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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Book Review: The Wren and the Sparrow by J. Patrick Lewis, ill. by Yevgenia Nayberg

wren and sparrowThe Wren and the Sparrow

Written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

32 pages, Kar-Ben, 2015

In this self-professed fable, an old man called the Wren plays his hurdy-gurdy for the last time, and with the help of his student, Sparrow, inspires a small Polish town during the dark times.

The good stuff

  • Simple, yet powerful, lyrical writing
    • “In a dark time, the Old Man lived in shadows”
    • “The day sealed itself into the lockbox of memory”
  • Illustration that shows the reader the time frame is the Holocaust while the text does not mention war or Hitler
    • Barbed wire and crows
    • Nazis shown in over-proportionate size to villagers
  • Memorable imagery
    • A six-year-old’s ten finger cymbals tinkled
    • The loss of music

The not-so-good stuff

  • Not so much a fable as an allegory

Overall rating: 5.0 on 5.0 scale

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Author’s Notebook | Tracy Newman, Uncle Eli’s Wedding

tracy newmanThe Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book?
Tracy Newman (TN): I was inspired to write Uncle Eli’s Wedding after hearing a wonderful presentation by Chris Barash, the Chair of the PJ Library‘s Book Selection Committee, at the Jewish Book Council’s Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in 2011. Not only was Chris’s enthusiasm for discovering new Jewish children’s stories infectious, but she also provided some topics that the PJ Library thought would appeal to their participating families. Hearing that PJ was interested in receiving a wedding story was enough to get me thinking about how a child may feel during the wedding of a beloved family member.

TWM: Bubbe Tillie and Bubbe Millie add vibrance and fun to the action and certainly the rhythm of the text. Can you talk about that?
TN: Thanks very much! The characters and comments by Bubbe Tillie and Bubbe Millie were definitely fun for me to write. To create their dialogue, I tapped into my love for language and my desire to incorporate rhythm and rhyme into my stories. In addition, I consider the marriage (so to speak) of Yiddish into a Jewish-themed story to be natural.

uncle eli weddingTWM: Did you have role models for the two grandmothers? (I have to admit—they were my favorite characters!)
TN: Absolutely! And I’m so glad that you enjoyed the bubbes. To create these characters, I channeled the voice of my own beloved grandmother and cloned her into two adoring bubbes. My Nanny Rose was the quintessential Jewish grandmother, whose first language was Yiddish and which always remained a vital part of her daily vocabulary. I was fortunate that my grandmother informally schooled her grandchildren in her native tongue, while also sharing an abundance of love and home-cooking with us.

TWM: How many drafts did you have to go through to get to the final product?
TN: Many. Without counting, I would say that this story easily went through at least 15 drafts.

TWM: How did you find your agent?
TN: In 2013, I attended the Women Who Write conference and was fortunate to have a manuscript critiqued by Laura Biagi. Laura and I hit it off and I was very happy to sign with her a few months later.

TWM: Do you see yourself primarily as a picture book writer?
TN: For the moment, I do. I am thrilled to have a mixture of six board books and picture books in various stages of publication, so I hope that I can consider myself to be a picture book writer.

TWM: Do you work on one project at a time or multiple projects?
TN: Given the nature of having various projects in different stages of review (by my agent or an editor or with my critique group) at any given moment, I definitely work on several at a time.

shabbat is comingTWM: Are you promoting the book through the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Author’s Network?
TN: I was delighted to work with the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Author’s Network for my book, Shabbat Is Coming. By participating in this program, I was able to meet varied Jewish communities across the country and engage with many vibrant Jewish audiences. Since I’ve only just finished these trips, I will wait a bit before continuing with this wonderful program.

TWM: What’s next for you?
TN: I am excited to share that my next book scheduled for publication is Hanukkah Is Coming, which will be released in the fall of 2015. After that, I have several more on the way, so please be sure to check my website.


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Author’s Notebook | Tami Lehman-Wilzig, “Shabbat around the World”

promotion-introRecently on LinkedIn, I spotted an update from Tami Lehman-Wilzig about a new digital and lesson plan project entitled, “Shabbat around the World.” I was intrigued, so I requested an interview. Here are the results.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What motivated you to come up with this project?
Tami Lehman-Wilzig (TLW): Several factors were involved. First of all, over the past eight years I’ve developed an expertise in Jewish holiday customs.  It all began when my publisher—Kar-Ben—and former editor Judye Groner approached me about doing a book on Passover customs from countries across the globe. Living in Israel, I realized that I was residing in the best possible research lab. I contacted people I knew from different Edot—that’s Hebrew for “tribes,” which is on the mark because we are a very tribal people. It was one of the most unbelievable “journeys” I’ve ever taken. The end result was my book Passover Around the World, which went over so well that Kar-Ben asked me to do Hanukkah Around the WorldJoni Sussman also suggested that I do a blog on Passover customs. At first I laughed at the idea. Then I realized she was on to something and took the idea several steps forward by creating a blog on all Jewish holiday customs from around the world, which I have been writing for the past seven years. Along the way I’ve come across unusual Shabbat customs and have a separate Shabbat dedicated file.

