Author’s Notebook | Martin and Anne by Nancy Churnin

Martin and Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, Creston Books, 2019, $17.99.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank together?
Nancy Churnin (NC): Sometimes I feel as if I’m being guided to where I need to go. I was looking up people born in 1929 because I was suddenly seized with curiosity about that year, which is, also, the year of the Great Depression. I was surprised at first to see both Dr. King and Anne Frank born in that year. Then I started thinking about these two great spirits. I began to think how amazing it was that two people so different on the outside could be so similar on the inside. Faced with hate, they responded with love and left us with words that inspire us today. Their common message was about our common humanity. It seemed fitting for them to be in a book together. Even though they didn’t get to meet in real life, they could enjoy being side by side in this book as the kindred spirits that they are.

TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
NC: The greatest challenge was finding balance: balance between Martin and Anne as I moved back and forth with their parallel stories. There is so much to say about each of them. I had to carefully distill the essence of their stories to the parts that were parallel. I also had to balance between tragedy and hope. I knew I shouldn’t soften the terrible things that happened, but I also didn’t want to burden kids with more sadness than they can process. I am very grateful to the book’s wonderful illustrator, Yevgenia Nayberg, who found ways to capture a somber mood. One of her many brilliant spreads is the one where the Nazis storm Anne’s hiding place. She hits the emotions hard with brown storm clouds, scattered pages and a house askew, without terrifying children by showing them faces that might haunt them.

Nancy Churnin

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
NC: I read it for the first time to classes who requested it as part of World Read Aloud Day. While I’ve always been happy at the response to my books, I have never before experienced such stillness as I read. I offer a free teacher guide and create a project for each book, with a page set aside on my website for kids to share their participation. Teachers and students, too, seem taken with the project for Martin & Anne. It’s called Kindred Spirits. I’m asking kids, classrooms and schools to partner with kids, classrooms and schools in another part of their neighborhood, city, state or even in another country and have the kids explore their differences and celebrate the ways in which they’re the same.

TWM: Who inspires you?
NC: I am inspired by Dr. King and Anne Frank. They say children learn what they live. But no matter how ugly the world around them became, no matter what terrible things were said and done to Dr. King and Anne Frank, and those they loved, they responded with faith that people were good at heart, with a belief so strong and so true that we cannot help but heed their words and believe in our own power to love, heal and, to paraphrase Dr. King, help the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice. I am inspired by all the people I write about because I only choose to write about people who inspire me that I think will inspire children. I am also inspired by my parents, my late father, Douglas Churnin, and my mother, Flora Churnin, a retired teacher, who, along with my sister, Dr. Sharon Churnin, reads every draft of every revision of every manuscript I write. My parents raised me in a world of books and love. They instilled in me the belief that we are here for a reason and that reason is to make the world a better place. My siblings and I have each done what we can, in our own ways, to repair the world. I am inspired, too, by my kind husband and my sweet sons who are growing up to be young men that I believe will be doing what they can to make the world a better place, too.

TWM: Your book’s dedication mentions Bialystok. Can you say more about that?
NC: Both my maternal grandparents grew up in Bialystok, Poland. My grandmother’s family had the money to leave before the Nazi invasion. My grandfather’s parents were poor. While my grandfather, one of his brothers and his sister escaped, by grandfather and his sister settling in America, my uncle in Israel, his parents, twin brothers, their wives and children stayed behind. They were there when the Nazis marched through their village, rounded all the Jewish people in the synagogue and burned it to the ground on June 27, 1941. My late Uncle Reuven who went to Israel learned the details from one man who escaped when my great grandmother encouraged him to climb on her back to reach the vent in the ceiling. My mother has been haunted all her life by this. She named my brother for the murdered twin brothers. Later, my brother had twin boys and named them for our great-uncles. We all have different ways to remember. The important thing is to remember because memory is stronger than death. I want to give respect and honor to all whose lives were cut short (and I am thinking of everyone everywhere from Holocaust victims in Europe to those murdered and lynched in the United States). Evoking their memory brings gives them a place to live and breathe in our consciousness. The dedication is written with faith that love lives on.

TWM: What do you want kids to take away from this book?
NC: I want kids to see that hate and prejudice is wrong no matter who it is directed against. We shouldn’t discriminate because of skin color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identification, country of origin, legal status in a country or any other reason. Sadly, discrimination can happen at any time and in any place as evidenced in this story that goes back and forth from Europe to America in the early 20th century. Persecution often becomes acute in times of economic insecurity such as the Great Depression when people try to assuage fears by attacking the vulnerable in their community. But a mix of ignorance and failure to empathize with others can cause it to happen anytime and anywhere. I hope kids will feel protective of Martin and Anne and try to protect others as we should have protected them with the hope that more people can reach their 90th birthdays as Martin and Anne did not. I hope kids who feel the sting of discrimination will know their value as Martin and Anne did and have hearts big enough to respond with love instead of hate, so we can break the cycle of intolerance and work together to heal the world.

