Two-in-One Notebook Special: Spinoza: the Outcast Thinker with Author Devra Lehmann and Editor Karen Klockner

spinozaThe Whole Megillah (TWM): Why Spinoza? How did you come to this subject?
Devra Lehmann (DL): Spinoza had hovered in my mind ever since high school, when my Jewish history teacher briefly mentioned Spinoza as a Jew tragically gone off the path. We quickly moved on to the next topic, and our textbook, which had been written for Orthodox Jewish schools like mine, provided no additional information. It seemed fairly clear that Spinoza and his ideas were off limits. I can think of no better way to get a kid interested in a subject!

For one reason or another I didn’t follow up until many years later, when a friend recommended that I read Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment, a book whose central thesis is Spinoza’s importance in shaping the modern secular world. I quickly realized that I needed to understand more about Spinoza, so I began reading Spinoza’s writings along with a lot of secondary literature. I was hooked. Bertrand Russell famously called Spinoza “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.” Those superlatives are right on the mark. Spinoza devoted his life to an uncompromising search for truth, which meant that he questioned a lot of traditional ideas and made himself lots of enemies. But he stood firm, and he left us a priceless legacy. He was one of the first and most influential proponents of freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression. And he was such a kind and modest man that even his detractors found themselves praising his personality despite their outspoken horror at his ideas.

TWM: How did you bring the manuscript to the attention of namelos?
DL: I found namelos listed in the Market Survey of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Let’s face it: a book about a philosopher will never be a major seller in the young adult market. So I knew that only a small, idealistic publisher would be interested in my project, and I began to research my options. I was immediately taken by what I saw on the namelos website—although the first thing that caught my attention had nothing directly to do with books. It was shortly after Sandy Hook, and the site featured an achingly beautiful drawing of an angel collapsed in sorrow over a school building, alongside the name and age of each precious individual killed in that terrible tragedy.

That picture brought me to tears, and I knew already that I’d want to work with the people behind it. But the namelos list featured nothing even close to my project. Their books looked fascinating and important, but the focus was definitely fiction; the closest thing to my manuscript seemed to be a collection of poems about the life of George Washington Carver. Just on the off-chance that namelos might be interested, I used the “contact us” link on their website to send in my first few pages. I was thrilled to hear from Karen Klockner, editor extraordinaire, a couple of weeks later. Apparently namelos had been harboring plans to expand into nonfiction, and my project caught their interest.

TWM: Karen, what attracted namelos to Devra’s manuscript?
Karen Klockner (KK): Devra sent us a very organized  and professional proposal. She conveyed not only a clear sense of the book as a whole but why it should be published and who the market would be. We were intrigued by the topic, and there was something in her writing voice, even in her proposal letter, that spoke to us.  Devra is a wonderful writer with a passionate, engaging intellectual curiosity.  She is a true teacher with an inspirational desire to share and exchange ideas.

TWM: Do you do much nonfiction?
KK: I have always published a great deal of nonfiction, but this is our first nonfiction at namelos.

TWM: How do you characterize the market for this book?
KK: The market for this book is teen readers and above—maybe eighth graders and up. I also have adult friends who have read the book as an introduction to Spinoza and found it richly engaging.  This is a natural book for the school and library market, for use in classes on European or world history, on philosophy, the history of religion, politics…for anyone with an interest in religion and philosophy. In her proposal Devra wrote: “I envision my audience as inquisitive young people independently curious about philosophy or as high school students assigned outside reading by teachers of philosophy, history, or literature. And given the intense curiosity and trepidation about philosophy that I have encountered among adults, I would venture to say that even some older readers might appreciate philosophy books at the level at which I am writing.”

