The Whole Megillah (TWM): What makes a great storyteller?
Eric Kimmel (EK): You have to love being a storyteller. You have to love telling a story and making it come alive with your words. I always feel that I’m a lens. The story exists somewhere out there. It comes through me. My challenge is to focus it so that I can best bring out what I believe the story is about. It’s like watching a play unfold, except I get to act out all the characters.
TWM: Did you always tell stories? When did you know you were a storyteller?
EK: I was a voracious reader as a child. I particularly loved Grimm, Bible stories, and Jewish legends, which I discovered in our Hebrew School library. Hyman Goldin’s The Book of Legends was a particular favorite of mine. I loved stories about King Solomon, because he was always subduing demons. I was hopeless at sports, so at camp I survived by telling the other kids stories after the lights went out. You might say that I’ve been a storyteller from the time I was a child.
TWM: What attracted you to children’s storytelling?
EK: First of all, I loved stories so much as a child, both listening and telling them. I also experienced the art in its original form. My grandma lived with us. She wasn’t a blue-haired lady whom I saw a couple of times a year. She was an Old Country bubbe, a Galitzianer, who didn’t like America and never bothered to learn English. She was always telling me stories and legends from the Alte Haym. That’s how I learned to love Hershele, the Chelmers, and all the scary stories about monsters and dragons and evil spirits that come out of the Ukrainian tradition. Nana loved Ukrainians. Ukrainian was her second language. (Frankly, I think she liked Ukrainians better than she liked most Jews.) She grew up on a farm out in the country. Her playmates were the Ukrainian peasant children. So I benefited from two rich folk traditions: the Jewish/Yiddish and the Ukrainian.
I really learned to tell stories in a formal situation as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. I had a great teacher and mentor, Winifred Ladley. She taught the course in Storytelling at the Library School. After we had learned and practiced a few stories, Winnie would pack us up and drive us to a school or library where there were kids. Go ahead and tell to them. That’s how you learn to do it. One summer I volunteered to be a storyteller for the Urbana Public Library, telling in the parks and playgrounds. It was just so much fun. By the end of the summer, I had a large repertoire of stories for all ages and occasions. When you tell in the parks you never know who is going to show up, so you have to be ready for anything.
I also realized that most children today never experience storytelling. Everything comes to them via an electronic device. How many have a grandma who tells stories?If they do, how many listen?
TWM: Hershel has become a classic. Why do think that’s so? What prompted you to write it?
EK: It’s entirely an accident that Hershel even got into print. No Jewish editor would touch it. Too weird! I had given up on it. Then Marianne Carus of Cricket Magazine asked me for a Hanukkah story. Hershel was the only one I had. I sent it to her, not expecting much, but telling Marianne that if she didn’t like it, I would try to come up with something else. Marianne grabbed it and Trina Hyman illustrated it. Trina sent the story off to John Briggs at Holiday House, telling John and her editor Margery Cuyler that she’d like to illustrate the story as a full-color picture book. None of the key people involved in publishing Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins are Jewish! Jewish kids need to know that. I don’t believe in artists or writers locking themselves in ethnic or religious ghettoes. Build bridges, not barriers.
You should also know that a major influence on the story was Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I always loved the old movie with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Dickens makes Christmas creepy and exciting. He also creates a universal tale that anyone can plug into. That’s what I wanted to do with Hershel. The story itself comes from a Ukrainian tale, Ivanko, the Bear’s Son. Ivanko fools a goblin who lives in a lake. I just multiplied the goblin by eight. The only Jewish element in the tale is Hershel himself. I love Hershel. He’s a good Galitzianer, thumbing his nose at the pompous and powerful.
I believe it became a classic because by then I knew how to tell a good story. Most Hanukkah tales, face it, are boring. Hershel’s a tale that all kids—Jewish and non-Jewish—enjoy because it speaks to all of them. The goblins are bullies and Hershel is going to teach them a lesson. Every kid can relate to that. Plus creepy stories with ghosts and goblins are always exciting. My grandma taught me that.
TWM: You have so many books of Jewish content. Why?
EK: Why not? Jewish kids need Jewish stories. All kids enjoy a good story, so why shouldn’t the best of the Jewish tradition be available to them? Can you imagine growing up without Grimm or Andersen? I don’t think in ethnic terms at all. What I strive for is crafting a good story and telling it well. If I do that, the story will find its own audience. Jewish kids understand a story one way. Non-Jewish kids may understand it in another. Lots of kids have told me that Hershel is their favorite Halloween story. Good for them!
I’ve published lots of Jewish books because that’s my background; what I know best. But also note that the majority of my books are stories from Africa, China, Japan. I love a good story no matter where it comes from. When I hear one I think, “How can I make a book out of this?” Finding a good story to tell always comes first. First and always.
TWM: You’ve covered Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Passover, Sukkot, Purim–why these holidays?
EK: Because these are the holidays that have the most and the best stories associated with them. An important part of the reason is that publisher are more interested in certain holidays than others. It’s a marketing decision, mostly.
TWM: Can you comment on the market for books of Jewish content for young readers?
EK: Not great. You’ll never get rich. Our Jewish publishers operate on a shoestring budget. The major publishers are primarily concerned with mass market appeal. Don’t blame writers or publishers. If you want more Jewish titles, make it a point to buy them. Give Jewish books every time you give gifts. Buy at least one book by a Jewish writer, illustrator, or on a Jewish subject every month. You can boosts the market for the price of a couple of lattés. As Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” We have the power.
TWM: What advice do you have for writers of Jewish content just starting out?
EK: Just write. Don’t try to figure out the market. Don’t do anything because someone else tells you to do it or because you read that this is the way it should be done. Tell your own story. Make it as good as it can be. Send it out. Then start something else. It took me 15 years to get anywhere. I never quit trying. I still haven’t quit.
TWM: If you could be a character from children’s literature, who would you be and why?
EK: Long John Silver. Oh, he’s wicked, all right. But he’s never dull.
TWM: Of all the books you’ve written, do you have one that’s particularly meaningful to you? Why?
EK: The Chanukkah Guest. Because the old lady, Bubba Brayna, is my grandma. She liked bears, horses, and big dogs.