TWM: What are your promotional plans?
NC: I am very grateful to you, Barbara, for featuring Martin & Anne in The Whole Megillah. It was such a joy to share Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing with you here last year! I will have a launch party for Martin & Anne at Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas where even if you are ordering out of town, you can request autographed copies and I will sign and personalize them before they’re shipped out. I will be signing Martin & Anne in the Authors Area of the Texas Library Association at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, TX April 16 and 17. I will be participating in a TLA panel on Empowering Students with Empathy and Social Responsibility Using Kidlit on April 18. I will present Martin & Anne at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN May 18. And I’m looking forward to signing Martin & Anne at the Association of Jewish Libraries conference in San Fernando Valley, CA., where we will also celebrate my book Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing winning a 2019 Sydney Taylor Notable Award as well as a 2019 Social Studies Notable for Trade Books for Young People. I’ll sign at the American Library Association convention in Washington D.C. also in June. I’ve been talking with the Anne Frank Center about sharing the book as part of their wonderful tour of Letters from Anne & Martin—the timing of their show and my book is incredible. And I hope to be popping up in as many blogs and school presentations as I can!

TWM: What’s next for you?
NC: My seventh picture book biography, Beautiful Shades of Brown, the story of early 20th-Century African American painter Laura Wheeler Waring and her determination to see her portraits of great African Americans hang on museum walls, is being illustrated with a planned release date of 2020. I am finishing up edits on my eighth picture book biography, which is about Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful” to try to bring a divided country together. That book, For Spacious Skies, is scheduled for 2020. And I’m busy working on other manuscripts in various states of development. I left my job at The Dallas Morning News in January and am devoting myself full-time to children’s book writing and presentations. This is the year I’m trying to be brave like the people I write about!

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Author’s Notebook | Creation Colors by Ann D. Koffsky

Creation Colors by Ann D. Koffsky, 24 pp., $17.95, Apples & Honey Press, April 2019

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What was your inspiration for this story?
Ann Koffsky (AK): A huge, blank wall. Really! My synagogue has a large blank wall just in front of where I typically sit, and as I stared at it each Shabbat, I tired to imagine what might look nice there. That blank wall really got me going, and I went forward and created the seven days of creation as a series of paintings, and then offered to them my synagogue—but my timing was pretty off. They were just beginning a large renovation, and art was not something they could consider—they were going to be knocking down the walls that the art might go on! So instead, I offered it to the day school where my kids attended: The Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. The timing for them was perfect, and they were installed in their synagogue space.

I think it’s the best home for the series; I’m so pleased that kids get to see those 7 initial pieces each day. (And, I’m glad they get to fill a blank wall—even if it’s not the blank wall I had been staring at!) After I had created those seven pieces, I realized that they could naturally work as a part of a larger series telling the story of creation, and I worked on the text and created additional pieces that ultimately became Creation Colors.

TWM: Do you have a critique group?
AK: I have a group of friends that I show my work to and ask for feedback. Some back from my college days, some friends from my neighborhood. Their feedback is invaluable. And of course, my editor for this project, Dena Neusner, was a constructive critic as well.

Ann D. Koffsky

TWM: Is the art form something you’ve done before? Can you say more about the process and the decision to use this form? 
AK: For a long time, I have described my illustration work as having two styles: The first style is created with acrylic, textured paint and uses vivid colors. This is the style that I used most often for my picture books. For my second, I create paper cuts. This is the style I turn to when creating a Ketubah, Bar/Bat Mitzah gifts, as well as for greeting cards.

In this book, I smashed those two techniques together, and combined my painting with the cut paper. So, for example, in the “Blue page” I painted a canvas blue with large painterly textures and splatters. I then separately created an intricate, tight paper-cut of the waves. Finally, I laid those paper cuts on top of the textures, to create a juxtaposition of crisp lines against a free, painterly strokes. I’m really pleased with the outcome! I feel like I figured out a way to unify what was a split artistic vision.

Original seven panels at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, NY

TWM: What was the greatest challenge in writing and illustrating this book?
AK: As an illustrator, I typically work on a project once I know it will be published. A publisher has approved a project for publication, they have given me a contract, and then I start painting. This project was different: I created the work, not knowing if anyone would display it, or if it would ever become a book. There was a high probability that I was going to complete the work, and it would end up in my basement. I found that very challenging.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
AK: It was very gratifying when the work did, in fact find not one, but two homes: both as this book and in the school. While working on the pieces, I also had a nice moment when I was figuring out the technique on that first piece. When I figured out the right glue, the right proportions, and got the paper onto to the painted canvas…that was a cool moment. I was like: hey—this is new—and it WORKS!

