Get Ready for Readukkah | Association of Jewish Libraries First Reading Challenge

From Heidi Estrin:

AJL kicks off its first reading challenge with #Readukkah during Hanukkah, December 6-14, 2015.

It’s easy! Anyone can participate, including kids. All you have to do is:

  • Read one Jewish book
  • Review it online (include hashtag #Readukkah)
  • During Hanukkah, December 6-14, 2015

You pick the book – any reading level, fiction or nonfiction, Jewish in any way you choose to define it.

Review your book anywhere online: on a blog, GoodReads, Amazon, Facebook, YouTube, or even on AJL’s listserv, Hasafran.

Use the hashtag #Readukkah somewhere in your review to help readers find you!

By sharing your #Readukkah reviews of Jewish books, you will help spread the word about worthwhile titles, bringing them to the attention of more readers, increasing the market and supporting the publishing of Jewish books!


Sign up to participate in #Readukkah! All participants will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of FIREBRAND by Aaron Barnhart (Quindaro, 2015), YA historical fiction about August Bondi, a Jewish freedom fighter in the Civil War.

For each 12 sign-ups up to 36 (double chai), another giveaway copy will be added for a total of three chances to win!

Visit AJL’s blog to sign up and enter the drawing at

P.S. A few people signed up before we struck our deal with Quindaro for the giveaway. For those of you who signed up early, please email me at and tell me your email address so you can be included in the drawing!

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Author’s Notebook | Angela Cerrito and The Safest Lie

The Whole Megillah talks to Angela Cerrito, author of The Safest Lie (Holiday House, 2015, 181 pp.)

The Whole Megillah (TWM): You had a long journey with this book. What was your process?

Angela Cerrito (AC): Honestly, in the beginning there wasn’t much of a process. I went through many stops and starts as well as several attempts to tell this story different ways. I always went back to the original draft of the middle grade novel and re-wrote it. Finally, I stopped trying to fix that early original draft but allowed myself to use it as an outline (or an idea, actually) and gave myself permission to create something new with the same characters and in the same place and time. This worked for me and, after many years, I had a new first draft. 

coverTWM: What was the most satisfying part of writing it?
AC: My agent, Caitlin Blasdell of Liza Dawson Associates, encouraged me to create more tension for Anna in each of environment and to revise in a way that made her more active in the story. Every time I had a challenge revising and could weave some of my earlier research into a new storyline was extremely satisfying… almost a tactile and audible “click” of things fitting together…finally! 

TWM: What was the most challenging part of writing it?
AC: There were many challenges for me. It was difficult become immersed in research and then exit my office into the real world. During the writing process, it was a challenge that I couldn’t include everyone I wanted in the novel; many amazing, courageous people didn’t fit into Anna’s storyline. I have plans to add content to my website to share some of this research.

 portrait (2)TWM: How did you come up with the character of nine-year-old Anna Bauman?
AC: In earlier versions, the main character was younger and named Roza. It was between one of my stops and starts that the character of Anna began to develop. When the project grew to a middle-grade novel, the main character was a bit older and, as I learned more about her family, she seemed to be a different person than Roza. While researching at the Jewish Historical Museum in Warsaw Poland, there was a portrait hanging above the research area. I asked about the artist, the girl in the portrait but nothing was known. I’m not sure how it happened, but the girl in this portrait inspired Anna. 

TWM: How did you decide to write short chapters?
AC: It isn’t much of a conscious decision for me, I think I simply tend to write short chapters. I did so with my first book, The End of the Line, too. And my current work-in-progress also fits this pattern. Even though the chapters are short, the breaks feel natural to me. I hope they do to the reader as well. 

TWM: Did you have any trepidation about writing about the Holocaust?
AC: Yes, I had a great deal of trepidation. And doubt. And fear. 

TWM: How did you handle the trepidation, doubt, and fear?
AC: By talking long breaks and allowing myself a great deal of time to think and reflect. I continued to speak about my research to a variety of groups including students who were very enthusiastic. Probably most important was discussing the project with other children’s writers who were a huge support system as well as friends and family who offered encouragement.

