AO: The ‘Nature in Israel’ series came out of a desire to show the connections between Jewish holidays and the natural cycles in Israel. This is something I’ve learned a lot about and experienced personally during the 20 years we’ve lived in Israel. As the series has developed, I speak with the publisher to find out what they need and want. For example, the last two books are about Shavuot and Rosh Chodesh—there are very few children’s books about these holidays.

TWM: What books or authors have inspired you the most? Why?
AO: I’ve always been a huge reader, so it’s hard to pick a few. I love the Laura Ingles Wilder books for showing so clearly and simply the details of her life.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
AO: As I got feedback from friends who read the story to their children, I realized how difficult it was to make the changes in time periods clear to kids who may not understand references to events like the Depression, World War II, Hurricane Katrina, etc. It took a lot of revision to make it flow in a way that kids could easily follow.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
AO: Getting nice feedback from readers.

TWM: Elsa, now let’s turn to you. Your artwork is stunning. What was your approach to the illustration? What medium did you use and why?
Elsa Oriol (EO): It was important for me to translate the emotion and tenderness of this story. I used my favorite technical: oil painting on paper, brushes and palette knife to give vibrant colors. Before, I had made all drawings with charcoal on paper.

TWM: Did you have to conduct any research? If so, please describe your process.
EO: Yes I did, I was lucky that one of my best friends, Isabelle, works at the Art and History Museum of Judaism in Paris, and her husband, Steven, is a Rabbi from New York, working and living now in Paris. Both of them learned me precious instructions. Also the publisher, Joanna Sussman, gave me good directions. So I could find the right elements by internet and at the Museum’s library.

TWM: Were there any particular challenges in illustrating this book? Please describe.
EO: I didn’t know too much about Simchat Torah and scribes, so I had to learn this important tradition. That’s why I created the pictures in a classical style. I was glad the publisher thought about me for this project and I wanted to take care of this very nice story.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction in illustrating this book?
EO: It was my first book for the United States, and this story is so beautiful… I hope Allison Ofanansky enjoyed my illustrations!

TWM: What inspired you to illustrate children’s books?
EO: As a painter and mother, I looked for some books for my son when he was a child. I like art when it’s timeless, and some children’s books, allowing real painting style, give lovely results… So, I decided to explore that way. If illustrating for children could also help them to grow up, that would make me happy!

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Publicity Notebook | Interview with Larry Dane Brimner, “Getting the Gig” Workshop Leader

I first met Larry Dane Brimner at one of the Carolyn P. Yoder Alumni Retreats at Highlights in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania. Larry will be giving a workshop on book promotion this spring, April 26-29, 2015, and I’ve asked him some key questions.

Brimner signing a book for fellow author Gwendolyn Hooks

Brimner signing a book for fellow author Gwendolyn Hooks

Larry Dane Brimner (LDB): About the fourth or fifth time my Calkins Creek editor, Carolyn Yoder, asked if she could give my contact information to this or that writer wanting to know how to get school visits or to land one’s self on a conference program, I quipped, “I really ought to do a workshop about this for Highlights Foundation to save myself the repetition.” She responded, “You know, you should.” Thus began planning for “Capturing the Spotlight: Getting the Gigs.” Thank you, Barbara, for asking me to share some workshop details with your readers.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Who is the workshop for?
LDB: “Getting the Gigs” is for writers and illustrators with a first book coming out or those with many books under their belts who want to do more in the way of promotion and, coincidentally, earn money while they’re doing it. A lot of writers—even those with mega-awards—rely on speaking income to support themselves in the early days of their careers and beyond. It is also a workshop for anyone planning to have a book published at some point in the future. I know a lot of folks who believe that if you write one book, you’re financially set for life. The reality is that 5% or 10% of a $15.00 book doesn’t amount to a living wage when, on average, most titles sell only between 2,000 and 5,000 copies. Other revenue streams are necessary if one is to pursue one’s art, one’s love.