TWM: Who inspires you?
AK: Lots of folks! For this project in particular, the mosaics of the artist Antoni Gaudi were very influential. His vivid color, treatment of animals, and tile work inspired the shapes that I used to create the paper cuts. I am also very inspired by stained glasswork by Tiffany, the color of Georgia O’Keefe, the decorative qualities of Faberge…I could go on and on. For writing, I am very influenced by every amazing picture book that I read to my kids when they were young, and that list is quite long, too! Works by Eric Kimmel, David Adler, Leslie Kimmelman, Shel Silverstein, Crockett Johnson, David Wiesner, Mo Willems, etc, etc, etc!

TWM: Am I right in thinking that this text is the most lyrical you’ve done? What’s led to that?
AK: I think what led to that is this book was the first book that I’ve created “backwards”; it started with the art, and led to a text. And because of that, the art suggested a more lyrical, poetic approach than, say, my book Kayla and Kugel—which is a simple story of a girl and her dog.

For more about Ann D. Koffsky, see her website.

For more about Apples & Honey Press, click here.

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2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour | Final Stop

You’ve now come to the final stop along the 2019 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 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog posts.

The wrap-up and virtual roundtable

Imagine, if you will, available award winners seated at a dais table with mics, poised to answer questions from the press. We have nine participants:

Sydney Taylor Gold Medalists

  • For Younger Readers—Author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Paul Zelinsky for All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah
  • For Older Readers—Author/illustrator Jonathan Auxier for Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
  • For Teen Readers—Author/illustrator Vesper Stamper for What the Night Sings

Sydney Taylor Silver Medalists

The seating’s a little crowded, but we’ve saved room just for you. The energy’s high, although we know this will be a somewhat long discussion—there’s so much to talk about!

We begin…

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?

Emily Jenkins

Emily Jenkins: Besides Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family stories?  For middle-grade, I love my colleague Sarah Mlynowski’s Whatever After series, which features two Jewish kids who fall into fairy tales, mess them up, and have to make new happy endings.  The books are not centered on Jewish issues, but simply show Jewish characters having hysterically funny magical adventures — though the characters do celebrate Purim in Two Peas and a Pod (the Princess and the Pea story).  For picture books, my favorite is a classic: Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. It’s simply wonderful— joyful and clever, culturally specific and universal.

Jonathan Auxier

Jonathan Auxier: Sweep is about a golem made from chimney soot, and I always try to encourage readers to seek out both I.B. Singer and David Wisniewski’s books—two wonderful tellings of the more traditional Golem story. Looking at something more current, I would urge every reader in the world to read Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island, which is one of my very favorite contemporary children’s books. Laurel’s story is not explicitly Jewish, but the world and themes relate very closely to her Jewish identity. The book is just amazing.

 

 

 

Vesper Stamper: I recommend a new contemporary YA anthology coming out this fall from my publisher, Knopf, called It’s a Whole Spiel, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman, and featuring authors like David Levithan, Lance Rubin, Rachel Solomon, and more. This anthology has a bunch of diverse perspectives and subjects—I love it! And I would absolutely be remiss if I didn’t recommend one of the books that is closest to my heart: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. That book, to me, perfectly captures what it means to be a young artist in the world, figuring out your relationship to the urgency of art and the responsibility to our communities. Being an artist doesn’t mean “burning it all down” but rather being a mirror and a window to the people around you.

Jane Breskin Zalben: The same reply I would give to any book. Write true to your heart; edit with your mind; and rewrite until you get the best book you can. It can always be improved upon. Simply at some point it feels completed and the author has to move on. And, I feel a book is a book, and hopefully speaks to the reader on all levels. Would someone say Sendak did “kids lit?” Or Gorey? Or Steig. There are many ‘adult’ writers and artists who should be this brilliant. Don’t set out to write a Jewish book unless you choose to. Write great literature with a story that works. That is the key.

Erica Perl

Erica Perl: Some of my recent favorites are right there on the Sydney Taylor list: I loved Sweep and I am currently reading—and really enjoying—The Length of a String. I often rely on Marjorie Ingall’s lists and articles in Tablet as well as the links in the Jewish Book Carnival (often hosted by your wonderful blog)!

 

 

 

 

 

Rachel Lynn Solomon: I’d love to talk about a few YA novels coming out soon! You Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman (March 5, Sourcebooks) explores academic pressure with an overachieving protagonist who is both Jewish and bisexual. The Truth about Leaving by Natalie Blitt (March 5, Amberjack) is a stunning contemporary romance between an American Jewish girl and an Israeli transfer student. And What I Like about You by Marisa Kanter (spring 2020, Simon & Schuster) is a romantic comedy about anonymous online identities and book blogging—and it’s also the closest I’ve come to seeing my own Jewish upbringing represented on the page. I didn’t realize how powerful that could be until I was lucky enough to read an early version of Kanter’s book. I’m a huge fan of contemporary books with Jewish characters that naturally fold Judaism into their lives, and all three of these books do this beautifully!