TWM: Devra, what was your previous writing background?
DL: Well, as a teacher I spend a lot of time thinking about good writing and commenting on my students’ papers, but I’m afraid I don’t have much of a pedigree in producing my own work for young adults. When I was in high school, I wrote a play about religious censorship that won an award from The New York Times. In graduate school I wrote a master’s thesis about the relationship between literary theory and rabbinic approaches to textual analysis. And eventually I completed a doctoral dissertation about the secular and religious discourses—essentially whole ways of thinking, being, and speaking—that I observed in an Orthodox Jewish high school. Based on my doctoral research, I wrote three articles that were published in academic journals.

It may not be obvious, but this is all related to a young adult biography of Spinoza. A lot of what I’ve written has focused on the interplay between secular and religious worldviews, and that interplay figured prominently in Spinoza’s life. But what I consider more relevant is something that my daughter once said about my dissertation. She was reading over my shoulder as I was typing up one of my chapters, and suddenly she exclaimed, “Hey, Mommy, even I can understand this!” She was twelve years old at the time, and I took it as a great compliment that I could take complicated ideas and make them clear to a young person.

TWM: What did you like to read growing up?
DL: It’s probably ill-advised to confess that as a child I never read nonfiction for pleasure, but the truth is that back then I found fiction much more engaging. I’ll add, though, that as a teacher I’m amazed to see how many of my students are just the opposite—they’ll read loads of nonfiction on their own but will never pick up any fiction unless it’s been assigned.

In terms of the specific works I liked as a young adult, I guess you could say either that I was born at the wrong time or that it was already obvious I’d turn into a stodgy old English teacher. I loved Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, O.E. Rolvaag, and Hendrik Ibsen. Before my high school years, I loved C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I really don’t know if there is much of a pattern here.

TWM: What authors inspire you?
DL: That depends a lot on the mood I’m in. In general, though, I love authors with the breadth of imagination to create entire, believable worlds—authors like William Faulkner, who interwove huge numbers of complex characters to create an entire history of the fictitious Yoknapatawpha County; A.S. Byatt, who in Possession presented such convincing diaries, poems, and letters by Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte that I was absolutely sure they were real Victorian poets—and ashamed of myself for not having heard of them before; J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Middle Earth comes complete with its own intricate history, languages, and mythology; and Louis de Bernières, who masterfully balances hilarity and tenderness in his offbeat trilogy about a mythical South American country.

In nonfiction, I’m a big fan of Edmund Morgan, who was also one of my professors in college. Morgan was one of the greatest scholars of early American history, but his style is so lucid and unpretentious—like the man himself was—that my children were able to enjoy some of his work even before they got to high school.

Other favorites are ancient writers who show me the amazing continuity of the human experience, despite vast differences in culture. It is a thrill to read Thucydides, whose keen observations about human nature are just as timely now as they were almost 2500 years ago, and even Beowulf, whose misty fens and monsters seem so alien today, contains one of the most piercing descriptions I have ever read of a parent’s grief over the death of a child.

And finally, I love authors who help me understand the lifelong endeavor to be true to oneself. E.M. Forster ranks high in that category.

TWM: Congratulations on the National Jewish Book Award win. What does the win mean to you?
DL: Thank you. I see the award mostly as a heartening vote of confidence. I encountered a lot of skepticism about my project, both from friends and from professional contacts, and as a teacher I found that skepticism infuriating. In any thoughtful classroom, kids encounter and debate important questions all the time—and they genuinely love to do so. The biggest problem is figuring out how to end the heated give and take so that kids can get to their next class on time. So to me a young adult book about an important philosopher seemed perfectly natural. I found a wonderful partner in namelos, and I’m delighted for them and for myself that we’ve received this kind of validation from the Jewish Book Council. The publicity helps, too!

KK: We were very gratified by the award from the Jewish Book Council.  The book focuses on the life of one man who was born into the Jewish community of seventeenth-century Amsterdam and who tried to live a thoughtful, honest life—asking probing questions about the nature of existence.  The dramatic historical setting in which he lived and worked is part of the portrait Devra paints.

