Last Chance Event Reminder: The History of Genocide in Cinema

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Mid-Week Field Notes

Three quick things this week:

  • I’ve signed the contract and it’s been countersigned: My short story, “I, Divided,” will appear in Volume 13 (probably September) issue of Consequence, an international journal dedicated to the consequences of war.
  • Emily Stoddard of Voice and Vessel Studio has been running free, 15-minute prompted writing sessions since last year’s lockdown. I’ve gotten back into these “Hummingbird” sessions and they are really helping me shape my new novel in verse. Check them out.
  • This week I’ve been obsessed with Jewish DNA analysis and joined a new Facebook group. DNA has unearthed at least three family secrets and gives new meaning to some photos. I am reading Libby Copeland’s The Lost Family as inspiration.

Stay healthy and safe!

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#52snapshots–Week 8

In the generative memoir writing group I’ve been with since August, I found myself inspired by the prompt I gave, pulled from Sonja Livingston’s 52 Snapshots, about what’s lost and what’s found. I thought about Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and the line: “Losing isn’t hard to master.” In my case, and especially with genealogical objects, that’s proved to be true. And I’ve adhered to Bishop’s missive to lose faster. In this snapshot, I wrote about my great-grandmother Pesia’s ring that I found in a cigar box in my parent’s house–and that I lost it. I wrote about a knotted sock I found in my father’s armoire and how those contents, including the photo pin below (about the size of a quarter) have perplexed me since 1991 when I found it.

I’ve been trying to discern whether this is a family member, and if so, whose side of the family? Could it be my paternal grandfather’s sister Malka? Or could it be my father’s mother’s mother, Pesia Seife Zuckerkandel?

This Week

This week I’m writing about sisters: my grandmother, Rose Entel Perlman and her older sister, Sarah/Sheyna Entel Bayewitch. I may weave in my mother, Lillian Perlman Krasner and her older sister, Bella Perlman Jacobowitz.

Other Work in Progress

I am still revising my “boys go off to war.” Stars & Stripes, at least what I could access online, wasn’t much help. My “snapshot” about my great-grandfather and the Baron Hirsch School was just rejected. I’ll have to find more possibilities for that one.

I’m hoping these snapshot “field notes” inspire someone out there.

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Mid-Week Field Notes

Three quick things this week:

  • I’ve been listening to records my uncle and my aunt (his sister) made circa 1943-1944. What a hoot! The records were to be played at “victory speed” and were sent in lieu of letters. My uncle sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Pack Up Your Troubles.” My aunt sang “Three Caballeros.” Her friend, Ethel, sang “Say a Prayer for the Boys Over There.” I’m so glad my cousin found these.
  • My next Yiddish course at YIVO starts March 3. I’m eager to resume. But that also means I have to give up my Amherst Writers group I’ve been writing with for the last six weeks.
  • I’m practicing my pitch for the Jewish Book Council’s Author Network to promote my forthcoming middle-grade novel in verse, 37 Days at Sea: Aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939.

Stay healthy and safe!

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Author’s Notebook | Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir by Annette Gendler

“The true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burdens of the past.”

Gendler, Annette. Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2017. 233 pages, $16.95 list, paperback.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write your memoir?
Annette Gendler (AG):
On my first trip to my grandparents’ hometown in the Czech Republic in 2002, I felt so many undercurrents that I could only sort out by writing. I have always been conscious of the presence of the past in our lives. The memories we inherited, that are not our own, shape our lives. The more we understand where these memories came from, the more meaning we find in our own lives. That town felt so familiar to me even though I had never been there before, and so I set out to piece that past together that had been so influential on my life and my husband’s.

Annette Gendler

TWM: What were the challenges?
AG: Writing my own love story was the hardest thing about writing Jumping Over Shadows. Not so much in terms of conceiving of Harry or myself as characters — I’d done that before in shorter pieces of memoir and in personal essays — but how do you write your own love story without being soppy? It was challenging to convey the subtle feelings between two people. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how I managed it, but whatever I did, it seems to have worked because so many readers see the book as a love story.

TWM: How did a fellowship with VCCA help? Your time in the Oak Park attic? (I love Oak Park!)

AG: I wrote the first draft of the second part of the book, namely my own love story, during my first residency at the VCCA. My children were still young then, and without that two-week residency, I don’t think I could have written that draft, or if I had, it would have taken much longer. Sequestered at the VCCA, I could live with the book I was trying to write, and I think this is necessary for any larger work. You have to inhabit its world, and that is not possible in a household full of kids. During those two weeks, I didn’t have to worry about feeding myself, let alone others, or running a household, or dealing with my day job. At meal times, I was surrounded by other writers and artists, and I found it inspiring that we were all diligently pursuing our own projects. I met one of my best friends there, a visual artist, who has a similar background. We later even did an event together.

