Guest Post by Barbara Bietz | Report on 2018 Tent–Jewish Children’s Literature

I recently returned from a week at the Yiddish Book Center as a participant in the TENT program for children’s writers and illustrators. This incredible program, sponsored by PJ Library, was a journey of soulful explorations, academic discussions, and emotion-filled writing workshops. The creative process was celebrated throughout the week and it was a great honor to be included. I shared this experience with nineteen other creative souls; each one now has a special place in my heart. By the close of the program, I felt nourished and inspired, and delighted to have made many new friends.

The Yiddish Book Center is in Amherst, MA on the campus of Hampshire College. The setting is lovely and the building is beautiful inside and out. It’s a welcoming space to learn and work. On the first evening, we were treated to a panel discussion with Marjorie Ingall and Leonard Marcus on the past, present, and future of Jewish children’s literature. What a way to kick off the week – and it was the first time of many that I thought  “dayenu” (This would have been enough!) but there was more!

Yiddish Book Center
Amherst, MA

Over the next few days we had seminars with Miriam Udel, Professor at Emory University. Her work translating Yiddish children’s stories is simply fascinating. We had seminars with Josh Lambert, Yiddish Book Center’s Academic Director, and a meeting with Aaron Lansky, the founder of Yiddish Book Center. Learning about center’s work  preserving culture and history for future generations was truly remarkable. We also had the pleasure of meeting Harold Grinspoon and his wife Diane Troderman from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Their dedication to PJ Library, coupled with a deep passion for children’s books, truly inspired our group. The PJ Library staff joined the program for individual and group meetings, sharing their goals for the future of PJ Library and inviting participants to propose story ideas. There were also group workshops for picture book authors, illustrators, and middle grade authors. I was in the middle grade group with six other members. We were fortunate enough to work with editor and writing life coach, Kendra Levin.

And there were field trips! The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art — nirvana for children’s book lovers — is a pure delight. We were invited to visit the archives where we viewed original art from Judaic picture books. My heart skipped a beat being mere inches away from Simms Taback’s original art from JOSEPH HAD A LITTLE OVERCOAT. Our last evening was spent exploring the R. (Richard) Michelson Galleries in Northampton. A truly magical place — a celebration of children’s book illustrators and their work. Rich is also an old friend so visiting with him was a double treat.

My time at TENT has enabled me to view my writing through a new lens and appreciate the impact of my work. The last day of TENT felt much like the end of summer camp. The days slipped by all too fast, and the good-byes were tearful. We’d had a unique experience that was all the sweeter for having been shared.

Q& A

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Will you do anything differently now that you’ve attended TENT?
Barbara Bietz (BB): I  have a renewed energy for my work. TENT really tapped into that magical feeling of learning something new. I feel a heightened sense of responsibility to dig deep, heart and soul, to create the best stories I can. I’m ready to take more creative risks without fear and I’m excited to see where that takes me.

TWM: What was your greatest takeaway?
BB: Thanks to the passionate people at the Yiddish Book Center and PJ Library, my greatest take away from TENT is a sense of community — in all ways. I feel more connected to the Jewish community of seekers, scholars, and creatives as well as a kinship with the other participants in TENT. It is so easy to get lost in our own work, but such a gift to feel part of something greater than ourselves.

For more about Barbara Bietz, click here>>>

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Author’s Notebook | Irving Berlin by Nancy Churnin

Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez (Creston Books, 2018)

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write about Irving Berlin?
Nancy Churnin (NC): I love Irving Berlin’s music and how his story reminds us of the gifts that immigrants have brought America. All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants just like Irving. I grew up with songs like “God Bless America,” which my mother liked to sing every morning as she walked around the house. When my friend Mark Kreditor, a music educator, showed me that the last three notes of “God Bless America” were the same last three notes of the shema, I had an “aha!” moment. I wanted to show how immigrants like Irving take what is precious in their culture and mix it with what they learn in America to create something beautiful and new. Usually, I look for subjects who inspire me that the kids don’t know about yet. Irving Berlin is the most famous person I’ve written about, but many kids don’t know who he is! So I feel I’m bringing his story to a new generation. I also hope I’m raising awareness of the immigrant experience in a way that will build empathy for how tough it is to leave everything you know behind to start a new life in a new land, respect for how hard so many immigrants work and how many, like Irving Berlin, give back. I wanted children to know that Irving Berlin donated all the royalties from “God Bless America” to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, which has brought them millions of dollars over the years. There’s a YouTube of Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America” with the Girl and Boy Scouts on the Ed Sullivan Show. You can hear his love for his country in his voice and how much it means to him that he has been able to use his musical gift to help the children of America the way America helped him as a child.