TWM: What was the most surprising discovery you made during your research?
AC: One surprising discovery was a video clip of Irena Sendler shown to me at the Museum of Jewish History in New York. In that video, Irena describes how Anton used a big dog to help with the rescue operations. She smiles during the video, obviously impressed with the creativity Anton used to carry out his dangerous missions. Another surprise came to me after some time. Irena has always stated that she isn’t a hero, that she couldn’t have possibly completed these rescues alone. When I met her and in other published interviews, she always spoke of other people who helped her. I think, despite the repeated message, I didn’t take that information to heart initially. Probably because Irena is my hero. Instead, I attributed her comments to modesty which only increased my respect for her. In time, I learned the truth of her words.  I often speak at ceremonies for The Days of Remembrance. I talk about the Warsaw ghetto, ZEGOTA and the child rescue operations. I like to create a new presentation for each event. A few years ago, I decided to focus on the people who helped Irena, those who she mentioned in our interview, in other published sources and in her authorize autobiography. It had been there in my research notes all along, but when I assembled the information in this new way, I learned a great deal.

TWM: How did the manuscript come to be with Holiday House?
AC: Holiday House published my debut novel, The End of the Line. I had a great deal of support from my editor, Julie Amper, and the entire Holiday House team launching this novel. I’m very grateful that they were just as enthusiastic about The Safest Lie. [TWM Note: Julie Amper is no longer with Holiday House.]

TWM: What advice would you give to aspiring historical fiction writers? Holocaust novel writers for kids?
AC: I’m not sure that I have advice for other writers, but I’m happy to share a few tips that helped me: Because language and memory can change with time, seek out sources that were written or recorded during the time period you are studying; avoid reading fiction set in this time period (however you may want to read fiction published during the time period, especially if it is something your characters may have read); compare sources; keep digging; ask for help from experts; prepare your translator for the subject matter; and show appreciation for everyone who helps you with your novel.

TWM: Why should writers avoid reading fiction set in the time period they’re writing about?
AC: I’m not sure this holds true for everyone, but my experience working on this novel was that I become absorbed in the world of my research. It was important for me to stick with non-fiction during the writing process. It helped me to know that the time and place I was writing about was created based on my research.

For more about Angela, please visit her website.

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Author’s Notebook | Memoirist Sue William Silverman

I first encountered Sue William Silverman through the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Post-Graduate Conference in 2012 and then at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Program (AWP) conferences. When I think of memoir, I think of Sue. Here’s my recent interview with her.

Sue_William_Silverman_new_photo_for_web-210The Whole Megillah (TWM): In general, what is the most gratifying aspect of writing memoir? The most challenging? Now specific to The Pat Boone Fan Club, what were the most gratifying and challenging aspects—and why?
Sue William Silverman (SWS): One of the most gratifying aspects of writing memoir is the opportunity to fully explore one’s life. In my own case, I don’t truly understand my life until I write it. Through writing, I’m able to reflect back on the past and discover the metaphors of any given experience.

Ironically, that’s the most challenging aspect, too! Writing a life is not simply stating the facts as in “this happened, and then this happened, and then this next thing happened.” Rather, one has to dig deep into an experience and discover the “story behind surface story.” What does the experience mean?

pat boone fan clubIn The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, I explore my ambiguous relationship toward Judaism, growing up. Because my Jewish father sexually molested me, I was very drawn to Pat Boone, the antithesis of my father; Pat Boone, in addition to being a pop-music idol, was also known for his wholesome, clean-cut, Christian image.

In this book, I needed to discover the origin and the depth of my crush on Pat Boone. I mean, as a kid, I just thought he was cute – much as any kid would have a crush on a celebrity. It wasn’t until I wrote the book that I discovered how, in fact, he was a metaphor: a metaphor for a safe father I never had.

TWM: How do you prepare a proposal for a memoir? Do you already know your theme(s)?
SWS: I’ve never written a book proposal! I always have to write the book itself in order to fully know what the theme, the arc, the metaphors will be. In many ways, there’s almost no reason (for me) to write a proposal since I have to write my life, anyway, whether the book gets published or not.