By 2014/15, when I was writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park (Illinois), the manuscript was done, or so I thought. I spent most of my time in that drafty attic studio researching agents and publishing houses, and submitting the manuscript. It honestly was a frustrating time as a writer. Eventually, through the interaction with one editor, I realized another rewrite was necessary. I accomplished that rewrite over the summer of 2015 working at the Writers WorkSpace in Chicago, which sadly had to close last year due to the pandemic.

TWM: One of the things that struck me was the fluidity of borders and nationalities. Did you grapple with that during the writing process?
AG: Not in terms of myself but in terms of the audience. I grew up in what was then “West” Germany, and thanks to my grandmother’s stories and studying history, I was very aware of the shifting borders of Europe in the 20th century. Growing up during the Cold War, the threat of another shift in borders was real and came to fruition in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. While I was writing, I often referred to maps. I even included one in the book to make it easier for readers to grasp the geographic situation. Nevertheless, just as with the historical context, I aimed to provide just enough detail on locations and borders so readers wouldn’t get lost, but I was careful not to overdo it, as that can easily get boring and distract from the story.

TWM: At what point did you realize you needed to return to Europe for onsite research?
AG: I finished the first draft of the manuscript in 2008, meaning I had written everything I could about the story of the past as well as my own story of the present. I knew where I had holes in the narrative and needed more information. Back then, my mother-in-law was still alive, and we were going to Germany every summer. So in June 2009 I took a side trip to Liberec (formerly Reichenberg) in the Czech Republic to do my research. I arrived with a list of locations to visit, such as the crematorium, where I found the family grave. I also visited the public library there and read their collection of newspapers from 1938, which helped me render that time in the book. That 2009 visit became the last chapter in Jumping Over Shadows.

I am happy to offer a bonus to your readers, namely the chapter Hitler’s Visit (click to download) that was ultimately cut from the book. It is entirely based on my onsite research, and my grandmother’s story of walking down the street to go see Hitler.

TWM: How long did the actual writing process take?
AG: That’s hard to say because I didn’t work on it continuously, and it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning. The story of my great-aunt and grandparents has its origin in my MFA thesis, which I completed in 2007. The very first essays in that collection go back to 2005. I consider the origin of the book to be a remark by one of my MFA thesis advisors, who urged me to write my own story, because “the story of the past is only interesting in as far as it resonates in the present.” I thought the manuscript was done in 2012 but when I couldn’t find a home for it, I did another rewrite in 2015. It was published in 2017. So you could say it took me ten years, on and off. I am, however, very happy with the end product, and I think that is crucial.

TWM: Which authors inspire you?
AG: I find authors inspiring who take me on a quest, however nutty it might be, and who also manage to share the stories of others while they share their own. Quite often, they are experts in another field, like Edmund De Waal, who’s really an amazing ceramic artist. I greatly admire his The Hare with Amber Eyes for its span of centuries, countries, continents and familial ties. I just finished Owls of the Eastern Ice, written by ornithologist Jonathan Slaght—I did not want that book to end! He made me interested in fish owls and their habitat, and I’m not an animal person. That is gifted writing!

Peter Hessler is a writer whose work I’ll read, just because he wrote it. I discovered him before I traveled to China, and I read all of his books about China before and after traveling there. I feel I saw and experienced way more of China than I physically did myself thanks to his memoirs. Ted Kooser has always been a great example for me because he managed to have a career in insurance while also becoming poet laureate of the United States. I love his quotidian poetry, but I love his book of essays Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps even more. I reread it every year, and I always feel it makes me see.

In terms of storytelling in memoir, Frank McCourt is my favorite. Even though Angela’s Ashes could be a singularly depressing story of a family’s descent into abject poverty, which it is, his storytelling is so powerful that so many episodes from that book have stuck in my mind. After reading Angela’s Ashes, I will always see a soft-boiled egg as a gift of food to be savored.

For more about Annette Gendler, visit her website and check out her other work.

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#52snapshots–Week 7

I continue to be intrigued by photos. My cousin sent me this photo of his father with our grandmother and her aunt. We don’t know exactly where or when the photo was taken, although I could assume since my uncle’s in uniform, that it could be around 1943. At first I thought the high school was behind them and they were attending my youngest uncle’s 1943 graduation. But then I looked at the trees and it doesn’t look like June at all. Maybe it’s not even north Jersey. Maybe it’s the Lower East Side, since my great-great-aunt lived on East 4th Street between Avenues A & B. In the piece I wonder about the aunt’s role as a substitute mother to my grandmother, who left home in Austria-Hungary in 1913, and never saw her mother again.

For this week, I’m writing about what’s lost and what’s found among genealogical objects.