TWM: What trends do you see coming our way?

Auxier: I don’t keep up the way I should—mainly because I’m usually reading older books for research. That being said, there’s very clearly an explosion happening in middle grade right now. Picture book people and YA people are all writing middle grade novels—which I find thrilling because those are my favorite stories to read!

Jane Breskin Zalben

Breskin Zalben: I don’t believe in trends. Although I know they must exist. Again, if you have to create something because it speaks to you at the time and that is what you need to say. And often, it is the artist who is ahead of her/his time. In A Moon for Moe and Mo, I had been invited to international schools since the 90’s and got to see a bigger world with its differences, problems, and joys. That is what planted a seed. But that was earlier on than anything I could have predicted about how the world would change and grow into larger problems.

Perl: I hope this is not a trend but an actual change in the landscape: I am enjoying seeing how many new Jewish books are showcasing the incredible diversity within the Jewish experience. For example, Pam Ehrenberg’s picture book Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Chang’s novel, This is Not a Test (2018 Honor Book), and Elissa Brendt Weissman’s aforementioned novel The Length of a String (2019 Honor Book).

Elissa Brent Weissman

Elissa Brent Weissman: I see lots of books that incorporate Jewish characters of diverse backgrounds (like Imani in The Length of a String). It’s great, because there are so many kinds of Jewish families nowadays, and literature should reflect the diversity of the Jewish community and the community at large. There also seem to be more and more books with Jewish characters whose religion isn’t central to the story but is there in the

background. I hope this is a trend that continues to build.

 

 

 

TWM: What are your next steps in your literary career?

Auxier: I’m in the middle of working on a chapter book series that is tangentially related to the world of my first book, Peter Nimble. It’s been a great chance to try writing something that my own young children can read as I draft it. So far, they’re fans!

Vesper Stamper

Stamper: I’m working on another illustrated YA coming out next year about the Great Plague in 1348 England. It explores how an ordinary girl who doesn’t fit anywhere finds herself doing something extraordinary—something only she can do—in another kind of impossible situation. I’m also illustrating a picture book biography of Jane Austen. I do hope, though, to return to the postwar experience in the future. It’s a bottomless subject.

 

 

 

Breskin Zalben: To combine the abstract art paintings with my illustrations and get to another process that publishers have not seen from me but I have known has existed since before I began in this field. Since my mother died four years ago I have been painting and showing in galleries. Right now, I am working on several projects toward the goal of marrying my many sides into one. As you move on in a career, you get more of a hold on it—what it is you want to do and not do—time is precious. how do you want to spend it and on what.

Merdokht Amini: I am working on a project with Lerner Publishing, which is called Dictionary for a Better World, and is a collection of poems by Charles Waters and Irene Latham. Organized as a dictionary of sorts, each poem is written about a word that relates to creating a better world–and the poem is paired on the spread with a nonfiction element explaining type of poem, a quote about the word the poem, a note from the author, and also a question/writing prompt for the reader to take action in some way. It is geared towards a middle grade readership, which makes it a very exciting project for me as I have so far worked primarily on picture books for very young readers. I have also just signed a contract with The Chronicle, publishing on a third book of a series of picture books focusing on introducing Islamic symbols in basic concepts like colors, shapes, numbers with the working title of Two Hands and Twelve Stars.

Barb Rosenstock

Barb Rosenstock: I have two new books coming out in 2019. The first is Yogi: the life, loves and language of baseball legend Yogi Berra and Prairie Boy about the early years of Frank Lloyd Wright (both from Calkins Creek.) Next year there’s two books on accomplished women, Fight of the Century about Alice Paul and the suffrage movement and Leave It to Abigail about the astonishing life of Abigail Adams.  More to come after that too…and I have an idea about an Israeli palm seed…

Perl: I am currently co-writing a novel with Alan Silberberg that is set in a modern-day Chelm. And I have several early readers and early chapter books coming out this year: the Arnold and Louise series, illustrated by Chris Chatterton, the Truth or Lie nonfiction series, illustrated by Michael Slack, and the Craftily Ever After series (which I write under the name Martha Maker), illustrated by Xindi Yan.

Rachel Lynn Solomon

Solomon: My second book, Our Year of Maybe, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted with my publisher, Simon Pulse. My summer 2020 book is a romantic comedy that follows two rivals who realize they may actually be falling for each other over 24 hours on the last day of senior year. It’s the most fun I’ve had working on a book, and while it’s significantly more upbeat than my previous two books, it also features characters who confront modern-day antisemitism in a way I’ve been afraid to explore in the past. It’s been tough to write, but I’m hopeful it will resonate with readers.