TWM: Did you already have essays that you assembled into this book? How did The Pat Boone Fan Club come about?
SWS: Initially, I didn’t know I was writing a book. The title essay was the first piece I wrote but, at that time, I just thought it would be a stand-alone essay. As depicted in that essay, I saw in the newspaper that Pat Boone was giving a concert about 20 minutes from my house. (This was relatively recently, so he was no longer a teen idol—rather an aging idol—and I was no longer a teen!) But, I’d had a crush on him most of my life, so I figured I’d go to the concert and sneak backstage to tell him what he meant to me. I did just that, wrote an account of it, and published the essay.

Then, I simply continued to write what I thought were all stand-alone essays. I was about two years or so into this essay writing, when I realized that all of the essays had a similar theme: a search for identity because of my ambiguous feelings toward Judaism. When I had that epiphany, I realized I could collect these thematically congruent essays into a book as a unified collection. At that point, I then wrote additional sections that weren’t stand alone, but that would help to enhance and round-out the book.

TWM: What was your strategy with the direct address, “Dear Gent[i]le Reader?”
SWS: Those “Dear Reader” sections act as a through-thread to make the book more unified and whole. In other words, in my first two memoirs, each has a unified structure or narrative. Not so with the Pat Boone book. There is a unified theme, but not a unified narrative. In other words, not all the sections are about Pat Boone. In one section, for example, I write about my feeling of being “other” when I attend a mostly Christian high school. In yet another section, I write about a search for my Jewish identity by working on a kibbutz in Israel. Through these “Dear Reader” sections, I’m better able to suggest to the reader how all these sections, together, form a thematic whole.

Love_sick-210TWM: The Pat Boone Fan Club takes a departure from your other two memoirs, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. What led you to go in this direction?
SWS: Each memoir, generally speaking (for all writers), is not about a whole life; rather, any given memoir, ideally, explores a slice of a life, following one theme. At the same time, all of us are complicated human beings, and, in this regard, we all have many stories to tell.

In this instance, after exploring my incestuous childhood in the one book, and writing about recovering from sexual addiction in another, I was led to explore, in more detail, my search for identity. I didn’t start out knowing what I was going to write. Rather, it was the writing, itself, that led me to this theme.

TWM: The subtitle of The Pat Boone Fan Club is: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew. Was mentioning “Jew” a selling point? How did you characterize your target market?
SWS: I guess the word “Jew” in the subtitle is really just meant to be descriptive of the book and its theme, in that the book is about my life as a white, Anglo-Saxon Jew! I don’t exactly write with a target market in mind. That said, I do hope that my tribe will find the book of interest. Of course I hope others will, too. I think the search for identity is, to some extent, a universal theme.

TWM: What drove your decision to move from fiction writing to memoir?
SWS: Initially, yes, I started as a fiction writer and tried to tell my story as a novel. I wrote about four or five novels. None of them are published and none are very good! Really, I could never find an emotionally authentic voice in fiction. It wasn’t until I switched to memoir that I found that authentic voice in which to write my stories.

Terror-210-expTWM: Did you ever encounter any repercussions from your memoir writing? 
SWS: Virtually none from my family, which is surprising. Both my parents, I hasten to add, however, had died when I wrote my first memoir.

The main repercussions I experienced had to do with Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction. While I was promoting the book, I did many radio interviews and was asked some very inappropriate questions by radio “shock jocks.” Oh, one asked “where’s the kinkiest place you’ve ever had sex”—along those lines. In other words, I wrote a literary book about personal experience, and the interviewers wanted to sensationalize my story. Kind of demoralizing!

But, more importantly, I’ve received hundreds of e-mails from people (mainly women), from all over the country thanking me for my books. They relate to my experiences. Readers, in effect, thank me for telling their stories, too. That’s incredibly gratifying!

TWM: Do you use any type of beta reader or workshop for your own writing? Please talk about that.
SWS: I have one person who is a terrific editor who reads everything I write. I trust his feedback and judgment and pretty much always implement it.

TWM: As a teacher of memoir, what three mistakes do you see aspiring writers making time and time again?
SWS: To be honest, for the most part, it’s just one mistake. Beginning writers tend to mainly focus just on the surface experience: what happened.