Someone asked me last week, “How do you know when a piece is ready to send out?” I guess my response is that I’m more inclined to know when it’s not ready. There’s something that just doesn’t feel right in my gut. I may not be satisfied with the piece’s voice, throughline, or structure. The solution is always to dig deeper, do some freewrites. Let the piece breathe and find its way instead of rushing to send it out.

The situation I’ve described applies to my “boys go off to war” piece. Using the methodologies from Emily Stoddard’s “Staying True” revision program, I think I have finally found my throughline and a structure. But I’m still not done. I’m researching Victory mail (V-mail) and D-day coverage in Stars & Stripes.

I’ll keep you posted.

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2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour | Final Stop

You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2021 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 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.

The wrap-up and virtual roundtable

Imagine, if you will, a Zoom gallery filled with award winners poised to answer questions from the press. We have ten participants:

Sydney Taylor Book Awards

Sydney Taylor Honor Books

Picture Book

Middle Grade 

Young Adult

There’s so much to talk about!

We begin…

The Whole Megillah (TWM): Thank you all for joining us today and congratulations on your great achievement. Let’s just dive right in. What are your recommendations for great Jewish kids lit?

Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman: Lately, I’ve been very interested in Jewish children’s books that feature cats. I recommend The Cats of Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse, The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank by David Lee Miller, and The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street  by Ann Redisch Stampler. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own title (also a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal winner!) Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed. 

M. Evan Wolkenstein

M. Evan Wolkenstein: The Jewish kid-lit that has rocked my world–some is brand new and some, a few of years old: the first is Liza Wiemer’s amazing The Assignment, about an unethical high school assignment which opens up the door for antisemitism, white supremacy, and intolerance. It tricks you into thinking things are moving in a linear direction and then…blammo! Major curve balls.

Speaking of curve balls, I loved Sarah Kapit’s Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! Vivy and the main character of Turtle Boy have a lot in common, and I loved how the book explores the idea of self expression and empowerment through the most esoteric of baseball pitches.

Next is The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, which I read simply because I saw it listed as a prior Sydney Taylor winner; and WOW. I listened to the audiobook while running and I actually had to stop my run and listen, rapt, until the end of some scenes! Which was awkward when I was mid-crosswalk. It’s Canterbury Tales meets the Princess Bride. Plus Jewish.

Most recently, I read Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon. It helped me to see that opening up to romance novels and smashing the patriarchy might go hand in hand. I’ve spoken with female students about the need for literature that centers women’s ambitions and also their desires and now I believe that this book is an essential part of tikkun olam. I will never roll my eyes at a romance novel again.

Finally, All 3 Stooges by Erica Perl. This book blew me away—like Turtle Boy, it’s funny, but also, it’s dark and it gives Middle Grade readers the credit that they can and want to run straight into the shadows, the darkness, and explore amazingly painful subjects (with lovable but deeply flawed protagonists).

Tyler Feder

Tyler Feder: There are three children’s books my mom kept in the plastic bin with our Chanukah things that I’d look forward to reading every year. These aren’t new but I have great memories of reading them! The Chanukah Guest by Eric A. Kimmel is about an old lady with dwindling eyesight who serves latkes to a hungry bear, confusing his fur for her rabbi’s beard. Arielle and the Hanukkah Surprise by Devra Newberger Speregen  is about a girl whose birthday falls during Chanukah and thinks her family forgot about her (it has a happy ending!). Finally, Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah by Sylvia Rouss is about a sweet little spider who spins a different colored dreidel with each of his eight legs.

Jane Yolen: Begin with Sydney Taylor herself, of  course. Go from there to any of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s books for children, especially the Chelm stories he retells in The Fools of Chelm.  Leslèa Newman’s gorgeous story of  immigration—Gittel’s Journey, anything by Barbara Diamond Goldin (including Meet Me at the Well, which we wrote together, about the girls and women of the Hebrew Bible.  I have always been fond of The B’nai Bagels. Also read the many remarkable number of YA Holocaust novels out there. I have three Holocaust novels out myself—Devil’s Arithmetic (which won the Sydney Taylor Award way back in 1987 I think), Briar Rose, and Mapping the Bones. Also read the graphic novel Maus, and Elizabeth Wein’s brilliant Code Name Verity.

Anne Blankman

Anne Blankman: I could go on and on! There are so many wonderful Jewish-themed children’s books. My favorite picture book is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. In this story, Hershel—the trickster of many Jewish folk tales—saves a village’s Hanukkah celebrations when he tricks a group of goblins into leaving a synagogue. I adore Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind-Family series, about a Jewish family living in New York City in the early 1900s. For middle grade readers, I recommend Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse, which is about a Jewish girl and her family fleeing Tsarist Russia. In The Endless Steppe, author Esther Hautzig writes of her exile in Siberia during World War Two. And for nonfiction lovers, I recommend Victoria Ortiz’s Dissenter on the Bench: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Life and Work.