 

 

TWM: What insights did you get into Jewish life as you wrote your book?

Jenkins: I got to research the history of New York’s Lower East Side for All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah.  In the early 20th century, there were 500 synagogues in that one small neighborhood.  I learned about the butcher boycott, which was led by the housewives of the Lower East Side to protest unfair kosher meat pricing, and about the many different populations from many different parts of the world who learned to coexist there. I went on tours of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and got a sense of the ways people lived and worshipped at the time of my story.

Auxier: Sweep is set in the 19th century, and when I set out to write this book, I thought I was going to be looking at ancient history. But the more I learned about the past, the more I saw a clear reflection of the present: sexism, intolerance, economic inequality, child labor, and antisemitism are all still very much in the world. It can be overwhelming to find hope in the face of so much darkness. One of the things that reading, writing, and discussing Jewish identity over the course of this book taught me was a new sense of what it means to fight for Justice—it’s not about a lone hero, but about a community working together to heal the world: Tikkun Olam. In the end of the story, that’s what the main character discovers, and it’s what I discovered, too.

Stamper: The answer to that is complex. Growing up Reform, I found that there was a lot of suspicion of the Orthodox and especially Hasidic community. It meant that I had not really intersected with the Orthodox community until working on this book. I was embarrassed about that. Thankfully I’ve made several good friends—rabbis, musicians, artists, families—who have welcomed me with open arms despite my steep learning curve.

Breskin Zalben: Well, in visiting countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, Eastern Europe, Israel, Turkey, Spain and speaking to children and adults in schools, I found more insights from Jewish life that disappeared than in America where it has flourished. And in those places, it is fascinating to see civilizations coming together in layers from different time periods. Those are the things that started my journey. And seeing besides synagogues, visiting a lot of mosques. I am drawn to that kind of architecture and detail in the rugs, jewelry, textiles—it is very lush.

Amini: Before this book I had no idea about the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and, since I live in London, I had never visited Flatbush Avenue! It was a real challenge for me because the story happens in real locations and so I had to make it right. To do that I spend lots of time virtually walking up and down on Google map through Flatbush Avenue to get a sense of the place. I didn’t want to have realistic images of the locations like Mr. Sahadi’s grocery shop or the other places but it was essential to convey the feeling of the places in the illustrations.

I also didn’t want to have the characters dressed up in traditional clothing because it would have looked out of place. As it happens in real life we might meet many people who come from different background and religions whose clothes or house decorations or even their facial features has nothing to do with their background. So I could portray the families and their setting without delving too much into their religious background.

Rosenstock: I have two new books coming out in 2019. The first is Yogi: the life, loves and language of baseball legend Yogi Berra and Prairie Boy about the early years of Frank Lloyd Wright (both from Calkins Creek.) Next year there’s two books on accomplished women, Fight of the Century about Alice Paul and the suffrage movement and Leave It to Abigail about the astonishing life of Abigail Adams.  More to come after that too…and I have an idea about an Israeli palm seed…

Perl: To be a Jew is to question, to worry, to care deeply, and to find humor even in times of darkness.

Brent Weissman: As part of my research for the historical part of my story, I spoke with my grandparents about growing up in New York City in the 1940s. I found it fascinating to hear how different Jewish life was for them then. My grandmother’s neighborhood in Brooklyn was so overwhelmingly Jewish that every adult she knew spoke Yiddish, and she never even met a Christian person until high school. What a contrast to how I grew up, and, I think it’s safe to say, most American Jews grow up today.

As part of my research for the contemporary part of my story, and in the time since the book has come out, I interacted with many adoptees and people of color who are Jewish. Their experiences have been so different from my grandparents’—their very existence speaks to a difference between then and now. But with everyone, I found experiences and memories—holidays, foods, Hebrew school—that cross generational, geographic, and denominational lines and connect us as a culture.

TWM: Let’s talk about the award itself. What does the Sydney Taylor award/honor mean to you?

Jenkins: I never imagined Paul Zelinsky and I would be eligible for the Taylor award, since our story is connected to Taylor’s own work.  I was flabbergasted to win. It is a deep honor, because I have spent so much time thinking about Taylor’s novels and her remarkable life.

Auxier: It is a truly humbling thing. I think when any writer begins a story, there’s a sense of responsibility: they’re afraid of “letting down” the characters. This is compounded when a writer is working outside their tradition, as I was. The rich and beautiful history of Golem folklore was a gift that I very much wanted to honor—one that ended up weaving itself into every corner of the story. To know that the Sydney Taylor committee liked the story is overwhelming.

Stamper: Well, there’s the obvious cosmic craziness that is me being on the cover of All-of-a-Kind Family when I was seven years old! I’m the one with the feathered bob in front of Mama. That photo shoot was my first time in an illustrator’s studio as well and I remember it so clearly—even picking out that pinafore. I’ve loved those books ever since! Truth is truly stranger than fiction.