Yet, the more important part of writing a memoir is to discover one’s metaphors, to reflect back on the experience, and discover, as I mentioned above, “the story behind the story.” What did the events in the past really mean? Looking back, what do you understand now that you didn’t at the time? And how does the writer, then, form an arc to show that internal growth, so that who the narrator is at the end of the memoir is different from who s/he is at the beginning.

TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring memoirists?
SWS: I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and what I always assure my students is that their story is important. I encourage them to believe in themselves. Believe in their stories.

In other words, if you are writing memoir, and turning your life into art, you are writing a universal story, one which will resonate with others. Additionally, if you don’t tell your story, no one will. It will be lost for all time, which is incredibly sad. So it’s imperative to put aside your doubts and write, write, write!

About Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman’s new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, was a finalist in Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Award. Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on various national radio and television programs such as “The View,” “Anderson Cooper—360,” “CNN-Headline News,” as well as the Discovery Channel.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Three-in-One Notebook: Shanghai Sukkah by Heidi Smith Hyde, Illustrations by Jing Jing Tsong

Shanghai Sukkah (2)Earlier this year, Kar-Ben Publishing released a new picture book, Shanghai Sukkah, written by Heidi Smith Hyde and illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong. The Whole Megillah presents an interview here with author, illustrator, and publisher Joni Sussman.

TWM: What inspired you to write this story and to base it around a holiday?
Heidi Smith Hyde (HSH): Many years ago my neighborhood shul established a monument to commemorate Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat to Lithuania who, at the risk of his own career, issued thousands of visas to Jews to help them escape the horrors of the Holocaust.  Many of these Jews resettled in Shanghai, where they lived meaningful Jewish lives.  In addition to celebrating the holidays, they established schools, newspapers, and theaters.  Despite the difficult living conditions, the refugees somehow managed to preserve their rich traditions.  I chose Sukkot because it reminds us of the temporary shelters that Jews lived in while wandering through the wilderness.  For Marcus, the protagonist of the story, Shanghai also served as a refuge.

TWM: How did you research the topic?
HSH: Before the monument was created, I was unaware of the fact that there was a thriving Jewish community living in Shanghai at the time of the Holocaust.  As part of my research, I watched a moving film called “Shanghai Ghetto” (2002). The film features interviews with former Jewish refugees who lived in Hongkew, the poorest section of Shanghai.  It wasn’t unusual for 6 or 7 families to share a kitchen, and in some apartments there was no kitchen at all, or even indoor-plumbing.  They peacefully co-existed with their Chinese neighbors, who themselves lived in dire poverty.

Heidi Smith Hyde BW (2)TWM: How long did it take you from first draft to submission?
HSH: For me, the most challenging part of the writing process is coming up with the “perfect idea.” The next hurdle is making this idea come alive in a way that makes sense, while ensuring that every word counts.  It took me several months from first draft to submission, but I enjoyed every moment of it.   It’s exciting watching the process unfold in all its mystery.

TWM: Do you have a critique group or beta reader? If so, please describe.
HSH: Kar-Ben always helps steer me in the right direction if my storyline goes astray.  In addition, I know I can count on my husband and our two grown sons, who have an uncanny ability to identify areas of my story that need refinement.

TWM: How did you create your main character? Why a boy?
HSH: Interestingly enough, all of my protagonists thus far have been male.  Could it be because I live in a male dominated household?  Perhaps!  But for this particular story, I wanted to focus on a yeshiva student, so naturally it made sense to create a male character.

TWM: How much of the story ended up on the cutting room floor?
HSH: No matter how strong the manuscript, there is still a considerable amount of work that takes place behind the scenes. For example, Amy, my editor, transformed the protagonist’s first meeting with Liang into a brief scene, so that instead of being told by the narrator that the two boys meet and become friends, readers will see it happen.  In addition, she helped alter the language a bit so that the setting didn’t come across as uniformly bleak. Writing books is truly a partnership between author, editor, publisher and illustrator.

TWM: Based on your previous books for Kar-Ben, you’re drawn to historical topics. Please comment on that.
HSH: My passion is exploring obscure pieces of history while shedding light on the Jewish immigrant experience.  Our ancestors have been everywhere, and have done everything!  I like to convey this to young readers, as well as to their parents.  When writing a manuscript, I try to keep both audiences in mind.  There is always something to be learned!