Sofiya Pasternack: Jewish middle grade has some great books coming up! Aimee Lucido’s Recipe for Disaster is a contemporary book about baking and figuring out a Jewish identity when you’re not entirely sure if you “count.” Chris Baron’s The Magical Imperfect is about two kids dealing with social isolation for different reasons, and how they come together to face the things they’re ostracized for.

Monica Hesse
Photo by Cassidy DuHon

Monica Hesse: Recently I’ve love, loved Brandy Colbert’s Little and Lion, about a queer, Black, Jewish teen juggling her faith, her family and her first crush — which happens to be on a girl her brother also likes. L.C. Rosen’s Camp, about two boys falling in love at theater camp, is buoyant and funny and delicious. I just started Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed (teens build a friendship while doing political canvassing; it’s the perfect story for Washington, DC, where I live), and I also just stumbled upon my old childhood copy of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which I’m planning to reread for the first time in 25 years to see if I still find Judy Blume’s autobiographical novel as relatable as I did when I was nine.

TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?

Newman: I am very happy to see that more and more Jewish children’s books are featuring Jews of color and I hope that trend continues. There is a huge need to show the diversity that exists within the Jewish community. I was adamant that the illustrations in Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail showed a diverse range of characters attending the seder depicted in the story. And Susan Gal did an amazing job.

Yolen: A few more editors and small presses opening their doors to American writers. For example, new acquiring editor Elizabeth Lazowski at Chronicle is looking for Jewish books (her grandfather is a rabbi and a child survivor of the Holocaust).

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Mychal Copeland: I have spent much of my career working with Jewish families who aren’t often represented in Jewish children’s literature. Families are largely pictured in our books as white, only the boys wear kippot (I used to draw head-coverings on the girls in my copies), we see moms and dads but not often gay, lesbian or transgender parents, and observances are Ashkenazi (Eastern European)-centric. These days, over 70 percent of American Jews are partnering with someone from a different spiritual background, and in 12-15 percent of our families, there is someone who identifies as a Person of Color. I serve a synagogue rooted in LGBTQIA community. Kids from our families rarely see themselves in Jewish literature. This beautifully diverse reality is now being reflected in more of our books. I think (and hope!) that we are going to see an explosion of books reflecting the actual makeup of our communities.

I also see a Jewish cultural shift in that, for generations, we have struggled over how to talk about spirituality and we’ve had a discomfort talking about God. But children are natural seekers and spiritual beings. They ask questions that stump their parents because their parents have not had the chance to engage as adults about their spiritual lives. I hope to see more literature that presents different modes of Jewish spirituality, offering children a wide range of ideas and images, while lending parents some shared language for talking to their kids about spirituality.

Sofiya Pasternack

Pasternack: Oh gosh! I don’t know about trends. For writers, I generally recommend against writing for trends, so I don’t pay a lot of attention to them. Something I’m seeing pitched a lot, though, are MG vampire novels!! I’ve seen some really adorable takes on vampires in these books, and honestly if anything is going to revive the vampire trend, it’s going to be tween Nosferatu trying to make friends with human kids.

TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?
Newman: Right at this moment, I am busy promoting my memoir-in-verse for adults, I Wish My Father,  a companion book to  I Carry My Mother (both published by Headmistress Press). The book explores the changes that both my father and I went through during the last five years of his life after my mother died and he went from husband to widower, attorney to retiree, tennis player to spectator, driver to passenger, homeowner to independent living resident and lifelong New Yorker to new New Jersey-ite. And I went from daughter to daughter/caretaker which was both challenging and rewarding.

On the children’s book front, I have many picture books coming out in the next few years, and I am very eager to get them into the hands of readers. In May of 2021, I have two board books coming out from Candlewick: A-B-C Cats and1-2-3 Cats (you see, I just can’t get away from cats!). And in 2022, my first bilingual book  will be brought out from the Children’s Press (a division of Lee & Low). Los coquíes y el huracán: Una canción para Puerto Rico/Coquíes and the Hurricane: A Song for Puerto Rico. I wrote this book for my spouse who is from Puerto Rico and was devastated by the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the US government’s response to it. There are more projects in the works…stay tuned!

Susan Gal

Susan Gal: I am currently illustrating a non-fiction picture book for Scholastic. It too is a book with Jewish subject matter and I’m passionately researching the history of that story. Later in the year I will begin work on illustrating a lovely manuscript with Nancy Paulsen Books. We currently have a book that I both wrote and illustrated entitled TWOgether coming out this spring. I’m also continually working on book ideas and coaxing them into (hopefully!) becoming actual picture books.