TWM: You note in your back matter that you worked with his family. How did you get in touch with them and what were their contributions?
NC: As the theater critic of The Dallas Morning News, I had interviewed Ted Chapin, chief creative officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which also represents the work of Irving Berlin. I reached out to him to check the manuscript and he was kind enough to check it with the Berlin family as well. I made small alterations based on their notes. The funniest exchange involved my reference to Irving Berlin learning the phrase “God Bless America” from his mother when he was a little boy. At first the family didn’t recall that being the origin of the phrase. Professor, author and all-around mensch Philip Furia, who wrote “Irving Berlin: A Life in Song,” helped me by locating a source that showed Irving Berlin talking about how he heard the phrase from his mother. I shared that finding with the family. That jogged their memory and they were happy with it.

TWM: Do you belong to a writers’ group?
NC: I belong to many! I started with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which has been enormously helpful. I have a critique group through the North Texas branch. I am a member of the 12X12 group founded and run by Julie Hedlund, which is how I got my agent in 2013. As a member of this supportive group, I was able to submit a manuscript to an agent each month. In July of my first year in 12X12, I sent the manuscript that became The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game to Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. She has sold six picture books for me, including Irving Berlin. I also have a membership to Rate Your Story, which allows me to submit stories for a rating — a big help to seeing if I’m on target or not. I have other groups, too, some of which are more active than others.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book? Your greatest satisfaction?
NC: One of my biggest challenges was to figure out how to convey the way Irving processed the world through sounds. I studied other biographies of musicians, including Suzanne Slade’s The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue to see how other authors handled it. I dug down into the details of Irving’s life and tried to think of each sound he would have heard: carriages “rumbled,” “a crazy, thrilling metal contraption called an elevated train clanked and whooshed overhead.” On the next page, “…the melodies in his head mixed with the crack of stickball games, the wail of the ragmen, and the creak of cartwheels on the cobblestones.” My greatest satisfaction was finding a way to tell his story that captures a distinct, compelling journey within the larger story of his remarkable life of 101 years, following the thread from his dream of writing a song for the Statue of Liberty to his achievement in composing “God Bless America” for the land he loved.

TWM: Who inspires you?
NC: Irving Berlin and all the subjects of my books inspire me. I only write about people who inspire me! The parents, teachers and librarians who change children’s lives for the better by putting books into children’s hands — they inspire me. And the children whose hearts are so open and welcoming of new ideas and stories about people who persevere to achieve their dreams against the odds — the children inspire me every day to write more stories that I hope will be worthy of them.

TWM: What’s next for you?
NC: I’m very excited about Martin & Anne which will come out next year from Creston Books. It’s the true story of two babies who were born in 1929 on opposite sides of the ocean. They had different religions, different skin colors and different languages. They both faced extreme prejudice, but met hate with love and left us with words that continue to inspire us today. Those babies grew up to become Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. It’s being illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, who won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award this year for Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva by Jacqueline Jules, published by Kar Ben. I’ve seen Yevgenia’s sketches for Martin & Anne and they’re amazing. I can’t wait for you to see it!

Thanks so much, Barbara, for hosting me on your wonderful Whole Megillah!

Click here for more about Nancy Churnin>>>

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Author’s Notebook | 9 Tips on Writing Memoir–A Conversation with Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo
Photo courtesy of Ryder S. Ziebarth

The Whole Megillah caught up with busy author and teacher Lisa Romeo last month at a coffee shop in northern New Jersey. I asked her for her top tips in writing memoir. Here are the results of our conversation, fresh off the publication of her book-length memoir, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press, May 2018).