TWM: When should an author or illustrator start thinking about promotion and publicity?
LDB: While it shouldn’t occupy all of your time and detract from the creative process, you should be thinking about promotion and publicity even as you’re researching and writing your book. Definitely think about it when you sign a contract and get a publication date. Ideally, a year before your book’s publication date, you’ll have a month-by-month strategy outlined (a.k.a., “a business plan”) so that when the big day arrives you will have already created buzz. As much as it pains me to say it, buzz sells books. Celebrity sells books.

TWM: Is it ever too late to promote your book?
LDB: Never! In fact, book promotion is an ongoing activity. You need to be “a relentless and unashamed self-promoter,” as one writer/speaker I know puts it. A writer or an illustrator should never promote only one title, assuming they have multiple titles to their credit. When I am invited to speak about Strike!: The Farm Workers’ Fight for the Rights, I always manage to mention Birmingham Sunday, Black & White, and We Are One. If I’m at a conference, I’ll probably figure out a way to mention even earlier titles, like Subway: The Story of Tunnels, Tubes, and Tracks. You see, you didn’t ask me about any of those titles, but I managed to slug them into the conversation without it appearing too self-serving. And that’s another detail, while promoting yourself and your books, you never want to appear too self-serving or too desperate. Also, you never want to be a pest.

TWM: Do book signings at bookstores really work?
LDB: In my personal opinion, no—at least, not unless you’re J.K. Rowling. Come to the workshop, and I’ll tell you a personal story. To think as a new author/illustrator or even an established mid-list author/illustrator that your name alone is going to draw a crowd into a bookstore is unrealistic. On the other hand, a children’s bookstore near where I used to live would have a “cattle-call” signing. That is, they would set aside a Saturday and schedule a dozen or more authors and illustrators into the shop in groups of four or six at different times during the day, but clustered so that one group-signing led into the next one. This allowed us to “cross fertilize”: someone coming to get an autographed book from one author, might see another person’s book and become a fan. A reader coming to get books from one group of authors might stay over into the next hour. It cut both ways. Another benefit of group signings is that the bookstore is much more likely to advertise the event. I have always said I can waste time much more effectively than sitting in a bookstore an hour or two, hoping someone will come in and purchase a book. I usually say no to individual bookstore appearances. I will almost always say yes to cattle-call signings.

TWM: What’s the deal with blog tours—do they work?
LDB: Unfortunately, there’s no way to really tell if blog tours work. On the other hand, to use an old Hollywood adage, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. (Actually, there is. Writers and illustrators who work in the children’s book field need always to be aware of their audience. You are in the public eye. What you do and/or say, especially in this internet age, can come back to bite you in the butt. Think before speaking. Think before acting.)

TWM: One tip—what is the best thing to do?
LDB: Get a hi-res (high resolution) copy of your book’s cover as soon as one is available, make a postcard of it, and send it to every contact you have. Carry them with you to pass out to people you meet at the market or, in my case, at the post office. Give them to your neighbors. I was actually standing on line at the post office when the gentleman behind me commented about my package, “That looks like a book manuscript. Are you a writer? Are you published?” (It wasn’t a manuscript. It was actually a complimentary copy of a book I was sending to a school.) Before he got out of the post office, I’d dashed to my car, retrieved a postcard, and handed it to him. Did he purchase a copy of the book? Perhaps not, but perhaps he did. This is the problem with so much promotion—there’s no way to track it. On the other hand, one school librarian I’d sent a postcard to commented that it was helpful to have the image of the book before her as a reminder to order a copy. (Since she was a district librarian, this resulted in about twenty-six copies of the book being ordered.)

TWM: One tip—what is the worst thing to do?
LDB: Do nothing at all, expecting your publisher to do it.

For more about the Highlights Foundation workshop, “Capturing the Spotlight: Getting the Gigs,” click here>>>

About Larry Dane Brimner

Larry Dane Brimner received the Carter G. Woodson Book Award and the Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Award for Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor. His biography of Bayard Rustin, We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin, was a Jane Addams Book Award winner, while Birmingham Sunday was an Orbis Pictus honor book and given a Eureka! Gold Award by the California Reading Association. He taught at the high school and university levels in California for twenty years and makes his home in San Diego and Tucson.

Website: www.brimner.com

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