Wolkenstein: As I wrapped up Turtle Boy, I found that I’d become so deeply attached to my characters, I was sad at the thought of life without them, like the normal and bittersweet moment at graduation when we all hugged our friends and cried and promised to stay in touch. Well, I found that Shirah, the protagonist, wouldn’t let me go—she stomped after me, demanding her turn. She’s forceful and strong and has some subtle vulnerabilities that come from somewhere within me which need to be explored. When I do virtual author visits and students ask if I’m writing another book—and I tell them I’m working on a sequel to Turtle Boy featuring Shirah—there’s lots of fist bumps and cheers, especially from the girls. I owe it to them—and to Shirah—to make it happen.

Feder: This past year I finished a children’s book called Bodies Are Cool, a colorful and friendly body positive anthem for preschoolers with illustrations of lots of different bodies of varying sizes, colors, abilities, genders, etc. It comes out this June, just in time for swimsuit season! I’m also currently working on another graphic memoir about my experience living with clinical anxiety.

Jane Yolen

Yolen: To live long enough (I am 82 next month) to see all my books under contract come out. That includes five Jewish books, among them: for Kar Ben: Mrs. Noah’s Doves, Deborah’s Tree, and the board book Something New for Rosh Hashonah, and Chronicle’s Too Many Golems.

Copeland: I am working on two picture books. One follows a child as they realize that they are interconnected with the natural world. I am hoping that in addition to standing alone as a narrative, it will serve as a companion to I Am the Tree of Life as a guided meditation at the end of a yoga practice. In the second, I am celebrating the diversity of ethnic, racial, interreligious, sexual and gender variety in contemporary Jewish families.

Pasternack: My plan right now is to just keep writing more books! I have another middle grade coming out in 2022. It’s another historical fantasy, set a little earlier than Anya is, in Khazaria. When 12-year-old Ziva’s terminally ill twin brother prophesies his own death happening on Rosh Hashanah, she spends Elul trying to get him to the city of Luz, where she hopes he can avoid the Angel of Death.

I’m also writing a YA historical fantasy set during an alternate Cold War, where the war is fought with atomic magicians instead of atomic bombs. When an American magician is sent on a secret mission into the heart of the USSR, she’s forced to work with a Soviet soldier, who has a mission of his own. Both of the teens are Jewish, with their very different approaches to Judaism influenced by their upbringing, parents, and experiences in two completely different nations. The research needed for this is pretty hefty, and I’ve been working on it for almost two years at this point!

Hesse: I’m at the misery point of my latest YA novel: 70,000 words written so far, which means the ending is in sight but simultaneously seems so far away. It’s my fourth book of historical fiction but my first set in a time period other than WWII. I’ve never been able to talk much about what I’m working on until it’s done (feels like a jinx?) but right now my nightstand is littered with books about the Spanish flu, the 19th Amendment, oystering on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and common poisons of the early 20th century. And it’s all fascinating. Outside of novel-writing, I’m a columnist with the Washington Post, where I mostly write about gender and its impact on society. It’s an amazing job that I hope to have for awhile.

TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?
Newman: As I wrote my book, I remembered how much I loved Passover as a child. I loved helping my mother change the dishes; I loved seeing the boxes of matzo appear in our pantry; I loved watching my father make matzo brei (the only meal he ever cooked); and most of all, I loved the seder. And what I loved most about the seder was opening the door to welcome Elijah. So many memories returned to me as I wrote the story. I also thought about how each seder is unique, depending on who is attending, who is leading, what foods are served, what is going on in the world which influences the conversations around the table as we eat the festive meal. It is really a unique and exquisite tradition. I have been to very large seders and very small seders and each one has been very special.

Gal: When my agent Gail Gaynin presented me with the manuscript for Elijah I was initially concerned because I am not Jewish. However, I had successfully worked with Lesléa on our first book Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays and Gail knew that I would be up to the task of making Elijah authentic and heartfelt. With both books it was very important to me to honor the richness of the Jewish traditions. I researched the history and asked my Jewish friends about their holiday celebrations and what each holiday meant to them and their families before beginning sketches for the books. My goal was to bring the stories to life and create a world that was both emotional and true to the subject matter. To me, Elijah is not only a story about Passover but a story about contrast; darkness and light, indoor and outdoor, loneliness and togetherness. It was important to me that the story be illustrated in a limited palette to emphasize this contrast; deep blue hues for the outdoor spreads and rich golden tones for the indoor pages. I wanted the reader to experience the celebration of the different generations coming together and the joy we feel when we share our sacred family traditions with those we love.