But when Susan [Kusel, Chair, Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee] told me that I had won the award, it struck my heart in another way. I said in my author’s note that visiting Auschwitz felt like my arms were full of souls. And the Holocaust survivors I sat with entrusted me with hours of their most painful memories. I will always feel an enormous responsibility to carry their stories forward for readers. So to be recognized by a Jewish body, the Association of Jewish Libraries, has been profound. It feels like another trust, to keep sharing this history with young people, hopefully for a long time to come.

Breskin Zalben: It means hopefully, a wider audience for the work past and present and future. Every author dreams that after being alone in room working and reworking so hard that someone out there might appreciate the effort. You just never know. How could you? All you know inside is that you have to do it to survive for yourself. To create whatever you want or hope to work on. And it is all about the project ahead—not the one that was. To continue to be supported and create. So if an award helps toward that end, great. And to have someone appreciate it and let you know—especially little children—and librarians and teachers—how great is that?

Amini: I still don’t know what it might brings for me professionally but on the personal level it means a lot to me. I was born in a Muslim country and have seen the conflict between the religions all my life but I believe in all the monotheistic religions equally and I think they all come from the same source. So one of the biggest puzzles of my life is how people could fight each other because of religion. There are 114 chapters in Quran and each of them starts with “In the name of God the Merciful the compassionate,” now how people violate others’ rights in the name of this compassionate God is really strange to me. So the fact that by getting an honor in Sydney Taylor Book Award the message of love, similarity and inter-community friendship in the book spreads more widely makes me so happy.

Rosenstock: The Sydney Taylor honor is a full-circle kind of experience for me. At my elementary school library I devoured the All of a Kind Family books (even though I couldn’t understand how Sydney Taylor, who I assumed was a man, got the sister relationships so perfect!) Though they lived long ago, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and the rest were girls like me. Ms. Taylor taught me about history and writing and how to put love into your words. This honor means the world, it means I’ve done a bit of that in my writing too. It means that what we read in childhood stays with us forever.

Brent Weissman: It means a lot! All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. It was also one of my mom’s favorite when she was a kid, and now it’s one of my daughter’s favorites, so that’s three generations of Sydney Taylor fans who are thrilled to see one of my books receive this particular honor!

I read All-of-a-Kind Family countless times. I loved the characters and the gentle problems they faced, but I especially loved that their family was Jewish. It was so rare to see Jewish characters in books back then. Even though their family was more observant than mine, it was such a special feeling to see my culture represented in a book, and it made me connect with the characters in a deeper way. What’s cool is that The Length of a String is very much about the power of seeing oneself in a book—Imani sees herself in her great-grandmother’s diary—and the way our shared stories deepen our connections, even across generations.

I hope this honor helps get The Length of a String into the hands of more young readers. Perhaps one of them will see him or herself reflected in Imani, Anna, or any of the other characters. What a neat way to continue that circle.

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?

Jenkins: I imagine people may think of me as a Jewish author in a way that they maybe didn’t before.  I have written a number of Jewish protagonists but that side of my work has never been particularly remarked upon.  I hope the award will mean that more children and families enjoy the story I wrote, and Paul O. Zelinsky’s superlative  illustrations.

Breskin Zalben: Not really. This is my fourth time receiving the silver medal. I am happy each time. I do what I do. Plow ahead. Do books that are Jewish, or not Jewish. I do a book that speaks to me at the time. I happen to be a woman. An artist. An author. A wife. A mother. A grandmother. And Jewish. And the list goes on. Those are only a few of my titles. I have many passions in life that I throw myself into. And not all of them are toward anything other than creating something out of nothing. And nurturing that something into existence.

Perl: It was deeply gratifying to receive the Sydney Taylor Honor for All Three Stooges, a book for kids that explores subjects (suicide, loss, and grief) that make some adults uncomfortable. This validation encourages me to write more books that take such risks, so I am excited about where that will lead me.

The Whole Megillah thanks each of you for participating in this roundtable discussion. Readers, please check out the preceding blog tour and get to know these winners and their works even better—their techniques, their approaches, their inspirations. And thanks to all the wonderful bloggers who volunteered their time and space to interview these Sydney Taylor Book Award winners.

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Author’s Notebook | Hand in Hand by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum

Hand in Hand, written by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum and illustrated by Maya Shleifer, 32 pp., $17.95, Apples & Honey Press, April 2019

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this story?
Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum (AWR): I was around 10 when I first heard about the Holocaust. I became immediately obsessed by it. I just couldn’t believe it had actually happened—even though I knew it had. I was lucky to have had all four of my grandparents, none of whom were survivors.