  1. Write your first draft as if no one’s going to read it — get the whole story out, name names.
  2. Be more curious about your own memories — they’re fallible — you may not want to ask others to verify, but it never hurts to do a little more investigating even when you think you know.
  3. Think of story and narrative. Memoir is not a collection of random things. It has to have an arc.
  4. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be tied up with a bow at the end. Don’t do that. Bring the truth of real life to the story.
  5. Read more memoir, all kinds, not just the type you want to write, give the advantage of seeing all the different ways you can approach the form. Develop your own list, start with the classics. If you limit yourself to the popular ones or the most successful ones, you’re shortchanging yourself.
  6. Read more, period. Poetry, fiction, especially poetry — word economy in motion.
  7. Get really good feedback. Make sure the people you’re asking are skilled at giving feedback in a way that will help you. Note that these people may not be the people in your writing circle or critique group. Insist on high quality feedback.
  8. Seriously think about the feedback and try it — see what happens.
  9. Have a side project. If all you do every time you’re at the keyboard is your memoir especially if sad or traumatic, you may lose your writing spirit. Write poetry or fiction, humor, a play.

BONUS

Take your time, don’t rush it. Unless you have a contract and a deadline, let it marinate. Take breaks from the work, let it develop, enrich and deepen.

About Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, (University of Nevada Press, May 1). Her nonfiction is listed in Best American Essays 2016, and published in popular and literary venues, including the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brain Child, Inside Jersey, Brevity, and Hippocampus. Lisa teaches with Bay Path University’s MFA program, and works as a freelance editor and writing coach. A former equestrian journalist and public relations specialist, she completed an MFA at Stonecoast/University of Southern Maine. Lisa lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and sons.

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Author’s Notebook | When History Is Personal by Mimi Schwartz

Mimi Schwartz

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What has led you to write memoir? What are the greatest challenges and the greatest satisfactions?
Mimi Schwartz (MS): I had been writing fiction and poetry until we spent a year in Israel in 1972-73. There I wrote a long piece called “An American Family Abroad” and our local newspaper, The Princeton Packet, published it as a three-part series. I received lots of positive response, and I was hooked on writing about real life—with all its messy contradictions.

For me, the greatest challenge in writing memoir is to be honest and fair to the people I write about. I want to portray them as I experience them but I also include what I call OPV or Opposing Point of View. In other words, I try to include their points of view, especially when they are different from my own. When I wrote Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed about my life in a long marriage, my rule of thumb was whenever I called Stu a moron, he got to call me an idiot. He loved the book, even though it showed the ups and downs of our relationship.  We stayed married, fifty years, until he died. I‘ve used OPV ever since. In my recent book, When History Is Personal (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), for example, I write about what I felt was an anti-Semitic incident at the college where I teach; my good friend there saw it differently. The tension between her view and mine makes for a more complex and  more interesting story—and we have stayed friends her creative flame alive among book reports and term papers.

The greatest satisfaction in writing memoir is when I write about hot button issues, such as anti-Semitism, and keep those who may not agree with me will keep reading. Memoir puts a face on social issues and over-simplified answers become more complex, creating more understanding and   empathy. In our polarized age, we need more of that.

TWM: What led you to change the name of your father’s German village to Benheim?
MS: There is a tradition of changing the names of books about small villages. Two of the best known examples are Christ Stops and Eboli and Village the Vaucluse, so I was following that tradition.  Partly it is about privacy.  If you write about a village of 1,200 and say “the postman’s son,” there is only one postman,” so to name the village is to identify him, even if there is no good reason to do so.

TWM: How has writing about your family’s past changed your present?
MS: The older we get, the more we begin to look backwards as well as forward, trying to understand the legacies that have shaped our lives. When we are young and our mother annoys us, we say, “I’ll never be like her!” When we are older, we realize, like it or not, that we are like her more than we thought. Writing about the past helps me to understand the past—and my mother, father, and all who came before. I make connections between who I am and the past that shaped me.

TWM: What was your method for organizing the essays in When History Is Personal?
MS: The organization is loosely chronological, 25 moments of my life, mid-twentieth century to today, each with an eye to the history and social issues that shape those moments—be it the Holocaust, end-of- life issues, discovering democracy as a juror, campus anti-Semitism, or staying married during the women’s movement. But more important than chronology, for me, are the echoes and refrains that let the stories speak to each other, as in a poetry collection. In each essay, I asked myself, “How does my small story fit into the larger story? And why does that matter?”