Wolkenstein: As a Jewish educator, I have a closet full of ideas that I think are core, essential, and inspiring about Jewish life and civilization, and I began early drafts of Turtle Boy the way I pack my suitcase before a two-week vacation. I wanted to pack everything. I had to face reality—I could not bring my entire sweater collection. The result is a narrower scope into Jewish life, but each one which is wildly idiosyncratic. For example, the Mourner’s Kaddish plays a major role in my book, but Will Levine twists it and adapts it for his own rhythmic purposes and turns it into a deeply personal, custom made prayer, tethering the past to his own present life. From this came the insight that making a single tradition into a personal experience builds the next link of the chain of tradition. To quote Goethe. of all people: What you have as heritage, Take now at task; For thus you will make it your own. Jewish Kidlit can play a critical role in helping young people to take their heritage as task, making it their own. In this way, we are preparing the next generation to grow up with their tradition in their hearts and their hands.

Feder: As I worked on my book, I felt really grateful for the way Jewish tradition eased the pain of losing my mom. The commotion and chaos of the shiva (along with all the delicious food) were a total balm to my raw emotional state. Since I’ve grown up in this bustling Jewish family, it’s what I’m used to, and it can be easy to forget that Jewish mourning traditions are not “standard” in this country. It was interesting to hear from readers of other backgrounds who experienced a similar loss but through a more dour, hands-off mourning tradition. It made me feel extra lucky to have had such a warm environment in which to process my grief.

Yolen: Each one is a different research problem. For Miriam at the River, which was an honor book this year in the picture book category, I had already done the book Meet Me at the Well with Barbara Diamond Goldin that was about four years of research and writing. So I already had made a pretty thorough study of Miriam, not only rereading the story, but reading Jewish feminist Biblical scholars, midrashim, etc. But telling the story in a picture book, in a lyrical way brought up other problems—such as: what creatures would have been in the river in those days, not something that I needed to know for the Meet Me at the Well book.

Khoa Le

Khoa Le: Before working on illustrating Miriam at the River, I don’t have much knowledge about Jewish culture or religion, I have to admit. However to express my art the best way for the story, I started to google and read a lot of contents about Jew and Judaism, the stories, the legend, the cultures… It’s like a whole new world opened before my eyes and I learn so much from just being an illustrator for this picture book.

Blankman: While I was drafting The Blackbird Girls, my family received devastating news: my husband had stage III cancer. For a few weeks, we were in shock. My husband was only in his thirties and had always been healthy. As I took care of him and our then-nine-year-old daughter, and worked full-time as a school librarian and wrote this book, I often felt overwhelmed. Never, though, did I feel hopeless.

My Jewish faith was like a rock, offering me a solid place to stand. It comforted me when I felt scared, and it strengthened me when I felt weak. And it flowed into my writing. In some ways, the emotional and religious journey of my Jewish main characters, Valentina and Rifka, was my own.

Pasternack: In Kiev, Anya spends Shabbat with a family of Sephardim. This family fled Spain several generations earlier during a Jewish expulsion, and the friend Anya makes there, Misha, has a completely different experience with Judaism than Anya does. So I had to do a lot of research about what Misha’s experiences would have been, and how they would have been different from Anya’s!

TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?
Newman: It means so much to me to have my work recognized in this way. When I received the award in 2016 as well as the Sydney Taylor Body-of Work Award last year, I felt that this type of recognition is something to live up to, a call to action as it were, to create more children’s books with Jewish characters and Jewish themes. It is my self-appointed task to fulfill my obligation of tikkun olam. What I try to do to repair the world is create books that help children feel safe and that they have a place at the table (literally—at the seder table—and figuratively!)

Gal: When I first read Leslèa’s manuscript I felt that it was something special. The story spoke to me and I put my heart and passion into illustrating Elijah. I’m very grateful to be recognized by the Sydney Taylor Award Committee and to receive such a marvelous honor. It’s my belief that we all stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. I share this award with my loved ones and honor all the support my family has given me throughout my career.

Yolen: It began with an intake of breath, then a dance while I was on the phone. But mostly it meant that I got to know the book was considered important enough to win the award. And besides, one of my best writing buddies (we have been in the same writing group for almost 40 years!) won the gold—Lesléa Newman! So it felt like family day!

Le: I am very grateful to you for considering Miriam at the River 2021 Sydney Taylor Honor Book. The fact that my contribution to the book (alongside the amazing manuscript by Jane Yolen) has been recognized instills confidence in me to keep working to the best of my abilities to create more beautiful books.