TWM: Are there more books in your future?
DL: I certainly hope so. I’m now in the middle of a young adult biography of Socrates, and I’m hoping to tackle Saint Augustine next. I’d also like to backtrack one day to write a play about Spinoza’s life after his excommunication. I’d originally undertaken Spinoza: The Outcast Thinker as a warm-up exercise to help me prepare myself for that play—I’d naively thought the biography would take only a couple of months!—but, as you see, my project of bringing great thinkers to young people has taken on a life of its own.

TWM: Are there other nonfiction books coming from namelos?
KK: We make acquisition decisions on a book-by-book basis.  We are considering other nonfiction projects, and especially look forward to seeing Devra’s proposal for her work-in-progress on Socrates.

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Author’s Notebook | Morris Dickstein, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education

Why Not Say_r2.inddProfessor, critic, and author Morris Dickstein, author of Gates of Eden (1977) and Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009), recently published a new memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education (Liveright Publishing, 2015). In this book he addresses his coming-of-age and his struggles with what he viewed as the confines of his Orthodox upbringing, among other themes.

As a graduate student of history now studying the culture of the Great Depression, I took the bull by the horn and reached out to Dr. Dickstein. He was gracious enough to grant me an interview.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Why a memoir and why now?
Morris Dickstein (MD): Well, I’ve reached a certain age and can’t help noticing that I’ve put on some mileage. There are worlds I wanted to revisit and recapture. Also, after quite a lot of critical and historical writing I wanted to do something more personal, to tap into a different part of the brain and write in a different voice—more evocative and less analytical,  more narrative and less argumentative. And why not, since I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, not strictly a critic?

TWM: How much do you think your yeshiva upbringing factors into your writing style?
MD: I doubt it affected my writing style but it certainly affected the life I’ve lived, with one foot in the Jewish tradition and another in the secular world–exactly how my day was split when I was a yeshiva student. My yeshiva training also affected me as a critic: I became very comfortable not only with the whole process of commentary and interpretation but also with a certain reverence for the written tradition, even as secular texts, themselves hallowed by time but ripe for reinterpretation, gradually took the place of religious texts—scripture, Mishneh, the whole nine yards.

TWM: Can you comment on how you applied the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience” in your memoir?
MD: As a coming-of-age story it’s partly about getting wised up, taking on a wider range of experience while at the same time looking back in wonderment at where you came from and how much distance you’ve traveled. When I first learned (rather late) what actually happens between men and women I was  incredulous but then angry at how such vital facts of life had been withheld from me. Of course I continued to remain innocent for a long time to come, though at times, laughably, I took on a swaggering air of knowingness.

TWM: What authors inspire you now? Why?
MD: I go back often to the 19th-century poets, especially Wordsworth, Blake and Keats in England, Whitman and Dickinson in America. The latter two never fail to knock me off my feet—in opposite ways, Whitman with his prosey inclusiveness, seemingly swallowing the world, Dickinson with her laser-like intelligence. Among modern poets I’ve come to like Frost more and more—I go back to him frequently—and my early passion for Eliot has been reviving. Fitzgerald has gradually become my favorite novelist—his stories, Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night especially—but I had a wonderful time teaching short fiction by Tolstoy and Chekhov a few years ago. Among modern American novelists, along with Fitzgerald, I’m very partial to Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henry Roth, Nella Larsen, and too many others. I won’t even go into the postwar writers I frequently reread. The common denominator among them is their emotional intelligence, a rich and complicated sense of how people interact, relationships they explore with a strong moral compass.

TWM: The book includes so many wonderful revelations. (My favorite is your comment on living through the Cold War: “Over the years students have asked me about the level of anxiety for people living under the shadow of annihilation during the cold war years. I’ve told then that we lived bifocally, in compartments, casually going about our daily lives while remaining under the gun, never quite forgetting that a cold peace, occasionally punctuated by hot wars, was built on the threat of mutual destruction.”)