TWM: Joni, let’s turn to you. What attracted you to the manuscript?
Joni Sussman (JS): I was especially intrigued by a story that, while Holocaust-related, wasn’t actually about the Holocaust but rather about a multi-cultural friendship. Kar-Ben strives to reflect cultural diversity in a Jewish context, and this unique story about friendship between a Jewish boy and a Chinese boy, centered on the holiday of Sukkot, and also taking place in Shanghai during WWII, hit three terrific topics all in one. Heidi included some excellent research on how Sukkot was actually celebrated in the Shanghai Ghetto, which gives the story historic context, and the back matter we assembled makes this not just a beautiful story but also a history lesson.

TWM: What was it about Jing Jing’s illustration style that made it your choice?
JS: I was looking for something unusual and special for the illustrations for this book. I wanted the art to portray Shanghai in an authentic way, and was hoping to find an illustrator with an Asian feel to his/her art, while at the same time having the ability to portray all the important Jewish aspects of the story. Jing’s portfolio featured both. I though her layered color and textured art would be a terrific fit for this story, and her bio, which listed her experience in traditional stone lithography and monoprints, convinced me that she would bring a sense of history and place to the illustrations as well. Jing’s art is so wonderful we ended up featuring one of her sukkah illustrations on our Fall Holiday brochure!

LoJingHeadshot2TWM: Now, Jing Jing, we have a few questions for you. Let’s start with your process. How do you interpret the words for illustration, for example?
Jing Jing Tsong (JJT): I imagine myself as a movie director and think of what colors, lighting, scenery and staging will best capture each page. Then I go through and make sure the scenes flow with the appropriate tension or drama that enhances the story visually.

TWM: How do you conduct your research?
JJT: Kar-Ben provided some images for me to start with. Then I did a lot of research about the Jewish  immigration to Shanghai online. Someone had scanned photos from a LIFE magazine photo essay and posted them online. The images really helped me see how the Jewish community thrived in the middle of Shanghai.

TWM: How do you choose your medium?
JJT: I love the textural qualities of traditional printmaking. I create many textures with block prints and other traditional techniques. I then scan them and collage everything digitally. This gives me flexibility in layering, experimenting with color and rearranging elements.

TWM: Now let’s talk about the illustration itself—do you create “studies” or preliminaries?
JJT: It’s interesting to look back on the stacks of sketches for each page. I explore what angles and perspectives best capture the emotional qualities of the scene. One of the challenges of any book, is developing the main characters for each book. By the end of the book, I felt like I really got to know Marcus and Liang—I hope that will happen for readers, as well.

Shanghai Sukkah spread (2)TWM: How do you develop your color strategy (when the red popped, it literally took my breath away)?
JJT: Traditionally my illustration is bright and colorful‚ but this wasn’t appropriate for the story. I chose a muted palette and used brighter colors to contrast and show the importance of an object or event. For instance, when Liang returns the marble to Marcus in the beginning, it is bright red. This red is then used more generously in the Autumn Festival parade and the lanterns at the story’s end. I think of color as “sound” and “feeling.” In the parade image with the dragon, I hope the bright colors capture the celebratory noise and energy of the event. In the last image of the lanterns lighting the sukkah, the red is celebratory and “loud,” but the soft glow of the lanterns more embracing and warm.

TWM: In illustrating this book, what did you find most gratifying? What did you find most challenging?
JJT: In Shanghai Sukkah there are many scenes with a lot of people. It was challenging to create so many different personalities and imagine the way they would interact. One of the most gratifying parts of illustrating the book was simply learning about the community and their individual stories. it was an honor to be part of this book!


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Author’s Notebook | Steve Sheinkin, Award-winning Children’s Nonfiction

Photo by Erica Miller

Photo by Erica Miller

In July 2015, Publishers Weekly posed the question: Is children’s nonfiction having its moment? The article mentioned Steve Sheinkin, with whom The Whole Megillah has spoken before. It seemed like a good time to talk to him again.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): At what point in your life did you realize you were a writer?
Steve Sheinkin (SS): Back in the days when my younger brother and I shared a bunk bed, we were always coming up with ideas for stories, comics, little comedy skits. We didn’t think of it as “being writers,” but I can see now that that’s what we were doing.