Copeland: This is my first children’s book (I previously edited a book on the integration of LGBTQI people into American religious life) and writing children’s literature has been a passion of mine. To be recognized among some of my most favorite works is a tremendous thrill. As Good as Anybody, on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Joshua Heschel’s friendship, helped me navigate important discussions with my kids about racism and antisemitism they still remember years later. I have shared The Castle on Hester Street countless times in my work as a rabbi, reflecting on the centrality of storytelling in Jewish life and the power of the storyteller to choose how and what we remember. Gathering Sparks has been such an inspiration to me, inviting children to contemplate a complex spiritual, mystical idea. I am moved to think of a child who is Jewish or has never met a Jew, picking up my book in a library and learning that Jewish tradition contains this profound idea that our Torah is called a Tree of Life, and that humans are likened to that same image of a tree. We are not passive observers of our tradition, but rather, we step into our stories as active participants.

Blankman: When I was in elementary school, I wrote and illustrated dozens of short stories. I always drew award stickers on the covers! I didn’t know what the stickers symbolized, but I’d seen them on some of my favorite books so I decided to make my own. To have a real award sticker on the cover of my book feels incredibly special. To have the sticker be the Sydney Taylor Honor feels amazing. This recognition means that The Blackbird Girls resonates with its readers and reviewers—and that I did well by Valentina and Rifka, my Jewish main characters. I’m so grateful.

Pasternack: I wrote in my personal blog that the STBA Honor means a lot to me because I wasn’t raised Jewish. My family’s history with Judaism is complicated, and I didn’t have more than a vague idea about where we came from until I was an adult. There are a lot of facets of Jewish life that I just don’t understand, because I missed having any kind of formal Jewish education. I’ve been trying to make up for it as an adult! And I put all those things I learn and love into my books. So the STBA says to me that, even though I still feel ignorant or like an outsider sometimes, I belong here.

Hesse: They Went Left is set in the immediate aftermath of WWII, and follows a concentration camp survivor named Zofia as she searches for her younger brother, the only other member of her family to survive Auschwitz. Writing a book like this, about a time period that is so profound, I felt an immense duty to get it right. To get it right for readers, and more importantly, to get it right for survivors, for their descendants, and for history. I spent hundreds of hours drawing on my journalistic training to do every kind of research: listening to oral histories, combing through ledgers, examining postwar railway timetables, repeatedly visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, tracing routes on Google maps through cities in Poland and Germany, and reading dozens of books about the Jewish experience in postwar Europe. Receiving a Sydney Taylor Honor gives me hope that I got it right, and that I was able to do justice to these people living through this time. 

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?
Newman: Yes! I get to have fancy gold stickers on the front cover of my book! Other than that, my plan is to continue doing what I do: which is every morning (or to be honest, most mornings) pick up my pen and notebook  to play with words on the page and see what happens. My mentor, Allen Ginsberg, said that writing is 33 percent  inspiration, 33 percent perspiration, and 33 percent respiration. I said, “Allen, that’s only 99 percent. What’s the missing 1 percent?” His eyes lit up. “Magic!” Every day I wait for the magic.

Gal: I hope that it will bring me additional opportunities to work with more authors that I admire. I am genuinely devoted to the hard work of making picture books. Receiving this award encourages me to keep striving to create the best work that I can and to continue to honor those stories that I am fortunate enough to illustrate.

Wolkenstein: Imposter syndrome is a real disease and it afflicts every artist I know, and I’m no exception. In the early phases of writing Turtle Boy, it felt so impossible —so daunting—only the deadlines imposed upon me by my editor, Beverly Horowitz at Delacorte, and my coach, Kristy Lin Billuni, kept me from deleting all the files and bludgeoning my laptop with the nearest rolling pin. Now that Turtle Boy is done, one might think imposter syndrome might relax a bit, but instead, it has morphed into a new variant—I’m an imposter author who got lucky once! Well, now, I have one small tool in my arsenal against this malady: the incredibly motivating and inspiring message from the Sydney Taylor award. I’m hearing that Turtle Boy is contributing to contemporary Jewish culture! What a feeling…and what a responsibility. And if the idea of letting my coach and editor down got me through book one, the fear of letting down contemporary Jewish civilization—well, that might be enough to get me through those awkward and painful early drafts!

Pasternack: Well I have a brand new roll of STBA stickers, so I’m very excited about that! I don’t think much will change for me, really. I’m going to keep writing books no matter what. I’d love to go to more writing conferences and speak about writing and how everyone should write magical Jewish fantasy, so maybe I can go do some more of that!

Yolen: I have won it before. But as I like to tell people, winning an award never gets old, even though I do.

Le: I don’t think anything will be much different. I still will try my best to work on any picture book that I have a chance to be an illustrator for. Any project will be a completely new story, new challenge, and new beginning for me, and I would learn so much from all of them. For me, being an illustrator is both a career and a chance to see the world through words and I value that highly. The Sydney Taylor Honor Book Award is a great recognition for me, and not only do I feel honoured but I also see it as a way for people to see me as a good illustrator. Hopefully that will get me to work with even more interesting projects in the future.