Did you recognize these insights at the time, did they come later, and/or through the writing process?
MD: This is something I understood only later on, under the prodding of students, after the cold war ended. It’s remarkable in retrospect, how we all managed to go about our business and live ordinary lives while a sword of mutual and total destruction hung over our heads. Not everyone in other parts of the world was so lucky. As Americans we’ve mostly lived privileged lives in a sea of tranquility and prosperity, and as American Jews in a free society we’ve lived lives without any precedent in Jewish history.

TWM: Why did you decide to structure the memoir as you did?
MD: It actually began with the incident described in the prologue, showing me literally trespassing on the past, barging into the apartment in New Haven where I’d once lived. Abruptly, it established how much the past meant to me. From there it seemed inevitable to evoke my mostly unhappy but productive first years at Yale, in part because I was on my own for the first time and it was when I began writing for publication and fell in love. From there it seemed natural to swoop back to my childhood, my extended immigrant family, and to proceed more chronologically. So you might say I began in medias res. Following its own course, the book seemed to round itself off when I turned thirty and left Columbia, which transformed it unexpectedly from a family memoir to a Sixties memoir, and above all the history of an education in the broadest sense.

TWM: Had you kept a journal?
MD: I kept some travel journals but only during a later period. But I did have lots of very detailed letters, especially from the time I spent in England.

TWM: What advice would you have for aspiring memoirists?
MD: I can repeat the advice a friend gave me: “Follow the emotion.” If you delve deeply into what really matters to you, it will matter to your readers as well. Also, though it’s a cliche, try to stay in the moment, to evoke the the feeling of the time you’re writing about without slighting the rush of feelings at the moment you’re actually writing. But never let hindsight distort what you richly remember.

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Jewish Fiction Editors Speak Out | A Cyber Roundtable

About our panelists:

Yona Zeldis

Yona Zeldis

Yona Zeldis is the author of six novels for adults, including You Were Meant for Me, which came out from New American Library/Penguin in October, 2014.  She is also the author of 25 books for children and is the Fiction Editor at Lilith Magazine.  Visit her at:



Nora Gold

Nora Gold

Dr. Nora Gold is a writer, activist, and the creator and editor of the prestigious online literary journal, Jewish Fiction .net. Her first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and the title story was praised by Alice Munro. Gold’s second book, Fields of Exile, the first novel about anti-Israelism on campus, received enthusiastic praise from Cynthia Ozick, Ruth Wisse, Phyllis Chesler, Irwin Cotler, Steve Stern, Thane Rosenbaum, Naim Kattan, and Alice Shalvi. Dr. Gold is the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education (CWSE), at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT), where she coordinates the Wonderful Women Writers Series.

Michelle Caplan

Michelle Caplan

Michelle Caplan, Editor-in-Chief, brings her extensive experience as a successful freelance editor, consultant and ghost writer of fiction, creative non-fiction and film scripts to Fig Tree Books, having been the founder and senior editor at Core Writing Literary Services. She has mentored both aspiring and established writers, many of whom have gone on to publish their work and achieve considerable success. Her academic and professional background includes a Bachelor and Master of Arts from Tufts University as well as certifications and credentials in creative writing, mind-body therapies, and coaching. Michelle’s psychology training complements her work as an editor and writing coach. She is a former dancer and choreographer, who still loves to dance. She lives in the Greater NYC area with her two young children.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What trends are you seeing in Jewish fiction?
Yona Zeldis: I’ve been seeing more short-shorts and flash fiction these days.

Nora Gold: There are certain thematic trends I am seeing in the submissions we receive at Jewish Fiction .net. I don’t know how typical these trends are of Jewish fiction in general, but at our journal there are three salient themes that have been showing up increasingly in the stories that reach us.

