Each month, The Whole Megillah features an interview with an author of Jewish-themed children’s books. For May 2010’s Author’s Notebook debut, we reached out to award-winning author Rich Michelson of Massachusetts.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first realize you were a writer?
RM: I can’t say there was any great eureka moment for me. Writing (poetry) was something I started to do in high school as I began to transition from “class clown” to “less frequent class clown, who thought it would be nice to be taken seriously occasionally.” Mostly I think of myself as a hard worker. Writing was, and continues to be, something I do, along with my day job, and all the other things (parenting, biking, travel, etc.) that make up a life.
TWM: Who were your favorite authors when you were growing up?
RM: I did not grow up with books, and certainly not children’s books. My parents were wonderful and loving in all ways, but I do not recall being read to as a child in East New York, Brooklyn, and when my own children were young, I didn’t read children’s books to them (the first book my daughter recalls hearing me read to her and her friends during one of their 3rd grade sleepovers was Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which is what I was reading at the time). I began reading voluminously as a senior in high school, under the tutelage of a wonderful teacher, who saw through the smart aleck kid, and allowed me to think I was discovering great literature on my own, rather than forcing me to read as a class assignment. He knew that writers like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Kafka, Singer could speak directly to a teenager’s sense of grandeur and invisibility.
I began reading children’s books much later in life, when some of my gallery artists began illustrating books, and I realized that the finest of these books were as challenging and entertaining as anything I had been reading. My favorite picture books were like great poems—condensed and illuminating. I had fallen in love with art and poetry, and the best of both often combined in the form of picture books. Now when my 27-year-old daughter visits—where did the time go—I’ll often read to her from picture books I am currently enjoying. So while most readers move from children’s books to adult books, I have traveled in the opposite direction. But great literature is great literature regardless of the age it is marketed for.
TWM: Do you look to any authors as inspiration? If so, who?
RM: I read widely and constantly, but poetry is my greatest love and the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai is my greatest inspiration. His books are always within arm’s length, and “Open Closed Open,” usually travels in my car’s glove compartment in case of emergencies. Closer to home, Jane Yolen is inspiring for her dedication to the field of children’s literature and, considering her productivity, the consistently high level of quality over many genres. And if you want me to list a hundred or so other names, I’ll be happy to do so.
TWM: Please describe your most satisfying writing moment.
RM: The most satisfying moment is always in the act of writing itself, when I find the perfect word that I have been searching for and it makes the sentence sing. Then, of course, the search for the next word begins.
TWM: How did you feel when you received the Sydney Taylor Gold Award?
RM: I felt like I’d received an invitation to join a club of all the folks I’ve always wanted to be friends with (IB Singer was the first award recipient, after all). It was a wonderful validation but mostly, in a parent sort of way, I felt less happy for myself than for my book, As Good As Anybody: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King’s Amazing March Towards Freedom. With so many “talented, handsome, brilliant Jewish children” out there, awards are always partly a matter of luck and timing, so any extra attention brought to this historic moment of King and Heschel’s friendship, was gratifying.
The actual “Sydney Taylor call” was on Christmas Day, and I joke a bit about the unusual timing during my acceptance speech. If anyone is interested, they can listen here:
TWM: Do you have a favorite book among all those you’ve written?
RM: Now that I’ve compared the books to children, how can I choose? But okay, if you promise not to tell anyone. Across the Alley (2006 National Jewish Book Award finalist) is about two neighbors. During the day they aren’t allowed to play together, because Abe is Jewish and Willie is black. But their bedroom windows face each other’s, and at night, when nobody is watching, they become best friends. Because this is set in my old Brooklyn neighborhood, and is a fictionalized version of my younger self, it retains a special place in my heart.
TWM: Where do you get your ideas from?
RM: Mostly I steal them. From newspapers, magazines, and my own life. Too many ideas and too little time. So if I see a photograph of Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel in a book I am reading about clergy who opposed the Vietnam War, I want to know more about the story behind the image.
I am a curious person, and whenever I hear or see something that I want to know more about, I figure that other people might be interested as well. If I can’t find a children’s book to help me understand, I think about writing one. (My great secret is that whenever I want to learn about a subject, I first look in the children’s section of my library. If authors have done their job properly, they have boiled down the subject to its essentials, in clear, clean prose). I had great fun writing A is for Abraham, a Jewish Family Alphabet, because I got to indulge my curiosity in all thing Jewish and, never having attending synagogue or Hebrew school or a Jewish day school or Jewish camp (my folks had rebelled against their own Orthodox upbringing), my knowledge was sorely lacking.
TWM: How do you manage writing around your day job?
RM: Manage? Who manages? I am overworked, stressed, and frazzled much of the time. Plus checking email constantly and responding to interview questions is the perfect avoidance technique that allows one to feel less guilty about “not writing the next book.”
TWM: What are some of the common questions kids ask you?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- How much money do you make?
- How old are you?
- Is that story you just told really true?
TWM: One last question: What advice do you have for writers of Jewish-themed children’s books?
RM: I rarely take advice, (and if I listened to my wife, from time to time, I would be better off) so I rarely give advice, other than telling folks they are probably better off not listening to my advice. But I’ll give some anyway—Jewish or not: If you want to write, sit down and start writing now. Now!! See you are not listening.