Hesse: In my heart? Yes. In my life? Sadly, my dog never cares about any of my awards, and neither does my laundry, or my deadlines, or the leaky showerhead I keep meaning to replace. Winning an award brings a little bit of brief validation, but I think most authors eventually revert to their natural state: “I haven’t written enough. What I have written is bad. I need to write more, and better. Help, where is the ice cream.”

The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion and we congratulate all the Gold Medal, Silver Medal, and Notable award winners. 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 and give space to honor these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.

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Genocide on the Big Screen

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Mid-Week Field Notes

Four quick things this week:

  • I am amassing substantial content through my #52 snapshot project. Through this content, I’m gaining deeper insights into my family’s history and into writing essays, particularly lyric essays.
  • I received word last week that my short story, “I, Divided” about a Holocaust survivor’s split personality has been accepted by a literary journal. The contract should come this week.
  • My thanks to those of you who attended the William Paterson University panel on Monday night. I’m also hosting for the university’s MFA program a magazine panel on March 22, featuring Yona McDonough, fiction editor of Lilith; Maria Mazziotti Gillan, editor of Paterson Literary Review, and Jacqueline Vogtman, editor of Kelsey Review. Stay tuned!
  • Have you been following the Sydney Taylor Book Awards Blog Tour? The Whole Megillah will post the final stop on Friday.

Stay healthy and safe!

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The Association of Jewish Libraries Announces the 2021 Winners of the Jewish Fiction Award

Today, the Association of Jewish Libraries announced the following:

Max Gross is the winner of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Jewish Fiction Award for his novel The Lost Shtetl, published by HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The award includes a $1,000 cash prize and support to attend the 57th Annual Conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries,  June 27–July 1, 2021. Two honor books were also recognized: To Be a Man: Stories by Nicole Krauss, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and Apeirogon: A Novel by Colum McCann, published by Penguin Random House. The Committee reviewed over 70 works of fiction originally written in English with significant Jewish thematic content published in the United States in 2020. Thanks to all those who submitted entries for consideration. The wide array of books published in 2020 is a testament to the vibrant state of contemporary Jewish fiction.

In many ways Kreskol, the nominal Lost Shtetl, is a typical 19th century Polish village. It has the expected mix of competing synagogues and schools; happy and miserable families; and comfortable and poor inhabitants. What is surprising about Kreskol is that in Brigadoon style, it survived deep in the forests with no connection to the outside world. Set during the end of the 20th century,  Lost Shtetl  tells the story of a town neglected by time, unaware of the Holocaust or the creation of the state of Israel. When the Polish government “finds” Kreskol, there is massive culture shock on both sides. The Jewish villagers must decide how much to embrace the modern world and the Polish government has to decide how much they want to invest in this small contentious village. “An impressive debut novel, The Lost Shtetl is a thoroughly enjoyable story, with lots of humor, but also incredibly sophisticated, clever, poignant and thought provoking,” noted Laura Schutzman, Chair of the Award Committee.

The ten stories in To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss deal with the struggle to understand what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman, and all of the tensions in the relationships between parents and children, lovers and friends, husbands and wives. All contemporary, they span the globe from Switzerland, Japan, and New York City to Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, and South America. “Each is impactful and memorable with fully developed characters, often wrestling with their Jewish identity, who stay with you long after the reading experience is over,” commented Rachel Kamin, member of the Award Committee.   

Apeirogon, in telling the story of two fathers, an Israeli and a Palestinian united in grief after losing their daughters to the conflict,  weaves together fiction and nonfiction, crossing centuries and continents, to create a multifaceted and multilayered exploration of history, art, politics, love, loss, hope, and the power of storytelling. An apeirogon is a shape with an infinitely countable number of sides; Apeirogon, the novel, “evokes a mosaic with an infinitely countable number of pieces that have been assembled into a beautifully written, emotionally charged, and exceedingly relevant work of fiction,” remarked Paula Breger, member of the Award Committee. The intricacies and conflicting themes  of Aperigon are sure to elicit much debate and discussion.

Laura Schutzman

The AJL Jewish Fiction Award Committee members are Paula Breger, Beth Dwoskin, Rachel Kamin, Laura Schutzman, and Sheryl Stahl.

The Association of Jewish Libraries gratefully acknowledges the generous support of Dan Wyman Books for underwriting the Award. Submissions for the 2022 AJL Fiction Award (titles published in 2021) are now being accepted. For more information, please visit

The Association of Jewish Libraries is an all-volunteer professional organization that promotes Jewish literacy through enhancement of libraries and library resources and through leadership for the profession and practitioners of Judaica librarianship. The Association fosters access to information, learning, teaching and research relating to Jews, Judaism, the Jewish experience and Israel.

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