The first is the Holocaust. The second is sexual abuse by a rabbi. The third is the mikveh as a place of choice for an Orthodox woman to commit suicide. Both the second and third themes started becoming very noticeable at Jewish Fiction .net well before the Freundel affair broke open. This fact — together with the frequent comment that my novel about anti-Israelism on campus, Fields of Exile, “captured the zeitgeist” – got me thinking about the relationship between fiction and the social context from which it springs. Fiction, of course, is not a straightforward reflection of social reality; at the same time it does express something significant about our contemporary social context and some of its trends. I explored this idea briefly in an article I wrote called “‘Mikveh suicides': A motif in fiction that says the unsayable.” This question of the relationship between fiction and social context continues to fascinate me, and I’ll be exploring this further — together with the implications of the trends we’re observing at Jewish Fiction .net — in a course I’m teaching this summer at the National Havurah Committee Institute, titled “Jewish fiction as a prism for examining contemporary Jewish life.”

Michelle Caplan: The e-reader market is breathing new life into short stories and novellas as well as out-of-prints.  We all watch the shifts in this increasingly electronic market. Some genres and subgenres seem to be trending up or trending down this year as is always the case in the ever-changing publishing world, but I don’t think it’s possible to truly pinpoint the next major trends.  At Fig Tree, we are looking for the highest quality books that will appeal to discerning fiction readers who are interested in the American Jewish experience.  I would personally love to see more literary novels that feature female protagonists and contemporary issues.  In the end, the appeal of distinct voices telling incredible stories that keep your interest from beginning to end will always be in demand.

TWM: What makes a manuscript stand out for you?
Zeldis: An original voice and fresh, descriptive languages.  Clichés put me right to sleep.

Gold: Aliveness. Presence. Honesty. Conscious, skilful use of language. Originality. The sound of a unique personal voice.

Caplan: A unique voice, compelling hook, strong characters, substantial issues and ideas, and a momentum that sweeps you up into the narrative will grab our attention.  We are focused but diverse at Fig Tree and want to receive brilliantly written and plotted books that showcase the American Jewish experience with originality and ambition.  We are seeking voices that have the potential to become brand name authors.

TWM: What’s the single most common mistake you see authors make?
Caplan: We receive many submissions that don’t fit our mission.  Prospective authors should spend some time on our website so that what we are currently publishing is clear.  Submissions that are poorly presented and riddled with copy editing issues are also not favorably received.

Gold: Being highly oriented to “the market” and “success.” This can manifest itself in various ways, such as writers (especially beginning ones) gearing their writing toward what they think will “sell,” or imitating “bestselling” books in theme, style, etc. This orientation is deadly to a writer because it squelches the sound and development of one’s own authorial voice.

Zeldis: Including too much information too early on. We don’t need to know the character’s whole bio in the first paragraph; better to let that information unspool gradually, in a more natural and organic way.

TWM: Will having an MFA help an author or does it make no difference?
Gold: I think this depends on the individual, where her/his writing weaknesses lie, and therefore what s/he needs from an MFA program in Creative Writing. There are some things that, in my view, you can’t teach; there are others that obviously you can. If someone has intrinsic talent as a writer, then an MFA program can be useful in helping to refine and develop that natural ability.

Zeldis: MFA programs are helpful in terms of accountability and networking opportunities.  But they are hardly necessary.

Caplan: You do not have to get an MFA to be a published writer and getting an MFA does not make you a writer.  That said, writers do need time and space to work on their craft and an MFA program does provide focused teaching in a supportive environment to get some serious writing done.   The bottom line is that writers need to have a commitment to writing and to continuing to grow as writers and this can be done in an MFA or other immersive environments such as workshops or writing groups.

From my personal experience, I have seen that the writing quality is often higher with authors who hold an MFA and these authors generally have a more professional presentation to their work.  Unfortunately the books, just as books submitted by authors without MFAs, don’t always live up to the intelligent prose or the clever pitch. We read many great cover letters and synopses from writers with and without MFAs.  Often the intriguing concept or outline isn’t evidenced in the work itself and the readable prose doesn’t add up to great storytelling.   We try as much as possible to give specific feedback on our submissions so that writers who are serious about publishing can revisit their work to better understand where their writing is connecting with an audience and how it is or isn’t serving their purpose.