Over the years I read as much as I could about it. I wrote poems, a song called “Whispering Wind,” and a story called “The Color of Hope” which was published in Cricket Magazine and won the 2008 SCBWI Merit Magazine Award for Fiction. But the more I learned about it, the less I understood how millions were persecuted and murdered just for being Jewish.

When our youngest child was 11 he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. He suffered for a year and a half until his gastroenterologist put him on an infusion called Remicade. This medicine improved our son’s health immensely. Soon we learned that Remicade was created by Dr. Jan Vilček, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Vilček had been born in Czechoslovakia in 1933. In 1942, when his mother saw that the family was in danger because they were Jews, she placed Jan in a Catholic orphanage. He was 9 years old. Eventually his mother came back for him and they hid out together until the war was over. In 1965, Dr. Vilček immigrated with his wife to the United States.

Dr. Vilček’s story shook me to my core. What if he hadn’t survived? What if Remicade had never been created? How would that have changed my son’s outcome?

I wondered about the million and a half children who perished.
Who would they have become?
What great contributions in Science, Art, Literature, Education, Music, and Philosophy did the world lose when they were wiped out?
We’ll never know.

I kept on wondering and began searching for stories of other childhood survivors. I started finding true accounts of siblings who had been separated. Each had thought the other was gone for good, until their children and grandchildren urged them to search for family. I think this is where Hand in Hand began. But it took me years to get Ruthi and Leib’s story right.

Andria W. Rosenbaum

TWM: Do you belong to a critique group? Who gives you feedback?
AWR: I do belong to a critique group and I’m blessed to know a lot of wonderful picture book writers. My daughter is also a valued first reader. Then there’s my amazing agent, Natalie Lakosil. She loved Hand in Hand the first time she read it. I was doubtful we’d be able to sell this book and I’m so incredibly grateful for Natalie’s support.

TWM: The story is very beautifully and lyrically written? Does that come naturally to you? Do you have a poetic background?
AWR: I’ve been reading, studying and writing poetry for years. Some of my poems have been published in Cricket, Spider, Ladybug, Babybug and Highlights. Rhyme feels very natural to me. But free verse poetry is concentrated and powerful. It was the only way to tell Ruthi and Leib’s story.

TWM: I was very moved by the postwar reunion. Was that always part of the story’s arc? If so, why?
AWR: I tried to put myself in Ruthi’s head. How did a child in that situation survive after losing everyone they loved and everything they knew? Then I saw a video of siblings being re-united some sixty plus years later. I hadn’t heard that Holocaust story before. And I discovered it had happened to multiple people. There’s no way a child could survive such an ordeal without help and a deeply rooted love for family. How could I not write about it?

TWM: What was the greatest challenge in writing Hand in Hand?
AWR: Trying to make it universal. The Holocaust is not just Jewish history. The only way I can wrap my head around it is to take it as a warning to humanity. This could happen again. This could happen to you. Any people, culture, or religion can be singled out and blamed for societal ills. The challenge is for us to remember that the Holocaust did happen. We must make sure that it never happens again. We’re obligated to teach children that underneath our skin we’re all exactly the same.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
AWR: Knowing that Hand in Hand was going to be published was incredibly satisfying. It’s the book of my heart. Writing it felt like channeling many voices. Voices that had been silenced. It really isn’t my story. It’s the story of millions of children who had their lives stolen.

TWM: Who inspires you?
AWR: I’m most inspired by my children and grandchildren. Family means everything to me. In fact, all children inspire me. They fill me up with hope for the future.

TWM: What’s next for Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum?
AWR: I have a rhyming picture book called Boats Will Float due out in 2020 with Sleeping Bear Press. I’m a picture book writer at heart, but I hope to write a novel in verse one day. I love the form and think it’s the perfect form for a middle grade novel. I’ve written a few before. But I’d like to write one I can sell.

Thanks so much for inviting me on The Whole Megillah, Barbara!

About Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum

Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum is a former special education teacher. She writes picture books, poetry and short stories from her home in New Jersey. You can learn more about Andria and her books at her website. Follow her on Twitter at: @andriawrose.

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New Workshops from The Whole Megillah

The Whole Megillah is proud to announce online workshops to sharpen your craft wherever you are in the writing process:

  • Fiction Workshop
  • Memoir Workshop

Each workshop includes a set of weekly prompts. Participants post their writing to a private Facebook page for feedback.

Fiction

Experiment with elements of craft to write either short or long in this six-week workshop. We’ll explore and practice:

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

For inspiration, I’ll supply you with a short story each week.

Cost: $300; add $50 for a 10-page manuscript critique

Start date: March 1, 2019

Memoir Workshop

If you’re like me, perhaps there’s an event or a relationship in your life that’s haunting you. But how to explore that in writing? In this five-week class we’ll explore:

  • Imagery
  • Theme
  • Plot
  • Selectivity
  • Voice

We will also gain inspiration from published memoirs.