TWM: What inspires you?
MS: My inspiration is always an anomaly or a question. If I know an answer before writing, I tell myself that I’m writing the wrong story. I write to surprise myself, to solve a puzzle, or at least to wrestle with that puzzle.

TWM: Are there any special challenges in writing Jewish memoir?
MS: As an American Jew, born here to a family that fled Hitler’s Germany in 1937, the family legacies I deal with are rooted in being Jewish. That is true even as a live on my American street with a history that goes back to the Revolutionary War. In When History Is Personal, the challenge was to capture the complexities of assimilation: how much does being Jewish shape my American life. What do I give up and what do I keep—and how are my choices the same as other American Jews. I see my audience as everyone, not just Jews, so I want to my stories to speak to all who deal with assimilation—whether you are the last German Jew in an apartment house full of Hispanics in Washington Heights (“It’s Just Like Benheim”) or an Israeli Jew, living in New York, whose ongoing friendship with Salach, an Israeli Arab he’s known since boyhood, thrives despite all the political turmoil (“Echoes from Across the Road”).

TWM: What do you hope readers take away from When History Is Personal?
MS: I want my readers to be like the young gay man from New Orleans and a nun, Sister Irene from Ireland, who told me after a reading how much they related to my stories.  I don’t know how or why; they came from different worlds—and yet they found common ground. I loved that. I also want readers to think about—even write– how their individual stories connect to the larger history that shapes their lives.

TWM: What advice would you give to aspiring memoirists?
MS: To write something you don’t already know and surprise yourself.  To  remember to be a storyteller, which means the details in your head have to be on the page. To ask yourself, after you have a draft,  “Why of all the stories I can tell, am I telling this one?” By your last draft, your answer should be on the page.

About Mimi Schwartz

Mimi Schwartz is Professor Emerita of Writing at Richard Stockton University. Her books include the newly published When History Is Personal; Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village; Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed;  Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Her short work has appeared in Agni, Tikkun, The Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, The Los Angeles Times, and The Writer’s Chronicle, among others, and ten essays have been Notables in the Best American Essays series.

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On My Night Stand | The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Yes, I know this is not a craft book or a work of literature, and there’s no Jewish content here. But I present these two books here in the interest of spring cleaning and renewal.

I’d heard about Marie Kondo first from writer pals and while I don’t agree with everything I read, it got me to tidy up my desk space, my dining room table, my kitchen, and two drawers in the dresser. I also went out and bought silk flowers and put them into a Kosher for Passover Gold’s Horseradish jar. Yesterday I bought baskets to place over the toilet tank for toilet paper.

Using the illustrations from the companion volume, Spark Joy, I now have a new way of folding that makes more efficient use of space. I don’t agree with Kondo’s recommendation of placing bookshelves inside a closet. She has 30 books. I have more like 5,000. But I will be more mindful of what books I buy. For example, I got these two Kondo books from my local library.

The bottom line? More energy and creative flow and a sense of control over my chaotic life.

One drawback: I’m so used to working in chaos that with a tidy desk, I feel stymied. I’ll get used to it.

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Author’s Notebook | When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write this book?
Janet Wees (JW): When I visited the memorial site of The Hidden Village in the mid-2000s, it affected me more than other sites I’d seen; it gave me a lump in my throat and in my gut, and a desire to find out more. I looked for information and was put in touch with people who knew the history and could talk to me. The last time I visited the site in 2008, I had just interviewed the person whose experiences inspired the novel, and I sat inside the replica huts trying to imagine how he felt as a young boy, remembering what I’d heard from him. As a former teacher, I also knew that my students’ highly developed sensitivities would allow them to identify with the boy, and understand why what happened was so wrong. And I knew I had to write this story for their children.

TWM: What were the greatest challenges? The greatest satisfactions?
JW: The greatest challenge was getting the voice of a 9-year-old boy out of a 60-something woman. The first draft was straightforward but was a story being told in an adult voice. I had to develop a younger voice with its wonder and words, thoughts and emotions. If I wanted children to read the book, I had to appeal to what would affect their involvement with the character. Since I had never experienced anything like what the boy experienced, it was difficult to put myself in his place and to talk about it. It had to become more personal for me, so I had to think about what I was like at 9 years old. And the idea of letters came up. I lived in a small village as a child and my contact with the “outside” world was through letters. I had pen pals, cousins, and grandmothers. I didn’t have a diary at that time, but I poured my heart out in my letters and shared everything in my life with my letter friends. Once that idea was enmeshed, I tried to carry over some of the elements of a boy in Holland to a girl in Canada. It took awhile but they eventually became one person, living the stories I’d heard.