TWM: What authors and works do you hold up as examples to follow?
Zeldis: That really depends on what kind of work you want to be doing.  I love the stories of Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tobias Wolff, Edith Pearlman, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Flannery O’ Connor and think each of these authors has so much to teach us.  Yet their work could not be more different.

Gold: I don’t tend to hold up specific authors or works as examples to follow. I see many beginning writers following, or imitating, well-known authors, and (as mentioned above) I think this can have a negative effect. To my mind, beginning authors benefit most from reading widely (both books and literary journals like Jewish Fiction .net), avoiding worshipping or following anyone, no matter how gifted or impressive they seem, analyzing critically everything they read, and writing from a deep inner place where they can discover their own unique, authentic voice.

Caplan: I am reluctant to answer this question as I don’t want to hold up any book and say that authors should follow that particular book as an example of good writing. The books I adore are wide ranging in style, settings and subject but have intelligent but readable prose; intriguing characters; compelling themes; emotional resonance and an original voice in common.  I want to be moved and enchanted and surprised.  I love the authors we publish.

TWM: What words of advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers?
Zeldis: Don’t wait around for large, unbroken expanses of time in which to write. Instead, give yourself a manageable goal, like two pages a day, five days a week.  If you are faithful to your commitment, the work will get done!

Caplan: Many books that are submitted are good, even publishable, but don’t have the spark that we are looking for.  We want authors to submit books that are not only well-written but also persuasive and immediately engaging. I am always looking for the gem in every manuscript we receive and am willing to push through even a very rough draft if I am inspired by the author’s vision and mind.  I want to invest in authors and cultivate their talent but in an increasingly crowded marketplace, authors need to need to be clear about the concept of their books and show us what is special and unique about their story and about themselves as writers.  Trust your story and your talent, take advice, and don’t give up.

Gold: In addition to my comments in the question above, I would say to aspiring fiction writers: Don’t think about “the market.” Don’t twist your own writing to try and produce a “bestseller.” Write whatever you want to. Write what is real to you and important to you. Do your best. And be true to yourself.

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New Online Classes from The Whole Megillah

The Whole Megillah is proud to announce a series of online classes to sharpen your craft wherever you are in the writing process:

  • Online Fiction Class I
  • Online Fiction Class II
  • Online Memoir Class I
  • Online Memoir Class II

FictionOnline Fiction Class I

Whether you’ve been writing fiction for a while, want to reconnect with your fiction, or are just starting out, the Online Fiction Class I can help.

Using a combination of Google Drive and a private Facebook page, students engage in a six-week writing experience covering:

  • Imagery
  • Characterization
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Point of view
  • Revision

There is one short story to read for each class (from an online source, so no purchases required) and visual and other prompts to spur your writing.

Cost: $300, including a 15-page manuscript critique

Start date: May 10, 2015

Reviews from January 2015 participants

“I had never taken an online class before taking this fiction class, and I was hesitant. But I enjoyed it and learned a lot, and will be open to taking other online classes. Barbara Krasner’s lessons were interesting, clear, and easy to follow. The writing exercises were appropriate and increased understanding of the ideas emphasized in each lesson. Posting the writings online allowed participants to read and learn from Barbara’s feedback on each person’s writings. Overall, the class was both challenging and fun. I’m sure what I’ve learned has already improved my writing.”—Diane Khoury, New Jersey

“Barbara challenged me to create outside of my comfort zone. The exercises encouraged me to stretch stories that I had, and reach for new stories to fulfill the writing styles and concepts. I look forward to continuing to grow my writing through this helpful process.”—Drora Arussy, New Jersey

“Barbara Krasner’s online fiction course provides a thorough and clear description of the elements of a good story. She provides helpful, detailed commentary that gets straight to the point. The reading assignments made me focus on the techniques of excellent writers who employ a variety of styles. The writing exercises helped me to uncover a new way of thinking and provided an opening to a whole new way of writing for me, one that is both inspiring and exhilarating.”—Madelyn Hoffman, New Jersey