TWM: What inspires you to write for young readers?
SS: Well, for years I worked in the education publishing market, mainly writing history textbooks. Those books really don’t reach young readers at all, and out of sheer frustration I decided to try to do better on my own. Until that time, I hadn’t thought at all about writing nonfiction for kids or teens.

TWM: What draws you to your subjects, like the atom bomb and the Pentagon Papers?
SS: I like dramatic, complex stories—and I like a real plot, with lots of twists and turns. History is full of stories like this, so it’s just a matter of finding one that grabs my attention. And of course, since we’re talking nonfiction, I have to make sure the source material is rich enough to allow me to tell the story the way I want to, as (hopefully) a page-turner.

MostDangerousCover1TWM: How do you conduct your research, and how do you fund it?
SS: I spend more time research than writing, which I guess is typical of nonfiction writers. Much of it is old fashioned reading: books, newspapers, etc. I’ll also often travel to special libraries or archives, and, when possible, I try to go to places in my stories so I can see them for myself. Only in my newest book, Most Dangerous, has it been possible to actually talk to the people in the story. That was a very exciting change from writing stories set farther back in time. In terms of funding, I think of it as part of the job. So I’ll use some of the advance I get for this purpose—if I got bigger advances, I’d travel a lot more!

BombTWM: Do you have experts vetting your manuscripts? If so, what’s your process?
SS: I have turned to experts at times, yes. With my book Bomb, for instance, I sought out a couple of scientists to read over my descriptions of fission and other scientific concepts in the book. With the Port Chicago 50, I shared the manuscript with people who know the story well and listened carefully to their feedback.

TWM: How would you characterize your move from Rabbi Harvey books to these nonfiction books for kids?
SS: I still like to draw comics, so I’d say it’s not so much of a move as a gradual transition to doing more nonfiction and less of the comics. Basically, the nonfiction books have done really well, and that’s turned into a full-time job, which is great. Leaves me less time for side projects, but I still love Rabbi Harvey and hope to revisit him at some point.

TWM: What were your favorite books growing up?
SS: I loved historical novels, like the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy for instance, and outdoor adventures, like My Side of the Mountain. Mostly I read nonfiction, though I didn’t know that term. I read anything to do with train robberies, buried treasure, sea adventures, sharks, and sports.

PortChicago50TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring nonfiction writers?
SS: The process of writing nonfiction is different from writing fiction, of course, but I don’t think any of the advice is different. Just find a story you feel passionate about, and tell it. The thing with nonfiction, of course, is that the sources have to be really good. So before I go too far with an idea, I track down as many sources as I can. I’m looking for characters, bits of action that can be turned into scenes, and even dialogue where possible. If these things don’t exist I abandon the story, even if I love it. So I guess that’s the advice—stack the deck in your favor by picking stories with rich sources.

For more about Steve Sheinkin, please visit his website.

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Author’s Notebook | Linda Elovitz Marshall, The Very Yum Kippur

linda marshallThe Whole Megillah (TWM): What gave you the inspiration for this story?
Linda Elovitz Marshall (LEM): Hi Barbara,thank you for asking that question…and for inviting me to be interviewed. It’s always nice to hear from you and to exchange ideas.

As for the YUM Kippur story, the inspiration came in two parts. The first part came just after Rosh Hashanah when I was visiting two of my grandchildren (one of whom is, not surprisingly, named Talia). I told her—jokingly—that, after Rosh Hashanah, comes a holiday called YUM Kippur. When I explained I was making a joke because you don’t eat during Yom Kippur, Talia giggled. That’s when the inspiration came. Hmmm…I thought, maybe there’s a story in this. But that idea, that tiny germ of inspiration, simmered for a long time. It may have simmered forever but, then, another inspiration came along…

The second inspiration was a week-long vacation in Rome. Perhaps it’s because I’m an anthropologist by training or perhaps it’s because I get lost easily but wherever–and whenever–I travel I like to have (or find) friends in the places I go. So, while I was pondering whether I had any connections to anyone in Rome, I recalled that Francesca Assirrelli, the illustrator of Talia and the Rude Vegetables, lived there. I emailed Francesca and asked if we might meet in person. She said yes, of course, and we made arrangements to have a pranza together upon my arrival in Rome. I wanted to bring her a gift…a something…But what could I bring to the person who made Talia come alive on the page? What could I possibly bring?