The greatest satisfaction has been the reaction of young readers to the story. As a writer, I am quite sensitive to feedback. Nobody read my drafts for 6 years because I was afraid of how I would respond to criticism. It feels like I have stepped away from the book (after hundreds of readings, re-readings, edits, proofings), and it’s interesting to see what the readers see with fresh eyes, and it’s always a surprise to me when I hear praise for the book. When writers get rejection after rejection and finally get an offer for publication, it’s almost surreal. It feels like Sally Fields’s Oscar speech – “You like me; you really like me”, but it’s more “You like the book; you really like the book!” It was for children that I wrote the book, and it’s their feedback which gives me the most satisfaction. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that adults who have read it also like it. It’s boosted my confidence to the point where I can now think of myself as a writer.

TWM: I understand some elements are fictionalized and the survivor’s name has been changed. Can you talk about the rationale for this?
JW: When I interviewed the person on whose stories the novel is based, he told me to fictionalize to fill in the gaps as his memory could not remember everything. Along the way we emailed until it got to the point where it was too painful for him to remember, so I stopped asking him questions and used research and my imagination in places. The survivor’s name was different at first, and when the publisher accepted the book for publication, they asked if they could use the real name of the boy on whose experiences the book was based.

Janet Wees

TWM: Did anything in your interviews with the survivor affect or transform you/your thinking in any way?
JW: Until I met the survivor, I had little knowledge of how the Holocaust affected my family. I knew the history and as a Jew it affected me deeply. As the only Jewish child in my elementary school, I faced anti-semitism frequently, and often found myself wondering, as Walter did, “What is wrong with being Jewish?”I discovered in the 1990s that my grandmother had lost family in the death camps, and that we had descendants from those victims still living in Ukraine. Suddenly, the Holocaust became more personal to me. Up until 2008, I’d never really met a survivor, so those four days in Ze’ev’s dining room, interviewing him, brought it all home to me. I was seeing and hearing through his eyes and ears. I remember feeling angry about what was inflicted upon him, and feeling like I wanted to protect him from the memories. I still feel that.

The interviews solidified my resolve to educate people about the Holocaust from a more deeply personal viewpoint instead of a factual article in a newspaper. I remember sitting at Ze’ev’s table crying with him. He said it brought it all back to him every time he spoke to a group of school children, and I said I hoped that my book would allow the children to read about it, perhaps relieving him of the emotional reliving of the experiences.

I feel resolved now that any other books I write have to incorporate and tell the story about the victims of the Holocaust and those people in the Resistance who risked their lives to save lives.

TWM: What do you want readers to take away from this book?
JW: I want them to walk in Walter’s shoes. I want them to stand up against injustice and prejudice. I want them to think about the Resistance. And then I want them to talk to their friends, and family about what it was like for the children in war.

I just heard a story about a 61-year-old woman who, unbelievable as this sounds, knew nothing about the Holocaust. She went to a book presentation last week about Hana’s Suitcase (Second Story Press, 2002) and learned for the first time about the horrors of that time. Apparently she has not been able to sleep since. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be an adult and not know, then find out; I don’t want children to grow up and not know.

When We Were Shadows was published in April 2018 by Canada’s Second Story Press as part of its Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers.

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On My Night Stand | The Seven by Ellen Friedman

I attended a session at the Princeton Public Library three weeks ago about writing the memories of others. The speaker, professor and memoirist Ellen G. Friedman, shared her family’s story: seven of her family members escaped east into the Soviet Union during the Holocaust. Naturally, I bought her book, The Seven: A Family Holocaust Story. I was attracted to it by my own family’s story.

One of my grandfather’s brothers also traveled east. He settled in Uzbekistan-Bukhara, and after the war, resettled in Palestine. With the exception of my grandfather and another brother in America, the remainder of their siblings were killed.

What’s on your night stand this week? And do you have any stories of family members escaping from Nazi persecution into the Soviet Union?

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