“This course was profoundly rewarding. I’d been a nonfiction writer who wanted to explore some of the more fanciful aspects of writing. Now I’ve learned that the elements of fictional craft can also enhance my narrative nonfiction. I’ve taken many workshops before, but the online experience gave me the inspiration to take risks and gain nurturing feedback from Barbara and my classmates. All within the comfort of my home.”—Barbara Walsh, New Jersey and Florida

Online Fiction Class II

Targeted at those who have already completed Online Fiction Class I or have the permission of the instructor, this six-week online class allows to you work on a manuscript of your choice and bring it further along. Through a series of exercises on a private Facebook page, you’ll learn more advanced techniques to:

  • Drive your protagonist’s emotional journey and transformation
  • Heighten conflict
  • Deepen characterization and sharpen dialogue

Cost: $300

Start date: May 10, 2015

Your StoryMemoir Class I

Similar in fashion to Online Fiction Class I, memoir writing students will learn elements of craft in a five-week class using a private Facebook page:

  • Imagery
  • Theme
  • Plot
  • Selectivity
  • Voice

We will read an excerpt of memoirs from Tobias Wolff, Joan Didion, Sue William Silverman, Augusten Burroughs, and others for each class.

Cost: $250

Start Date: May 24, 2015

Memoir Class II

Targeted to students I’ve worked with before, we’ll engage in a five-week course where you’ll work on a single manuscript. You’ll engage in exercises using a private Facebook page to:

  • Hone your selective use of plot and character
  • Heighten dramatic moments
  • Track your emotional journey
  • Find and use metaphors to sharpen meaning

We’ll also read excerpts from published memoirs.

Cost: $275

Start Date: May 24, 2015

About the instructor

Barbara Krasner is the award-winning author of several hundred articles, books, short fiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lilith, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual,, Nimrod, Paterson Literary Review, and other journals. Her debut children’s book, Goldie Takes a Stand! Golda Meir’s First Crusade, was named a 2015 Sydney Taylor Honor Book. Barbara teaches creative writing at William Paterson University and works one-on-one with writers to shape their fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.

For more information, contact Barbara at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net or reply to this post with a comment.

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Make My Manuscript Work! A Restorative Workshop for Writers

vector illustration of medical iconFinally, a restorative workshop for writers!

You know you have them–every writer does.

The drawer of manuscripts you want to revise but you’re not sure what they need. The box of SASEs under the bed with rejection slips still inside. The folder of stories on your computer you’ve never finished.

Now’s the time to dig them out and bring them to a restorative workshop with an author-editor team that specializes in manuscript rescue! We’ll show you how to identify what isn’t working and how to fix it.

Our time together will help you…

  • Recognize the red flags in your manuscripts
  • Begin revising a manuscript of your choice with expert and peer consultations
  • Apply these principles to your other manuscripts when you return home.

One low price $795 (until May 1 and $875 thereafter) brings you…

  • Complete workshop, Sunday afternoon through Wednesday morning
  • Meals, Sunday dinner through Wednesday breakfast
  • Lodging at Hampshire College

To register, just click on the orange “BUY” button at the right-hand top of your screen or visit our EventBrite site.

Bonus! Optional opportunity to visit one of these Amherst attractions

  • Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
  • National Yiddish Book Center
  • Emily Dickinson House

Your workshop faculty…

Barbara Krasner is the award-winning author of hundreds of magazine articles, children’s books, and adult fiction and poetry. She teaches creative writing at William Paterson University and works one-on-one with writers to help them shape their fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.

Paula Morrow is an editor of books, stories, articles, and poems for all audiences from preschool to adult. Longtime editor at Cricket Magazine Group and Cricket Books, she has also packaged books for McGraw-Hill and Scholastic. She is currently a Senior Editor at Schoolwide.

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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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