At last, I knew the answer.

I would bring Francesca another Talia story and, hopefully, my editor would like it…and it would be acquired.

Talia and the Very Yum KippurSo, little by little, the YUM Kippur joke became Talia and the Very YUM Kippur.
But like a good Italian tomato sauce, it simmered a long time before it was done. It wasn’t until I was on the plane to Rome that I finished writing the first draft of the story.

Thanks to Joni Sussman at KarBen, it’s now a book.

TWM: Your stories usually include food and animals. Is this a coincidence or a strategy?
LEM: I raised my children on a small farm and, along the way, I learned about farming and animals. Also, much of my Judaism is associated with food. So, I guess that makes it a coincidence.

On the other hand…maybe it is strategy….So much of the Jewish calendar is tied to our agricultural origins yet we, as contemporary Jews, are often urban dwellers. I take great solace in nature and in quietude…in the wonder and awe of the natural world…I try to draw on that for my stories, especially for my Jewish stories. I want to give them a special soul…in the hopes that others, too, will feel the inspiration of nature and quietude.

TWM: Do you plan on writing books about other holidays featuring Talia, your main character?
LEM: Most definitely. Another Talia book—a Purim story entitled Talia and the Haman-tushies—will be out in Spring, 2017!

TWM: This book, like Talia and the Rude Vegetables, depends on word play. So: How many drafts do you typically go through to make your word play work and has word play been a pastime of yours?
LEM: Some word plays are more challenging than others. Sometimes I go through a zillion drafts. That’s okay. For me, it’s not work. It’s play.

TWM: Do you create a dummy when you write picture books?
LEM: More or less. I always paginate and try to figure out what the action is on each page and whether there’s enough for the illustrator to work with. Although I don’t actually draw things to make dummies, I do try to think pictorially.

TWM: Tell us about your writer’s journey.
LEM: Such a long journey….I wanted to be a writer when I was in fifth grade but then I got side-tracked by all sorts of other things that I wanted to be, too….So, I’ve been a poet, a writer, an anthropologist, toy inventor, teacher, sheep-farmer, chicken-raiser, mother, grandmother, explorer…I keep re-inventing myself…and learning more along the way. I think I have a short attention span, but I also think having a short attention span is a totally under-appreciated attribute!

TWM: What’s next for you?
LEM: Whew! There’s a lot on my plate. I’m finishing up a middle grade novel. I’m also developing a character that, I hope, will find her way to become a chapter book series. Also, after hearing from the fabulously brilliant librarian Betsy Bird that books for emergent readers are the most difficult to write as well as the most needed, I’ve challenged myself to write some. Not sure I’ll succeed, but I’ll have fun trying!

Also in the “what’s next” department, in addition to Talia’s upcoming Purim book, I have another three picture books forthcoming: You’re In Kindergarten (Scholastic, 2016), Sh-Sh-Shabbat (KarBen, 2016), and Ixchel Weaves a Rainbow (Lee & Low, 2016).

Well, that’s about it…
Thank you, again, Barbara, for inviting me to participate.

Please visit Linda at her website or Facebook page.

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Author’s Notebook | Meg Wiviott, Paper Hearts

meg wiviottThe Whole Megillah talks to Meg Wiviott, author of the new lyrical Holocaust novel, Paper Hearts, due out September 1, 2015 by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book and to write it in verse?
Meg Wiviott (MW): When I first heard about the Heart, I was immediately drawn to Fania and Zlatka’s story. The more I learned about it (see research question below) the more I knew this amazing story of friendship had to be told.