So that’s one. Second—after my husband, children, grandchildren and Israel—Shabbat is next in line in terms of what I love most. I am crazy about this day. My late father proved its beauty to me when I was in 7th grade and came home one Friday with a failed math test. He convinced me to put it away for 25 hours, enjoy the togetherness of the Shabbat family meal, get together with friends the next day, read a good book and just relax. When Shabbat was over I was able to look at the test with fresh eyes and understand where I went wrong.  Ever since then, Shabbat has been and continues to be an unbelievable WOW for me.

Which brings me to point three. I have been flying to the States for the past ten years, doing author appearances at Jewish Day Schools and synagogue Hebrew/Religious Schools across the U.S. I’ve come to the conclusion that while some kids get it, many do not value how precious Shabbat is and through it, the  unbelievable gift the Jewish people has given to the world at large by creating the concept of a Day of Rest.  To a very great degree, Shabbat is our natural resource and I wanted to find a way to present this 25-hour window of disconnect in a fun and interesting manner.

TWM: How are you conducting your research for it?
TLW: This has actually been a six-year research project spanning an investigation of texts, going through books dealing with Jewish customs—such as A Mosaic of Israel’s Traditions by Esther Shkalim, books by Daniel Sperber—a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University and an expert on Jewish customs, The Jewish People’s Almanac, and more—as well as extensive interviews, many of which were spontaneous, man-on-the-street types, and others that were planned ahead of time. Finally, like all good Israelis, my husband and I travel abroad extensively and wherever we go, we make it our business to find the Jewish community, the main synagogue and talk to the people. I have copious notes.

TWM: Is it available now? How?
TLW: Yes, but only to schools (institutional subscription) and only through my website. At a future date, I might sell only the stories to the public at large. At this point, it’s a digital project that is much more than plain stories. I have hired a wonderful illustrator whose research absolutely floors me. She makes sure that every fully colored, illustrated story has an authentic look and atmosphere so that students can immediately absorb the specific country’s culture. Even more important, I have hired a professional American Jewish educator, who is a teacher, teacher’s coach and lesson plan developer, to create 4 unique, interdisciplinary lesson plans for each story. Together, we discuss ideas and she turns them into out-of-the box lessons on Shabbat, providing all necessary tools.

TWM: Do you plan to look at other holidays?
TLW: Good question. This is a new project that has never been done before by anyone. Like all new products, it will need time to get a firm footing. Once I feel the pieces are in place, then yes, I will definitely look into doing a similar project for other holidays—perhaps as a cluster instead of focusing specifically on one.

TWM: How can people find the project and more information about it?
TLW: I hope everyone clicks to it, starting with this page:
and ending with the order form for a monthly subscription. Thanks so much Barbara for letting me visit your readers.

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Children’s Literary Salon | Continuing the Conversation about Jewish Children’s Books

On April 12, I participated in a panel discussion about Jewish children’s books, hosted by Betsy Bird of the New York Public Library. The discussion was the latest in the library’s series of literary salons. Joining me on the stage were Joanna Sussman of Kar-Ben and Marjorie Ingall of Tablet magazine. I was representing the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

6144566982_2a3a46a96c_m (2)I thought it might be fruitful to continue the conversation we started on the gorgeous Sunday afternoon on The Whole Megillah. I’ll post a couple of the questions Betsy posed to us, as best as I can remember them.

1. What makes a children’s (or YA) book Jewish?

2. At what age should children be introduced to the Holocaust?

Chime in by using the comment box.

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Reserve Your Seat! New Online Classes from The Whole Megillah

At The Whole Megillah,  we know you’re busy. That’s why we’re offering four online classes that proceed around the pace of your life, no matter where you are in the writing process. Reserve your seat now in one (or more!) of the following:

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

The fiction classes start May 10, so now’s the time to register. Just contact Barbara at the email address below.

FictionOnline Fiction Class I

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

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

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

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

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

Start date: May 10, 2015

Reviews from January 2015 participants

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

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

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

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

Online Fiction Class II

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

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

Cost: $300

Start date: May 10, 2015

Your StoryMemoir Class I

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

  • Imagery
  • Theme
  • Plot
  • Selectivity
  • Voice

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

Cost: $250

Start Date: May 24, 2015

Memoir Class II

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

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

We’ll also read excerpts from published memoirs.

Cost: $275

Start Date: May 24, 2015

About the instructor

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

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

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