Cost: $250; add $50 for a 10-page manuscript critique

Start Date: March 1, 2019

About the instructor

Barbara Krasner is the award-winning author of numerous short stories, creative nonfiction, several hundred articles, books, and poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jewish Literary Journal, Lilith, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, Jewishfiction.net, Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Paterson Literary Review, and other journals. Her poetry chapbook, Chicken Fat, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press and her poetry chapbook, Pounding Cobblestone, was published in 2018 by Kelsay Books. Her children’s book, Goldie Takes a Stand! Golda Meir’s First Crusade, was named a 2015 Sydney Taylor Honor Book. Barbara teaches writing at William Paterson University and works one-on-one with writers to shape their fiction and nonfiction manuscripts. She is a trained facilitator in the Amherst Writers & Artists method.

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

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Author’s Notebook | On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash, Translated by Ellen Cassedy

On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash, translated by Ellen Cassedy (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018, 192 pp., paperback, $16.95)

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What motivated you to learn Yiddish?
Ellen Cassedy (EC): Years ago, when my mother died, I decided to study Yiddish as a memorial to her. My mother was Jewish (unlike my father – the origin of the name Cassedy), and she would sprinkle a Yiddish word here and there into her conversation, like a spice.

Yiddish was the language that my Jewish forebears spoke in kitchens, marketplaces, and meeting halls on both sides of the Atlantic. By connecting myself to Yiddish, I wanted to hold onto my mother’s memory, and also to find a home within Jewish culture.

For me, Yiddish is a holy tongue, and my work as a translator feels like sacred work.

TWM: What motivated you to tackle literary translations? How do opportunities come to you?
EC: There’s an expression in Yiddish, “di goldene keyt,” the golden chain, which refers to how Yiddish literature has been passed down through the ages, with one writer after another adding links to the chain. I’m thrilled to be able to add a link to the chain.

Early on, I told my Yiddish language teacher that I wanted to try my hand at translation. He was a native speaker in his 80s, himself a translator, and he handed me a book by Blume Lempel that had been inscribed to him personally by the author. I ended up translating Lempel’s work with my colleague Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. The result was Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel—an extraordinary, taboo-defying collection.

I learned of the work of Yenta Mash when I was a translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, based in Amherst, MA. It’s a wonderful organization that is bringing the treasures of Yiddish literature up from the deep.

Ellen Cassedy

TWM: How do you determine which words to leave in Yiddish or other languages?
EC: I tend to leave very few words in the original language. There always seems to be a way to find an English equivalent of some kind, or slip the meaning into a nearby sentence.

TWM: How would you characterize Yenta Mash’s writing? What is her contribution to the world’s literature?
EC: Yenta Mash was a down-to-earth and often witty observer of a changing world. She was a master chronicler of exile who drew on her own life story (1922-2013) to illuminate little-known corners of Jewish history – and the mysteries of the human soul. Daily life in a Jewish small town before World War II, the punishing realities of Siberian exile, life behind the Iron Curtain, and the challenges of immigration to Israel in the 1970s – all this is portrayed in her vivid and masterly prose.

I compare her to other voices of assimilation and resilience – Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake), André Aciman (Out of Egypt), and Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Refugees). Her work is keenly relevant today, as displaced people seek refuge across the globe.

TWM: What was the greatest challenge in translating her work? The greatest satisfaction?
EC: Mash’s sentences are studded with earthy expressions from her hometown in Eastern Europe, as well as Soviet and Israeli expressions that are stirred into the pot as different cultures vibrate against one another in the tumult of the mid-20th century. All that was a challenge – but I think for any translator it’s the challenges that bring the joy.

And the greatest reward of all was the sheer quality of Mash’s work.

TWM: What’s next for Ellen Cassedy, translator? Ellen Cassedy, writer?
EC: I’m enjoying speaking about On the Landing at synagogues, cultural centers, universities, and more. I’m always on the lookout for gems of Yiddish literature that need to be rendered into English. Right now, I’m doing translation for a gifted cartoonist who’s using archival Yiddish materials for a graphic project.

And, I’m writing a memoir about how women office workers demanded rights and respect in the 1970s. There may be some lessons for our times….

For more about Ellen Cassedy, click here>>>

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Join the 10 Pages a Day of Reading Writing Crafts Books Challenge

I’ve been inspired so far this year to read 10 pages a day of self-improvement books as defined by Jeff Olson in The Slight Edge. But the more I read these books, the more I crave reading writing craft books instead. Today I received the newsletter of The Practicing Poet editor Diane Lockward and watched her promotional video. I bought the book for my Kindle and thought perhaps you, like me, want to plunge into a challenge of reading 10 pages a day of writing craft books. We can use Comments to share what we’re reading and learning.

Anyone care to join me on this road to improved writing for 2019?

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