I first wrote this story as a non-fiction middle grade, but then decided it needed to be written for older readers.  I put it away for about a year or so. While the story was stuffed in a drawer I started reading a lot of verse novels, thinking this would be a good way to tell the story. When I returned to the story I tried straight narrative, but it was too difficult (emotionally) and I got bogged down in a bunch of stuff that didn’t matter. I began writing in verse. Of course, this created a whole different set of problems in that I am not a poet. I had never even particularly liked poetry. It confuses me. So I had to give myself a crash course on poetry and I began reading: I started on page one of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Modern poets—Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop—quickly became my inspiration and I would go back to them when I needed to re-immerse myself in the sound.

paper heartsTWM: How did you conduct your research?
MW: The first I knew of the Heart was the documentary “The Heart of Auschwitz” (Ad Hoc Films 2010). I read online about their search for the girls who signed the Heart and the release of their film. I then looked at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre’s website and read everything they had posted about the Heart and Fania and Zlatka. They also have a film clip of Zlatka talking about the Heart. My next step was to travel to Montreal to visit the museum and to talk with one of the film makers. After watching the film, I was hooked. I then began reading. There’s an extensive bibliography included in the book, but I read as much as I could about Auschwitz, the Union factory and the deals the Nazis made with private industry to use the prisoners as slave laborers, the death marches, and survivor stories—from the Union Kommando, the orchestra, and the Sonderkommando. Both Fania and Zlatka made Shoah testimonies. Zlatka’s was done in Spanish so a friend and I went to Rutgers University and she listened to the tape, translated, and I took copious notes. Fania’s testimony was done in Yiddish, so I had to hire someone translate and transcribe her testimony for me. In both cases, hearing their voices—in the testimonies and in the film—made them real. I could then begin to hear their voices in my head.

TWM: How long did it take you to write?
MW: I wrote the first draft through the fall of 2012 and winter 2013. I sent it out to my beta readers in the spring, did revisions, and had a presentable version to take the NJSCBWI Conference in June 2013, where I met my agent, Janine Le.

TWM: Please describe any challenges in selling a book in verse.
MW: I didn’t face any challenges in selling a book in verse. Especially this book. The verse suits the story.

TWM: How do you think your MFA helped you write this book, if it did.
MW: I could not have written this book without having earned my MFA! At VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts) I learned about metaphor, symbols, objective correlative, elision, white space, trust, bravery, self-confidence, friendship, and community.

TWM: Did you receive any resistance to writing a Holocaust-related book?
MW: I received more resistance to Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. The only resistance I encountered to Paper Hearts was from a Jewish agent who would not read the manuscript because she didn’t represent Holocaust books.

However, the reviews are not all in, and I am sure, as with Benno, there will be Holocaust deniers, and even some Jews, who will say there are already too many Holocaust stories in the world. I whole-heartedly disagree! Every survivor story is unique. Every survivor story deserves to be told. And a writer can only hope that her story will touch a young reader in such a way that perhaps some day that reader, when he or she encounters injustice in the world, will stand up and say, “No, this is wrong.”

TWM: What was your thought process in composing these poems? Some have distinctive forms, like the left-right formatting for Selection, and the column format for train-related poems.
MW: Starting out, I thought of the poems as vignettes, stepping stones that got these young women through a horrible time in their lives. We all know the adage, Show don’t tell. The concrete poems—the three Train poems, Triangles, and Yellow Triangles—form the shapes of the images being evoked:  train tracks, triangles, and a Star of David. Additionally, the train poems have two syllables in each “track” so there is a rhythmic feeling, like a train ride, when reading them. I confess that the ideas for the train poems came from two of my beta readers; one who suggested the rhythm and the other who suggested the concrete format.

The Left/Right format is used when there is a death/life moment. In most of the stories I read, survivors recalled the Right as life—the right to live, was how many expressed it. So by using right justification margins, the poems illustrate life. That’s the beauty of a novel verse.

TWM: What advice do you have for others considering novels in verse? What advice for those considering Holocaust novels?
MW: My advice for anyone considering a novel in verse is to read poetry! Lots of poetry! But, that said, there is a lot of discussion about novels in verse right now. Are they poems or novels?  Are they a new genre or just a fad? What is the point of a novel in verse? Are novels in verse just narrative novels with creative margins? Personally, I think some marketer needs to come up with a new term to use instead of “novel in verse.” I am not a poet. However, I write poetically. I borrowed heavily from the world of poetry and from the world of narrative fiction. I like to think of Paper Hearts as a novel with white space.
My advice for anyone considering a Holocaust novel is be honest—to your characters and to history.

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